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We need more women in STEM — Aviation may be the key

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Some believe boys are better at math and science, and believe girls are better at English, art and languages. When I was in school, this is what everybody believed. That myth has held back a lot of women from pursuing STEM careers. It’s time we stop limiting the potential of both to dated and inaccurate assertions. 

Today, most STEM majors — science, technology, engineering and math— are dominated by men. In 2013, despite earning 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, women earned only 18 percent of all degrees in computer sciences, 19 percent in engineering, and 43 percent in mathematics.

{mosads}That gap only widens when you consider the STEM workforce. Although women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, they are only 29 percent of all scientists and engineers.


This workforce and career imbalance isn’t sustainable — especially in industries that rely so heavily on employees with STEM training. Aviation is one such industry that quite literally couldn’t get off the ground without a strong STEM workforce. According to aviation jobs site JSFirm, this year could see a doubling of aviation industry job growth, meaning STEM skills are only going to become more important.

In aviation, women only represent about 6 percent of all U.S. pilots. Other jobs in the aviation workforce hardly fare better. Although 80 percent of flight attendants are women, only 2 percent are mechanics and only 4 percent are engineers. It does not seem right, nor is it feasible, that the gender make-up of the aviation workforce should hardly change since the ratification of the 19th amendment.

I propose to address both the STEM shortage and the gender disparity in my industry — get more women and girls engaged, excited, and involved in aviation. 

STEM can feel like an intangible concept; an interest in aviation can bring it to life. Visit the Air and Space Museum or any airshow and see how excited kids get by the “magic” of aviation. It disappoints me that we fail to teach kids (especially girls) what creates that magic: math and science.

Aviation provides a myriad of essential services that people don’t think about until they are needed. Aerial firefighting, for example, was critical to the efforts that combatted the 2017 wildfires in California. Our breadbasket is dependent on crop dusters for a healthy harvest every year. And we are all aware of the critical role all sorts of aircraft played in last year’s hurricane relief efforts. None of this could have been possible without a stronger education foundation in STEM. We need to inspire more women to be involved in such a rewarding and indispensable industry, the aviation industry.

There are already some incredible women working to enlist more women into aviation, and by extension, STEM. Lori Brown, a professor of aviation at Western Michigan University recently collaborated with Microsoft to use virtual reality to democratize aviation training. Her innovations make aviation training more accessible to a larger number of students.

Shaesta Waiz, a 30-year-old aviatrix, has dedicated her life to reaching women and girls all over the world and teaching them about STEM. She founded the non-profit Dreams Soar with the mission to inspire women to enter STEM fields- a mission she publicized by setting the record as the youngest woman to fly around the world solo in a single-engine aircraft.

Washington is also starting to do its part to help address these twin shortages. The bipartisan bill recently introduced in the Senate, the Promoting Women in the Aviation Workforce Act of 2017, as well as its House companion, introduced by Reps. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), and Mimi Walters (R-Calif.), are significant steps toward concrete action in addressing the lack of women in aviation careers. 

Furthermore, another bipartisan bill, sponsored by Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), The Aviation Maintenance Workforce Development Program emphasizes the need to confront the corresponding shortage in the aviation maintenance workforce. If passed, these bills could make a real difference.

It’s not that women and girls can’t excel in STEM fields. Ada Lovelace, for instance, helped lay the foundation for the modern computer as early as 1843. Scientists like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson (featured in the film “Hidden Figures”) made it possible for us to go into space. We need to use the spirit of the Katherines, Dorothys, and Marys of yesterday and the Shaestas and Loris of today to make more girls realize that they too can excel at STEM. Only when we address the gender discrepancies in both STEM in general and aviation in particular will we be ready for the future.

*This piece has been updated.

Maria Sastre is the president and COO of Signature Flight Support.

Tags Aviation Cheri Bustos Elizabeth Esty Engineering Jackie Walorski Jerry Moran STEM education Women

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