An image of the four female panelists in a Zoom call-like format

Leading women in STEM push for greater diversity in aerospace

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The aerospace sector can enrich itself by welcoming people from diverse backgrounds, identities and lived experiences. It can ensure better retention of recruits in STEM fields by embracing equity in how candidates and staff are evaluated, and by providing flexibility at work.

But fostering greater diversity in aerospace – and ensuring fair representation of women – requires an essential change of mindset and practices.

These were some of the salient points made during a recent American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) webinar, which focused on women in the aerospace community. Leaders from professional engineering societies shared some of their life experiences, discussing some of the challenges of – and opportunities arising from – achieving inclusion and equity.

Strong networks

Inadequate representation in leadership and workplace structures that aren’t aligned with the needs of modern industry professionals can undo the efforts to engage with young women and diverse candidates in K-12 programs and higher education programs, discouraging them from pursuing career paths in aerospace and STEM.

Raquel Tamez, CEO of the The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, who served as moderator for the session, emphasized the importance of promoting networks and communities that support women in STEM, starting with education and throughout their career path.

“It’s critical for women in STEM to have a support network, a community of like-minded women with shared experiences so that we can grow the number of women in STEM. And especially, so we can lower the attrition rate of women in STEM,” said Tamez.

“According to the Harvard Business Review, studies show that women make up 20% of the engineering graduates, but it’s also estimated that nearly 40% of women who actually earn engineering degrees either quit or they never even enter the profession. Now, it’s believed that the root cause of the issue is the ingrained masculine culture and the failure to take women seriously. And that’s a significant problem, because we know through research and data that diversity leads to innovation, and that innovation is the key to solving many of our world’s problems.”

It does little good to plant seeds and foster shoots and saplings only to later expect the trees to grow bricks and build walls. If we want a more diverse and resilient aerospace industry, then we must build the flexible, organic structures of forests, and conserve valuable human resources.

Alex Straub, chair of the AIAA Women of Aeronautics & Astronautics Committee said aerospace industry organizations are in “a unique position to help plug the holes of this leaky pipeline with a wrench in all areas of this industry – from student to professional levels.”

Equitable metrics of success

Plugging the hole requires aerospace organizations to welcome diverse identities and cultural traditions. “We kind of have to learn to have this balance, where we have our modern world but we also don’t forget who we are as people,” said Kristina Halona, a Sequoyah Fellow and member of the board at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

Participants also tackled the familiar negative claim that an organization must somehow dilute its standards in order to make room for others in the recruitment process.

Nothing could be further from reality, said Heather Doty, president of the Society of Women Engineers. “It’s easy to kind of point out how insulting it is to discuss the fact that you think you’re lowering the bar to bring in different talent. I was like, ‘the talent is out there, there are amazing folks, we’re just not figuring out how to find it.’ The pipeline problem isn’t what’s flowing through it. It’s the actual pipes themselves and the valves that we as society have put in that keep people out,” she said.

Tamez agreed and referenced something she had recently read that struck a chord. “White men are evaluated on their potential and women, and diverse talent, are evaluated on performance.” This essential difference in the metrics of success can shape career paths, and keep underrepresented groups out of leadership positions, where they are most needed to make lasting change.

“I think if we can get to diversity based on identity and really take into consideration intersectionality within identity and how we’re self-identifying, then, ultimately, and ideally we get to cognitive diversity, which leads to and supports the innovation and the success of organizations, and you get to better solutions and better outcomes,” added Tamez.

Doty said professional organizations can also help women and other underrepresented groups get advice from people who have gone through similar challenges. But she emphasized that leadership in aerospace needs to be cognizant of the situation, and build structures that can foster more diverse and welcoming workplaces.

“We can’t make progress without the folks who are already in power,” she said.

COVID-19 highlights family matters and flexible workplaces 

The panel also addressed the role of working women as caregivers. Doty poised a poignant question: “Are there any issues about men’s limitations at work because they act as fathers? Why do we think that only one parent matters?”

She continued, “I think it’s also important that we all need to acknowledge that everyone has an identity outside of just their job. More employers and organizations [should] recognize and understand that folks have different responsibilities, [and that] your abilities and commitments will ebb and flow based on what’s going on in your life that matters. We should acknowledge it, but we should all acknowledge that men want to be involved in their children’s lives as much as women do. But until the men in the company are also saying, ‘I’m leaving to go to my kids soccer game, or I’m on duty to pick up the kids,’ it’s not equitable.”

This discussion of workplace flexibility is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the panelists noted, when the traditional workplace concept has been disrupted and is being questioned. “There’s a disproportionate negative impact on women who are professionals in STEM, but now they have to not just do their job, but do the lion’s share of the work at home, and teach their children,” said Tamez.

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Doty added that, if anything, COVID-19 highlights the fact that offering workplace flexibility – such as remote work or flexible work schedules – can indeed work for employers.

“I think we also need to really address the culture of overwork we have here in the US. It’s not healthy for anyone,” she said. “We have this idea that more hours equals better output and study after study shows that’s not true, after a certain point…”

“We do need to recognize the women do have the disproportionate share [of caregiving] now, and we need to be careful, and make sure that we don’t penalize folks for that… [We need] leaders recognizing that: ‘My teams are actually getting as much or more done than when they were in the office, maybe this flexibility thing isn’t so bad.’”

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