Commentary

Rhoni Basden: End gender stigma in career and technical education

This commentary is by Rhoni Basden, executive director of Vermont Works for Women.

In his State of the State address on Jan. 5, Gov. Scott highlighted the need for more trades training — specifically, to encourage more Vermont youth to pursue trades training through career and technical education programs. 

As he said, these programs provide an on-ramp to well-paying careers and fill crucial job shortages in the trades. 

While Vermont Works for Women fully supports this goal, we would like to emphasize that enrollment in these career training opportunities is far lower among girls and gender nonconforming students, and this gender gap needs to be addressed. Staff and students need training and education to address systemic issues, and programs can’t be “one-size-fits-all.”

Vermont’s three-year career and technical education enrollment average in nontraditional program concentrations is only 11.71%. Those program concentrations lead to a field that is nontraditional for a certain gender. 

For local tech ed programs in Vermont, nontraditional programs for girls and gender nonconforming youth include fields such as auto tech, construction trades, natural resources and agriculture, advanced manufacturing, and aviation.

Why are enrollment rates so low among girls and gender nonconforming students? From our firsthand experience running programs at tech centers to increase gender equity, and from our conversations with students and staff, we hear that many barriers persist, such as:

— Gender stereotype mentalities in historically male-dominated programs.

— Lack of safe, inclusive spaces for female and gender nonconforming students.

— Lack of exposure and awareness about programs or lack of opportunities to explore.

— The impact of being an “only” female or gender nonconforming  student. 

Research from Leanin.org shows that women who are “onlys” at work have a far worse experience; 80% are on the receiving end of microaggressions, compared to 64% of women as a whole, and “onlys” are 1.5 times more likely to think about leaving their jobs. We assume the same experience of girls who are “onlys” in their tech programs.

Vermont Works for Women’s tech center programs aim to dismantle these systemic barriers by providing training and education for staff and students on gender norms and gender bias, strategies for creating safe, inclusive spaces for all genders, and programs that support current female tech students and provide safe spaces for middle school girls and gender nonconforming youth to explore nontraditional tech center programs. 

We’ve made progress over the years — at Randolph Technical Career Center and Burlington Technical Center (two of our longstanding partners), the nontraditional enrollment rates are higher than the state average at 16.39% and 12.51% respectively.

“Studies show that children start to sort careers by gender-norms as early as 7 and those perceptions are solidified by the age of 11 or 12. Most kids have made up their minds about a career path well before we even get a chance to work with them,” says Jason Finley, career development director at Randolph Technical Career Center. 

“That’s one of the reasons why opportunities like Career Challenge Day at Randolph Tech are so important. Through this career exploration event, local sixth- to ninth-grade girls run chainsaws, change tires, operate CNC machines, and much more,” Finley says. “‘If you build it, they will come’ only works in Kevin Costner movies. It takes intentionally designed opportunities and continual exposure to nontraditional education and career paths to get young women into programs at their local tech centers.”

Here are some ways that the state can help break down barriers to ensure all students have equal access to explore career and technical education opportunities:

  • Continue to encourage career and technical education centers to utilize federally mandated Perkins V funding to address gaps in equity and access, and to implement programs and strategies that increase enrollment of “nontraditional” students. Efforts need to include specialized, gender-informed opportunities created to meet the unique needs of girls and gender non-conforming youth. 

Vermont Works for Women offers programs like Career Challenge Day, [email protected], [email protected], and Women Can Do to encourage more students to consider career and technical education and to support those already enrolled. It also delivers gender equity trainings that support staff, faculty and the entire tech ed community to better understand and create safe, inclusive spaces for all genders.

  • Support the Legislature’s ongoing efforts to study and pilot different models of governance and funding for career and technical education that remove the competition between high schools and tech centers for student funding dollars.
  • Continue to encourage collaborative efforts that open doors to existing training opportunities (including career and technical education programs) across our state. One such example is Serve, Learn and Earn, a workforce development partnership involving Vermont Works for Women, ReSOURCE, Audubon VT, and Vermont Youth Conservation Corps to ensure young people across Vermont have viable pathways to employment, training and affordable education through cross program support and promotion.

Career and technical education is one way Vermont can (and will!) address the labor shortages in the trades and put more young people on a path to financial stability. As the governor works with policymakers to “end the stigma around career and technical education,” we hope he will keep in mind that gender inclusivity is a necessary — and long overlooked — piece of that work.


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