Maddie Smith thinks she'd like to be a cook when she grows up – that, or work with heavy machinery.

The 11-year-old is one of 11 middle school girls learning trades over spring break this week with YWCA Missoula's newest program, GRIT! (Girls Representing In Trades), launched in January. The idea is to expose young girls to trades that are typically male-dominated, encouraging them to learn more about each, even if it doesn't lead to a career.

They're learning about everything from welding to bike mechanics, from construction to engineering. They're visiting work sites and local businesses to see each field in action. On Tuesday, they headed to Missoula College's Agricultural Education Center for a lesson in carpentry – from women, of course.

Nolee Anderson suited up in her paint-splattered overalls, teaching the girls about different tools – drills to saws to clamps – in order for each girl to build her project for the day: a wooden stool.

Smith has tried her hand at carpentry before; her grandpa taught her some skills in his garage. But once she heard about the GRIT! camp, she wanted in.

"It just sounded really fun," she said. "I like engineering, math and carpentry, and I've never tried welding before."

So, she thinks her future could go either way: cooking or construction, especially if she got to work with heavy machinery like an excavator.

"Boys do everything. Most jobs are dominated by boys," she said.

***

A study published January in Science found that young boys and girls generally associate intelligence with their own gender. But by 6 and 7 years old, researchers found that "they’re 20 percent to 30 percent less likely to assume this brilliant individual is a woman."

Roe Erin, manager of GUTS! (Girls Using Their Strengths), the Y's leadership and empowerment program for girls, said that sexism embeds itself in subtle ways throughout a girl's life. Just recently, she talked with her mother about a realization from her own childhood.

Her parents bought a bicycle shop, but all of her brothers worked and "got dirty," never Erin or her mother.

Margaret Hoyt's childhood in Maine pushed her beyond traditional gender roles, eventually leading her to work with the GRIT! camp. She's an AmeriCorps VISTA member with Montana Campus Compact.

"My dad taught my sister and I to lobster," Hoyt said. "I was in a male-dominated field in high school, but I realized I could do it just as well. We're all equal out on the water."

GUTS! began 20 years ago in Missoula, with backpacking trips, and empowerment and leadership activities for girls. Erin wants the program to stay relevant, and last year started brainstorming for a new opportunity.

Her research led her to programs across the United States that encourage young girls to explore trades skills, either for careers, hobbies or simply to be self-sufficient in everyday life.

Fourteen teenage girls have also signed up for the high school program, which meets one Saturday a month to learn a different trade. Erin said she's been thrilled with the community support, from business involvement to donations. 

"It's not about getting girls into carpentry school," Erin said. "They're not being told to do this. But it gives them more options. They can get their hands dirty, and feel confident and excited.

"I feel like sexism and gender oppression are in the threads of our society, and girls pick that up."

***

Erin recently led a discussion with a group of middle school girls at DeSmet Elementary School, which goes through eighth grade. She handed them a list of jobs, and told them to label each either male, female or both.

Overwhelmingly, the girls labeled trades jobs as male, and service jobs as female.

Why? Erin asked them. Are there certain qualities girls possess that disqualify them from careers in the trades?

No, they realized.

GRIT! is now one of a slew of programs locally and nationwide to tackle the gender disparity in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and encourage girls to pursue any and all careers. Last fall, a grant from ChickTech, a nonprofit encouraging girls to pursue careers in technology, allowed coding to expand in Missoula County Public Schools.

"I might be an actress," said 10-year-old Lizzie Mills-Low, fiddling with her dust mask and ear plugs. "But if I learn this stuff, I could help build the sets."

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Reporter for the Missoulian