Don't bring that "a woman's place is in the kitchen" kind of stuff around Jessica Perfetto.
She isn't buying any of it.
Perfetto, a Pennsbury High School technology education teacher and the district's curriculum coordinator for applied engineering/technology education, thinks the place for more and more females is in the laboratory, or at architectural and engineering firms or similar destinations devoted to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
With that goal in mind, Perfetto this school year started a course called Introduction to Women in Technology & Design that — though also open to boys — has the express purpose of encouraging and making girls feel more comfortable in pursuing STEM.
And as March — Women's History Month — winds down, the Pennsbury educator is one of many around the area taking steps that could help girls someday make a little history of their own in the STEM areas.
The Quakertown Community School District has started a Career Café speaker series at Strayer Middle School where at least one session each month will be led by a female professional in a STEM field.
There is a girls STEM club at Poquessing Middle School in the Neshaminy School District, and an annual #girlSTEM conference at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown Township and New Britain Borough that draws more than 800 girls grades 6-10 from public and private schools throughout Bucks County.
Officials from schools that responded to inquiries from this news organization also said they are always looking for ways to expand STEM offerings for both boys and girls at all grade levels, and that benefits both genders.
At Pennsbury, Perfetto said she wanted to do something special for girls.
"A lot of girls might be interested in taking a technology course but might be afraid of being the only girl," she said. "I've had classes of, like, 18 boys and two girls, and often the girls would go to guidance after the first day and try to drop. As a female in the profession, I know it's a little intimidating being the only girl in a class, so you have to promote that development of STEM interest in girls."
Though it's getting better, persisting sexual stereotypes in society can still discourage girls from pursuing STEM, Perfetto said.
"I like doing woodworking projects at home, and the other day I was at a store getting wood and was carrying it across the parking lot to my car," she continued. "Some guy yells across the lot at me, 'Hey, that's a lot of wood for a girl.'"
"I think, just human beings are biased. We always go back to what is traditional. I grew up in an Italian household and was always being asked why am I pursuing this non-traditional path. Why wasn't I married and having kids? I fought that and want to encourage girls to pursue STEM, if they are interested, regardless of attitudes."
Since the new class started, enrollment in applied engineering/technology education at Pennsbury High School has gone from 9 percent girls to 24 percent, Perfetto said.
During a recent class, the 19 girls in Perfetto's class — there are no boys — were coding little robots to navigate through a maze, making molds for a 3-D printer to create headphone holders and doing other projects.
"This class just for women gives us more of a chance to excel in the things we want to," said Leah Ford, a freshman in Perfetto's class.
"In some of the other classes, you're kind of held back and put in a situation where it's like, 'Hey, you can't do that because you're a girl.'"
Fellow freshman and class member Rozlyn Geers said she is leaning toward a career in either interior design or physical therapy — both of which incorporate STEM — and is determined not to let sexism stand in her way.
"I don't go with the stereotypes and pretty much just do what I please," Rozlyn said. "I won't miss out on an opportunity just because there might be only guys in a class or program, but this class makes it easier for girls to get involved in things. Knowing you're surrounded by other girls make it a little more comfortable."
If Rozlyn holds true to her career aspiration, she will enter a STEM workforce where women are still trying to catch up with men.
Improvements in some areas
According to a 2017 update from the Economics & Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015 but held only 24 percent of STEM jobs.
Women with STEM jobs earned 35 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs, the update added. Though women in STEM jobs earned 30 percent less than men in STEM, women with STEM jobs earned 40 percent more than men with non-STEM jobs.
A 2016 report from the National Girls Collaborative Project drew a favorable picture in some areas of girls' STEM involvement at schools around the country.
Female students' achievement in mathematics and science is on par with their male peers and female students participate in high-level mathematics and science courses at similar rates to their male peers, the report said.
However, male students are still three times more likely than female students to take engineering and computer science courses, and enrollment in Advanced Placement computer science A courses was 81 percent male and 19 percent female, it added.
Area school district officials said they continue to work to change those kind of numbers.
Quakertown Community STEM Supervisor Greg Lesher said he hopes the new Career Café series and its mix of women speakers will encourage more girls in the district to take pre-engineering courses.
The Hatboro-Horsham School District in Montgomery County has started a girls STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) initiative at the high school and middle school levels, where women STEAM professionals speak to girls about careers in the field.
In the Bristol Township School District, middle school girls link up via Zoom video conference call with professionals from the township's Estée Lauder distribution center. They talk to the girls about employment skills, manufacturing, technology, production and other topics, district officials said.
At Middle Bucks Institute of Technology in Warwick, female enrollment in "non-traditional" programs like STEM-related fields has increased from 21 two years ago to 31 this school year, MBIT officials said.
Officials at Archbishop Wood Catholic High School in Warminster said they invite female graduates who have gone on to STEM careers back to speak to students in an effort to encourage girls in STEM.
In the Pennridge School District, girls are involved at all grade levels in STEM classes and clubs, and that's important, said the district's Science Curriculum Coordinator Deborah Cotner-Davis.
"Research is showing that there will be many opportunities in the STEM field in the next 20 years," she said. "I would hope the days of thinking that girls are unable to be in a STEM field are over or at least have been minimized. At Pennridge, the majority of our mathematics and science teachers at the middle and high school levels are women, and they are great role models for our girls."
All-girls private Catholic high school Villa Joseph Marie in Northampton has greatly increased both its space and programs devoted to STEM during the last 10 years, principal and math teacher Lauren Carr said.
"I'm inspired by the increase in STEM activity," she said. "Working in an all-girls school, we are always in tune with the issues affecting women in college and the workplace. I love to see a student get excited about a math topic, and I'm thrilled that both the quality of and interest in math and science offerings at Villa are on par with more 'traditional female' subjects, such as English and the arts."
Among many other initiatives, Bucks County Technical High School in Bristol Township runs a Girls in Engineering summer camp for middle school students, BCTHS Administrative Director Leon Poeske said.
"Our overall female enrollment has increased to the point where it's now 50/50," he said. "Many technical schools are male dominated since the stereotype is that traditional trades such as plumbing, automotive, welding, etc. are only for males. BCTHS has been breaking that stereotype over the years and we have females in almost all our technical areas."
Two girls at Middle Bucks Institute of Technology are doing their part to help pave the way for more females in STEM.
Sophomore Valerie Pero, who also attends Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown Borough, is one of only three girls in the MBIT welding technology program out of total enrollment of 35. Junior Margaret Burmester, who also attends New Hope-Solebury High School, is one of three girls of the total of 35 students enrolled in MBIT's landscaping horticulture and design program.
"I want to be a welder and help to show that it's a good career and not just for men," Valerie said.
"I mostly get satisfaction from the fact I'm pursuing my passion, regardless of my gender," Margaret added. "And I would tell other girls just follow your passion, regardless of what other people say."