February 11, 2019, marked the 4th-annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day marks an ideal time for industries around the globe to take pause and consider their efforts to increase female participation in science, technology, engineering, and math. We at the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness commemorated the day by reflecting on our own on-going work to introduce South Carolina’s girls —and boys— to engineering programs at the K-12 level.
As of 2017, women made up 24% of overall STEM fields. In the aerospace industry specifically, women make up about 25% of the workforce. This, however, includes all roles at aerospace companies such as business administration. The truth of the matter is that the more technical you get, the fewer jobs are held by women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2016, only 7.8% of aerospace engineers are women.
Why the lack of gender diversity in STEM? Is it a lack of interest from the get-go, or is this an issue of a Leaking Pipeline?
Data show the number of women enrolled in colleges of engineering and computer science is increasing. This is especially true at Ivy League schools, where close to half of the engineering degrees are awarded to women (ex. 48% at MIT in 2015, versus an overall 35% for STEM degrees nationwide). Unfortunately, despite the increase in enrollment numbers, the number of women in those fields has stayed the same, largely because women tend to leave STEM careers in larger numbers than men, and at a higher attrition rate than other industries. In other words, we are educating women in STEM fields at much higher numbers than actually make careers in those fields –they’re falling out of the pipeline.
The reasons women fall out of the pipeline may range from wage disparity to a lack of women in leadership roles who can mentor women coming behind them. These are topics for much future discussion and reflection. It is clear, however, that the high attrition rates of women out of STEM careers is not due to lack of talent or aptitude –as evidenced by high test scores, graduation rates, and performances of women in STEM throughout higher education. It’s one of the reasons why SC Aerospace and the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness are proud to have played a role in launching aerospace engineering curriculum across the state of South Carolina. The Aerospace Engineering high school curriculum was developed by the Southern Regional Education Board and was adopted by the SC Department of Education in December 2016; making South Carolina one of only six states with a total of nine active sites officially implementing SREB’s Aerospace Advanced Career curriculum. In the years since the curriculum launch, women across the state have taken up the mantle as program instructors and are leading the charge in inspiring the next generation of aerospace engineers.
Our hope is that as young people, and young women in particular, are introduced to engineering at an early age, they’ll find a passion for STEM; and as they make their way through their careers they’ll find innovative ways to plug the leaky pipeline and allow the industry to benefit from the talents all engineers bring to the table.