Girl Engineers, Boy Nurses: MATC Works To Break Career Stereotypes

Jun 29, 2017

What do you want to be when you grow up? Gender might determine what images come to kids’ minds.

So many fields are dominated by one gender or another that Wisconsin has a name for this trend: “non-traditional occupations.” Those are fields that employ 25 percent or less of one gender. The state keeps track, and publishes a list every few years.

Leaders at schools like MATC say it’s their mission to shorten that list.

The technical college wants to give both boys and girls a chance to try their hand at careers they might not ordinarily think of pursuing, and have signed up dozens of kids for summer camps to do just that.

Mary McDonald (right) and her classmate tinker with robots at MATC.
Credit Rachel Morello

A pack of high school girls crowds around what looks like toy car skeletons at MATC’s downtown campus. They’re here for a robotics camp. ‘The gals’ use remote controls in their laps to steer their robots, flipping this switch and that to pick up objects on the floor.

MATC, along with 15 other Wisconsin technical colleges, gets federal money to train folks for careers where one gender is in short supply. And these camps are one way the school tries to broaden kids’ horizons early.

Mary McDonald, a rising sophomore at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, is here. Her all-girls school doesn’t offer robotics, so McDonald travels to the all-boys Marquette High campus to be part of their club.

“How many girls are in the club as opposed to guys?” I ask her.

“There’s seven of us, and there’s like 12 guys,” she smiles. “So, it’s not even.”

The male/female imbalance is common when it comes to participation in fields like engineering, manufacturing, nursing and education.

Nutan Amrute, who coordinates non-traditional occupation instruction at MATC, says the school can combat those statistics by trying to break stereotypes early in students’ educational careers.

“We tell students to close their eyes and picture a scientist, and typically, it’s a very stereotypical image -- curly hair, glasses, some old guy,” she chuckles. “But why can’t we picture a young woman?”

“As long as they see more and more images in the workforce, they’ll lean toward it more that, ‘yes, I could be doing one of these careers.”

As for boys, they’re far outnumbered in certain medical careers. So that’s what some are exploring this summer at MATC.  

A high school student tries his hand at simulated anesthetic tech work, during a camp at MATC's downtown campus.
Credit Rachel Morello

Today, it’s how to administer anesthesia. ‘The guys’ are wearing blue scrubs and practicing the proper way to insert a breathing tube -- using a mannequin, of course.

“There you go!” says instructor Erwin Wuehr, as one student correctly inflates air into the dummy’s lungs. “He lives!”

It’s hands-on activities like these that help students understand what it’s like to be a nurse, or an engineer – rather than just going by what they see on TV or in the media. And instructor Aimee Hubiak says it’s fun to see how boys and girls attack certain tasks.

"We tell students to close their eyes and picture a scientist, and typically, it's a very stereotypical image -- curly hair, glasses, some old guy"

“You see that the personalities of boys and girls are often different,” Hubiak explains. “The thing that’s really interesting is seeing the difference that they bring, especially working in teams.”

Hubiak says girls tend to be more collaborative, while boys are more competitive.

Who knows if those stereotypes might fall or change, right along with what is traditionally considered men’s and women’s work. Yet staff finds most students aren’t too concerned with breaking down gender barriers – they’re more interested in trying something new, like playing with robots!