By Bonnie Marcus
There has been much discussion and attention paid recently to women and STEM careers. Rather than continue this conversation in general terms, I thought it would be helpful to take a look at specific STEM industries in which women are underrepresented to highlight some of the opportunities for women and as well as the challenges. Aerospace is the first industry I’m exploring relative to these issues.
I asked Susan about the current representation of women in aerospace.
Susan Chodakewitz: I think it’s important to note that, to start, the percentage of women in aerospace has definitely held steady for over 20 years. Second, if you talk about aerospace at the highest level – the high-water mark that I can see is, 25 percent in the field are women. But when you drill down further, the numbers drop off significantly. For example, it looks like, in 2012, only about 10 percent of aerospace engineers and computer network architects were women. Only 16 percent of the aircraft, spacecraft, and manufacturing subgroup within aerospace are women. So, the more technical you get, the numbers drop significantly below that 25 percent.
Marcus: Of the 25% that are women, what type of jobs do they have?
Chodakewitz: Most of the 25% is in the non-technical and non-executive roles; in supportive functions such as administrative, program management and finance.
Marcus: When you say the opportunities for women in aerospace are limitless, are you speaking overall or in technical areas?
Chodakewitz: Well, I am talking about overall, including the technical areas. A couple of things need to happen to realize that the opportunities. Because, clearly, women have to want to move into this field; they want to have to stay in the field. And we have to dam up the leaky pipeline. But, when you think about the projected growth of jobs in STEM, the US economy and the government and corporate leaders are going to have to expand the universe of pipeline to fill these jobs. STEM jobs are likely to grow about 17 percent between 2008 and 2018. Non-STEM jobs will grow less than 10 percent in this same timeline. All managers, all companies, all entities are going to have to do something different – to ensure that, they’ve got the quality and numbers of employees – to fill this increasing need. And, to me, women, who are almost 50 percent of the workforce, across the board – but, so underrepresented in aerospace – have to represent a good part of that answer.
Marcus: Why do you think more women aren’t attracted to this industry?
Chodakewitz: Part of it is that it’s a niche area; niche from a technical perspective – not necessarily, from a revenue perspective. I also think women are somewhat uncertain or a bit trepidatious about moving into a field where, there aren’t role models – and where, there is a history at least, of stereotypes and gender bias – that have not supported women’s advancement. So, I think A: its increasing awareness. And B: making sure that people and women feel comfortable through role models and early exposure. And then, also, it’s that self-fulfilling prophecy: The more women break in, stay in, and continue to get promoted, the more women will follow suit. So, it is a complex puzzle in the sense that, a lot of things have to change to make it as attractive as, perhaps, other areas. But nonetheless, I think the economic need is going to be there to drive this.
Marcus: You mentioned the leaky pipeline. This is has been recognized as a contributing factor to the lack of women in all STEM industries. How significant is this in aerospace?
Chodakewitz: To a large degree, the aerospace industry has a leaky pipeline throughout the entire life cycle – which makes it much more difficult to plug. There’s no question that there’s a leaky pipeline in the sense that, women who enter the industry leave. But, the early part of the life cycle is also part of the problem. It starts with high school girls who start pursuing a scientific field and the number of candidates and graduates who actually show an interest in high school or junior high school who continue to pursue it in high school. Who majors in it in college and who sticks with that major, and then, go on to graduate work. There are so many spots of the leaky pipeline there. So, you don’t only lose potential candidates – but then, you lose them once you even attract them into the industry. So, it’s this “double whammy,” so to speak.
Marcus: Why do you think women leave the industry?
Chodakewitz: Fundamentally, I think, the aerospace business is a meritocracy – and that, there’s nothing endemic or systemic to the aerospace industry that’s unfavorable to women. This is an industry that looks for and rewards competency for either gender. But, I think, there is a certain amount of frustration or hesitation or concern among women – as they continue to advance – for several reasons. One is just the relative lack of women in the field. There’s a lot of high-level statistical metadata that shows that guys like to work with things. Women like to work with people. And so, it’s the culture of aerospace industries – because they’re heavily male-dominated, it’s just not a culture that some women would like. I think, there’s also still, a certain amount of gender bias in these kinds of industries that have just traditionally been male-dominated. There’s a series of soft factors I think might dissuade women or make women concerned or frustrated for advancing. And then there’s the whole political side of this. In general, a lot of technical experts don’t want to have to think about the political side of things. So, that’s a further delineation: Do people try to advance through the management track? Or, do they just set stay on the technical track?
Marcus: You started out by saying it’s a meritocracy but it seems that when you look under the covers there is hidden gender bias and cultural issues that work against women in this field.
Chodakewitz: You’re right. Those kinds of cultural issues, those gender biases – will erode over time – which, I think, will help this be an industry of huge potential upside for women. But there’s no question in my mind that, the next generation of women are still going to have to both excel – from a technical perspective – and, be willing to deal with the somewhat amorphous overt and covert biases – that will impact and impede their potential advancement.
Marcus: What do you see as the opportunities for women to excel in this field?
Chodakewitz: I believe that, the days of one scientist, or one engineer, or one mathematician – operating in a lab by him or herself – is, probably gone. There’s always going to be those incredibly brilliant individuals – who just, on their own, make some discovery – or turn the world upside-down – by a new understanding. But, in general, I think that, engineering and aerospace is no different than the rest of the marketplace – which requires team interaction. And really, a collective approach to research or development or engineering. And that collaboration, I think, is wonderfully oriented to women – who can bring both the technical and the interpersonal side to the lab.
Marcus: How can women leverage these collaborative qualities to be successful in aerospace?
Chodakewitz: First, I think, they could leverage this by recognizing that it’s an attribute – to begin with. For a lot of women – technical or not technical – that collaborative approach and demeanor is, viewed as just a given – as opposed to being an important attribute. So one, I think they have to recognize it’s special. Two, they really have to be able to talk with potential universities, grad programs, employers – and talk through, what the new marketplace looks like. How funding and grants are given. How work in the for-profit sector is being done. And, really, position themselves as someone who can be that translator – someone who can help take things to the next level, ensure there’s progress; ensure that they don’t forget what the original question is.
Marcus: How can women leverage these skills to advance to leadership positions?
Chodakewitz: This industry is going to need more and more people to meet the requirements in the future. I think when women have an opportunity to prove their roles – in, actually, delivering results – whether it’s in the lab or, whatever it might be – that, you can easily see a path forward. That person becomes a team lead. And then, a program manager. And then, through the management rank. And that individual then would take with her the credibility of, having been successful – in the environment that, the people she’s overseeing are now working in.
In theory at least – to a certain extent, that’s why women do have huge potential opportunities in this industry. Because, as many of the current technical workforce members – mostly male – don’t want to make that crossover from subject matter expert – to manager, or leader – then, in theory, those positions are open. And, women who do possess the desire and the skills to do both – could fill that gap.
I coach high achieving women to navigate the complexities of the workplace and get the promotions they deserve. If you found this article interesting, please follow me on twitter @selfpromote and visit my website, www.WomensSuccessCoaching.com for additional resources.
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