Women in Aerospace: Challenges and Opportunities

Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, Dana Farmer’s talent for math and science was evident, so school counselors pointed her towards accounting and business, not engineering or science. Because of her natural talent, she gravitated in her career towards engineering but found not having an engineering degree hindered her from securing some positions. She eventually worked her way to engineering jobs and now combines science and business as a quality supervisor at Eaton Aerospace Group in North Charleston.

Joan Berry Robinson had a similar experience growing up in Los Angeles in the 70s. Robinson was told that math and science were for boys, but one guidance counselor recognized her ability and encouraged her to follow her dreams. She graduated with an engineering degree from Cal Poly Pomona in 1982, one of the few women to do so at the time.

Today Robinson holds arguably the top aerospace job in the Lowcountry as vice president and general manager at Boeing’s North Charleston plant.

According to the trade group Women in Aerospace, women comprise one-quarter of the workforce in aerospace, but most of them are in non-technical support roles, like administrative, finance and human resources. In 2012, just one in 10 aerospace engineers was female.

Wherever she goes, Dana Farmer is in the minority. “Sometimes I’m the only woman in a meeting,” she said.

Farmer notes that men and women communicate differently, which can cause tension and misunderstanding. She has also seen pregnant women being patronized by male colleagues who don’t know how to deal with the condition.

Aerospace Taking Off in Lowcountry
In 2005, when the Charleston Regional Development Alliance established core industry clusters for the Charleston region to pursue, aviation was at the top of the list. In the intervening 13 years, the industry has skyrocketed here, creating thousands of high-paying jobs in the nation’s fastest-growing mid-sized market for aircraft manufacturing. A study by the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness found the aerospace cluster is responsible for $19 billion of economic impact in the state.

That has meant numerous employment opportunities for local residents. The vast majority of those opportunities, particularly in engineering and management, have accrued to men.

The Times They Are A-Changing…Slowly
The challenges facing women in STEM are accompanied by opportunities. Tech companies of all kinds, not just aerospace, are desperate to recruit more women. Leaders in the field recognize the benefits of a diverse workforce and recognize that scientists and engineers no longer work alone in labs; they need the soft skills to collaborate with other people that women often excel at.

The emphasis in primary schools on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – has removed some of the barriers that Farmer and Robinson faced when considering their careers. In addition, companies in STEM fields are working to recruit women both into their companies and into the STEM pipeline. Farmer recalls a female engineer in a previous job who was flown all over the world by her employer to learn new skills.

Indeed, women in the field are now lowering the ladder for women behind them to climb. Robinson told the Post and Courier she is throwing her considerable muscle at the issue. “I am personally passionate about this, and I know I’ll do it well into my retirement, and that’s STEAM — [STEM plus art] …. I’m about building the pipeline for successful students.”

Colleges and graduate programs are getting on board. Trident Technical College has created an aerospace program and the Lowcountry Graduate Center offers several graduate programs of use to engineers, including project management and an MBA aimed at professionals in tech.

Farmer says she’s already seeing the old boy network breaking down and more women being promoted to management positions. But it’s a slow process. Even now, as 61% of technical college students in South Carolina are women, they hold just 29% of the apprenticeship positions offered through the schools that often lead to industry jobs.

Farmer encourages girls not to listen to the naysayers. “Embrace your skills and explore your options,” she said.  “Find and pursue something you can be passionate about!”