These Teenage Girls Are Ready to Change the Male-Dominated Aerospace Industry

Only 24 percent of aerospace professionals are women. Here’s how one rocket competition showed the challenges facing women in the industry.

A team of girl scounts from the San Gabriel Valley were one of the few all-girls teams.
National Journal
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Matt Vasilogambros
May 16, 2014, 8:17 a.m.

Kel­sey Webb is a long way from her small town in South Texas.

The 14-year-old fresh­man from Three Rivers stands con­fid­ently in a sea of hun­dreds of sci­ence stu­dents packed in­to a warm room near the Cap­it­ol on this muggy May morn­ing. She’s dis­play­ing the pink-and-white rock­et that her team spent nine months build­ing. The next day brings the real task: the Team Amer­ica Rock­etry Chal­lenge, the world’s largest rock­etry com­pet­i­tion.

Two things stand out about Webb. The first is her rock­et. It’s hard to tell the dif­fer­ence between the dozens of rock­ets de­signed by hun­dreds of middle and high school stu­dents to fly 825 feet and land safely with two eggs in­side. But her team’s rock­et has the sig­na­tures of the town’s 20 breast-can­cer sur­viv­ors — a touch­ing trib­ute to their small com­munity of 1,800 people.

The second is that she’s a girl. “Hard work and right at­ti­tude,” Webb says are what got her here today. But a look around the room shows the chal­lenges of a boy-filled com­pet­i­tion for a field dom­in­ated by men.

The room, in many ways, re­flects the aerospace field over­all. Just 24 per­cent of aerospace pro­fes­sion­als are wo­men, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 Avi­ation Week Work­force Study. Worse, a Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin (Mil­wau­kee) study found that only 11 per­cent of prac­ti­cing en­gin­eers are wo­men.

Sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing, and math­em­at­ics in­dus­tries have a gender-gap is­sue, and aerospace is not im­mune. And that fact both­ers Kara Chuang, a 16-year-old sopho­more on a team from the San Gab­ri­el Val­ley in Cali­for­nia, stand­ing among oth­er com­pet­it­ors in the Hart Sen­ate Of­fice Build­ing.

“By do­ing com­pet­i­tions like this, by pro­mot­ing STEM, it in­tro­duces girls in­to a mainly man-dom­in­ant field,” said Chuang, who is on a team filled with fel­low Girl Scouts. “We can do just as well as them.”

“We can do just as well as them.”

Chuang is a mem­ber of one of the few all-girl teams at the com­pet­i­tion. Her team­mates stand around her, all con­fid­ent in their ca­reer hopes and with the know­ledge they de­serve to be there. While there are sci­ence pro­grams in their schools and they were able to com­pete here, they also ac­know­ledge that not every­one has those op­por­tun­it­ies.

Her team­mate Han­nah Kim wants to fix that. “Wo­men don’t have as much ac­cess to these fields in gen­er­al,” the 15-year-old fresh­man chimes in. “What we’d like to do is open up pro­grams in pub­lic schools that will help stu­dents learn about these com­pet­i­tions and choose based on their in­terests.”

Kim wants to be an aerospace en­gin­eer one day, but she’s one of the few who ac­tu­ally do. Ac­cord­ing to that same Avi­ation Week study, just 12 per­cent of en­gin­eers in the aerospace in­dustry are wo­men.

The prob­lem for many of these girls is not a lack of fund­ing in avi­ation pro­grams. Rather, it’s a lack of cor­por­ate out­reach to chil­dren at early enough stages in their edu­ca­tion.

Susan Lav­rakas, dir­ect­or of work­force for the 336-mem­ber Aerospace In­dus­tries As­so­ci­ation (one of the event’s spon­sors), says this is her pri­or­ity. She wants to get girls and wo­men in STEM sub­jects and re­cruit them in­to their in­dustry.

“We are very frus­trated. Those are not ac­cept­able num­bers,” Lav­rakas said. “We need to reach girls when they’re in ele­ment­ary school. By the eighth grade, they’ve already made choices or are mak­ing choices that would make it im­possible for them to pur­sue an en­gin­eer­ing de­gree.”

Lav­rakas, who has been in the aerospace in­dustry for 32 years, said her or­gan­iz­a­tion is fo­cus­ing on new met­rics and best prac­tices to change the way the in­dustry al­loc­ates funds to pro­grams that ac­tu­ally work and reach wo­men at the right ages.

“Even though our com­pan­ies col­lect­ively ded­ic­ate an ex­cess of $160 mil­lion a year, we feel that we’re not see­ing a re­turn on that in­vest­ment,” she con­tin­ued. “Stat­ist­ics na­tion­ally are not chan­ging sig­ni­fic­antly.”

“We are very frus­trated. Those are not ac­cept­able num­bers.”

Just last year, there was a 30 per­cent in­crease in wo­men study­ing en­gin­eer­ing. But there’s a dif­fer­ence between get­ting wo­men to study in the field and get­ting them to ac­tu­ally prac­tice it. While 20 per­cent of en­gin­eer­ing gradu­ates are wo­men, just over 10 per­cent work for re­lated com­pan­ies.

An­oth­er con­cern for the aerospace in­dustry is that wo­men are leav­ing early, cit­ing lack of ad­vance­ment and hos­tile work­ing en­vir­on­ments. A Cata­lyst in­dustry re­port shows that 41 per­cent of wo­men leave avi­ation after 10 years. Just 17 per­cent of men do the same.

Webb’s team and the team of Girl Scouts didn’t end up win­ning the com­pet­i­tion that took place 45 minutes out­side of Wash­ing­ton, shoot­ing rock­ets in­to the cloudy Sat­urday sky. But just by be­ing there, maybe they can in­spire oth­er girls to find their call­ing in an in­dustry that can one day be their own.

Contributions by Reena Flores