Closing the Gender Gap

IWIT seeks to recruit more women and girls to STEM jobs

By Susan Hoskins Miller

You might not expect to find an 1830s interactive history park involved in initiatives to attract girls and women to careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) but that’s exactly what Conner Prairie Interactive History Park has been doing for the past four years.

“We’re moving beyond bonnets and butter churns,” Conner Prairie Program Developer Gail Brown said. “We’re using the history of today to help build history for tomorrow. History is full of science and engineering historic stories.”

Conner Prairie has hosted the Passport to High Tech event for the past four years that brings elementary school-age girls to the museum to learn about STEM careers. Exhibits, speakers, activities and women who already work in STEM careers are on hand to interact with the girls to educate them on all the possibilities that exist right now and to encourage them to think about careers in these fields.

“We hope to inspire them to enter STEM careers by highlighting what’s going on here in central Indiana,” Brown said.

On Aug. 17, Conner Prairie is co-sponsoring an event on the campus of the University of Indianapolis called “Ignite Your Super Power,” focusing on 600 middle school girls from Warren Township and IPS schools.

“They will see 100 different exhibits, hear speakers, learn about companies, colleges, organizations and other program providers,” Brown said. “We will be highlighting women workers who will be role models or mentors to inspire girls to show them how to get there. “

Brown said the event won’t focus only what the girls can look forward to in their futures, but show them ways to get involved right now through things like summer camps, joining organizations, volunteering and student internships.

“We want to light that fire, show them a path and keep them involved,” she said. “Companies have materials to give to teachers to make bridges available for the girls to build their curiosity for STEM and keep their passion alive.” 

Filling the Pipeline

Former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a visiting fellow at the University of Indianapolis, was instrumental in landing the event on the university’s campus.  While mayor, he worked to bring robotics programs and jobs to Indianapolis in the STEM fields.

“There are shortages now for employees in those fields, especially a shortage of women,” Ballard said. “We want to develop a pipeline to fill those positions.”

Ballard’s advocacy for filling STEM jobs resulted in partnerships with several organizations and companies, including Guggenheim Life and Annuity and a group called Indy Women in Tech, where he now serves as a member of its Board of Directors.

If Conner Prairie’s involvement in these initiatives seems odd, the involvement of a life insurance and financial organization may seem equally so. But it’s not, according to Karen Maginn, director and chair of Indy Women in Tech, as well as senior vice president of marketing at Guggenheim.

“About five years ago, we were involved in all kinds of not-for-profits, looking for a way to give back to the community,” Maginn said. “Our CEO, Dan Towriss, wasn’t satisfied that we were doing enough. He wanted to do something that would make a greater impact. Then he was introduced to Mayor Ballard and told him he wanted to discover what was needed in Indy.”

Because of Ballard’s passion for robotics initiatives and his work to make Indianapolis a tech hub, Towriss learned about the statistics that showed there weren’t enough trained employees to fill those jobs. Together, Ballard and Towriss, along with Maginn, Guggenheim Assistant VP of Corporate Planning Melissa Watson, VP of Accounting Elly Nettleton and Communications Specialist Jenna Austin, developed the vision and action plan this is now Indy Women in Tech.


IWIT’s employment initiative begins with its outreach program to find women who want to enter STEM fields. These women join the program, are qualified to determine which areas will be the best fit for them and achieve their career goals, then they are assisted with whatever they still need to meet those goals, such as training in coding at Eleven Fifty Academy, or further education at Ivy Tech Community College, two of IWIT’s partners in this program. Other partners include Tech Point, Tech Point Foundation for Youth and a local women’s professional organization called Women in Hi Tech.

Other needs IWIT helps its program members with are transportation, child care, mentoring and support, job placement, and transitioning into the work force, once again calling on all its partners for assistance. The circle is complete when each member reaches a point in her career when she’s successful enough to begin giving back to the community similar to the way she was helped.

In addition to forming IWIT with its employment initiative, Guggenheim also donated $290,000 to Tech Point Foundation for Youth for robotics initiative in elementary and middle schools to interest kids early in STEM careers.

In September, Guggenheim is sponsoring the LPGA championship golf tournament at the Brickyard Crossing. The event will raise money for the IWIT Foundation, while shining a national and global spotlight on Indianapolis as a tech hub destination.  It will also raise awareness nationally and globally of the lack of gender diversity in the STEM work force.