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Only 13 percent of U.S. engineering jobs are held by women. Let’s change that

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: America needs the skills and talent of every one of its citizens, especially in science and engineering fields, to ensure we are the strongest, most innovative economy in the world.

That’s why we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day every year — to honor the progress we’ve made providing equal opportunity to women in these vital fields and commit ourselves to doing even more.

The runaway success of films like “Wonder Woman” and “Hidden Figures” speaks to a society that is ready to celebrate smart, strong, effective women. But the numbers show that, in practice, we still have a long way to go.

Today, only 13 percent of U.S. engineering jobs are held by women. Overall, only one in four jobs in tech, engineering and math are held by women. And female engineers still earn just 82 percent of what comparable male co-workers earn. Within organizations, a recent MIT study found, women engineers are often discouraged or shut out from opportunities by flawed group dynamics and biases that steer the most interesting and challenging opportunities to men.

Fortunately, these are challenges we have the tools to solve.

The Boeing Co., for example, has put in place a companywide, all-hands-on-deck effort to tackle this problem and eliminate roadblocks to a truly gender-neutral workforce at every level.

This starts with a massive commitment to supporting STEM education and ensuring that girls have equal STEM opportunities. The company funds local programs and partners with STEM educators in its communities to ensure the talent pipeline is filled with female engineers who are ready to tackle the toughest challenges in the business. In 2016, the company and its trust partnered with more than 120 local STEM organizations and contributed more than $18 million toward community initiatives reaching more than 600,000 young women.

The Challenger Learning Center-St. Louis is an example of an organization that has partnered with Boeing to help carry out its mission of inspiring the future generation of innovators. The support that Boeing provides to the Challenger Learning Center enables them to reach all students, including young girls who take on roles such as engineers, scientists or astronauts as part of a simulated space mission. They learn that it’s not just the math and science that is needed for success, but also creative problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork and communication. The Challenger Learning Center knows it is vital that girls have experiences that can spark and fuel their interest in pursuing engineering — and affirm they have the skills to do so.

But preparing strong female candidates isn’t enough. We know that it takes active management of the workplace and a steady commitment to truly equal opportunity to give all young engineers an equal chance to succeed.

For Boeing that has meant a companywide commitment to equal opportunity in hiring. Since the company was founded in 1916, women have always played key roles. In 1919, when universities across America refused to accept women into engineering programs, Bill Boeing hired the first woman in the company’s engineering department.

Today from the very top of the company, where for the first time in 100 years a woman now heads the vital Defense and Space business, to every layer below, women play key roles. The Boeing Executive Council is currently 25 percent female, and women head major programs and sectors across the organization.

Within the ranks, the company makes extensive diversity and workforce training and education opportunities available, including Empowering Women Forums, Unconscious Bias training, women’s business resource groups, and a new Global Women’s Leadership Conference. And it is kicking off a new #WomenMakeUsBetter effort, in which the company commits to help increase the percentage of women in the engineering field — both inside Boeing and across the aerospace and manufacturing industries.

This effort goes far beyond simply bringing in qualified candidates. It recognizes that female engineers will face unique challenges and that bias and unequal opportunity can infect anyone, in any organization. Only by consciously working to demand that challenging work be offered to all candidates, that no “boys club” atmosphere that implicitly shuts out women is ever tolerated, and that every team member has genuinely diverse role models, mentors and examples to look up to can we hope to tackle the stubborn problem of gender bias.

The Challenger Learning Center-St. Louis is proud to partner with leaders in industry who are willing to make a real commitment to equal opportunity. The center is part of a network of over 45 centers worldwide dedicated to continuing the education mission of the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle. It is operated through a partnership of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, the St. Louis Science Center and Education Plus.

Tasmyn Scarl Front is executive director of the Challenger Learning Center-St. Louis.