U.S. students, executives discuss diversity in tech sector

U.S. aerospace companies and universities seeking to welcome more women and minorities into their ranks were offered some insights this week during the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium in Maryland.

For one, in some quarters of American society, women continue to face hurdles to entering not just the technology workforce but any workforce.

“I have been told by people not in this industry that maybe a career isn’t the right option, and maybe a family is the right option,” said Sophia Porter, a Johns Hopkins University engineering student and a SpaceX crew mission management intern.

Porter spoke during the symposium session “Developing Tomorrow’s Workforce.”

Aki Roberge, a research astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland cited news reports of “very famous” tenured university professors being accused of sexual harassment. “You can’t really leave this in the hands of universities” to punish offenders, she said.

Workforce data suggests that the hurdles described by the panelists continue to have an impact on the career decisions of women and ethic minorities. The National Science Foundation in 2017 reported that “white men constitute about one-third of the overall U.S. population [but] comprise half of the [science and engineering] workforce.”

The gender gap among engineers in 2015 was broader than every science occupation except computer science, according to the report. There were 250,000 college-educated women in the U.S. with engineering jobs in 2015, compared with 1.5 million men. Computer science jobs that year employed 700,000 college-educated women and 2.1 million men.

And when women do enter the engineering workforce, they often don’t stay long. “There is a high attrition rate of female engineers in the first several years of their careers, and that attrition rate only grows as they progress from school through their careers,” said Honna George, senior manager for strategic partnerships at the Society of Women Engineers headquartered in Chicago.

The nonprofit wants tougher enforcement of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws for federally funded schools under Title 9 of the Education Amendments of 1972.

George and colleagues met on Thursday with staffers for lawmakers including Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to voice support for the Building Blocks of STEM bill, which passed the House but has not been taken up by the Senate. The bill would direct the National Science Foundation to award grants to encourage young girls to participate in computer science.

Teachers can prepare students at a young age to tackle these diversity hurdles with more federal science, technology and mathematics funding, said George.

One of the Goddard panelists described how companies can be part of the solution. Raytheon, headquartered in Massachusetts, has a program that puts employees in contact with students to encourage them to pursue math and science careers. “They get to see people who look like them who have succeeded in those areas,” said Robert Curbeam, a former shuttle astronaut who is now senior director for civil space and international business at Raytheon, and is black.

Education is a good start but all students still need an equal opportunity after graduation, said Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in a speech at the symposium. “We need champions” in addition to mentors to make sure women and minorities have a fair shot at interviews for engineering jobs, Hrabowski said.

Editor’s note: In the photo by Jennifer Yin at top, girls participate in Microsoft’s Made By Girls STEM Exploration.

Related Topics


U.S. students, executives discuss diversity in tech sector