Gender gap in aerospace workers persists

By Jim Davis
(Everett) Herald Business Journal editor

The percentage of women working in the aerospace industry in Washington has remained stagnant for more than 20 years, according to a state labor market economist.

Women account for one in four jobs in aerospace and that has changed little since the 1990s, said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, an Employment Security Department economist based in Everett.

“I try not to go in with too many preconceived ideas when looking at the data,” Vance-Sherman said. “I knew it was going to be a male-dominated industry, but I thought there was going to be some change.”

That snapshot is for the entire industry, from accountants and receptionists to machinists and CEOs.

The percentage is even lower when focusing on engineers and management.

“It’s far fewer,” said Sue Chodakewitz, chair of Women in Aerospace, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in the industry. “It’s not just CEOs. It’s senior managers and executives.”

On the positive side, women who work in aerospace in Washington make far more than men and women in other professions.

And while there’s a wage gap between the genders within aerospace, it’s been narrowing slowly and surely.

The numbers aren’t surprising for people who work within the industry, said Melanie Jordan, the chief operating officer for Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance.

But Jordan said she’s seen changes within the industry during her career. She now sees women in every niche of the aerospace industry.

“What we need to do is encourage our young people and young women, to … engage them in math and science in everyday life,” Jordan said.

Vance-Sherman did her research when she was asked to give a talk at a Women in Aerospace luncheon hosted by the PNAA this summer. The focus of the conference was the changing demographics of the aerospace workforce.

The first thing that Vance-Sherman did was take a look at a U.S. Census database that combines federal and state numbers to get a picture of employers and employees.

What she found was consistent under-representation of women in the aerospace workforce since 1991, the oldest available data, Vance-Sherman said.

“I found that overall, when we’re talking about gender, the aerospace workforce is, give or take since the early 1990s, about 25 percent of the workforce,” she said.

When looking at wages, Vance-Sherman found that there’s a wage gap between men and women who work in aerospace.

Men who work in aerospace made on average $89,943 a year compared to $77,016 a year for women, according to Census data from 2012, the most recent available data.

Women in aerospace make far more than men and women in other professions in the state.

The average wage for men in Washington is $65,463 a year. Women in the aerospace industry in Washington make almost double the $40,932 for women in other jobs.

And the wage gap between genders in aerospace is narrowing, while it’s not doing so as quickly in other industries.

In the early 1990s, women in the aerospace industry made about 60 cents for every dollar that men made. That’s increased to more than 80 cents on the dollar. In other professions, women made about 60 cents for every dollar that men made in the early 1990s.

And that has stayed the same over the years.

The data has limitations since it lumps all jobs together within the industry.

The wage gap probably becomes closer when comparing like jobs, said Jordan, adding she’s been in the chair making decisions on hiring.

“For the most part, you have a salary in mind,” Jordan said. “Whether it’s a man or a woman, you’re not going to change that number.”

But she said it’s a simple fact that there aren’t as many women who are engineers or aerospace executives as men.

Aviation Week takes an annual look at demographic data for the aerospace and defense industry each year. In numbers released last month, the publication found that just 15 percent of engineers are women. And that just 11 percent of women occupy senior engineering executive positions.

The gender gap is an issue that troubles academics, said Carole Rickard Hedden, executive editorial director for Aviation Week.

Engineering schools also see low numbers of women students.

“They are flummoxed,” she said. “If they can’t move their needle, the companies can’t move theirs.”

There are probably all sorts of reasons for the gender gap, said Chodakewitz of the nonprofit Women in Aerospace.

She said it’s a bit like the construction industry, which is thought to be such a traditionally male domain that women gravitate away from it as a career choice. She notes that just 5 percent of pilots are women.

And that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, she said.

“I don’t think there’s anything inherent in the aerospace industry that would be a roadblock for any competent engineer of either gender,” Chodakewitz said. “There may not be the models in place for young women who are deciding what path to choose in their career.”

There’s an opportunity for change to happen quickly, said Jordan of PNAA.

The Baby Boomer generation is reaching retirement age.

As they leave the workforce, there will be more opportunities for women in younger generations.

“When you look around you see a lot of women in aerospace,” Jordan said. “They may not be engineers and they may not be in the executive suites, but there are more opportunities to do that.”

What needs to happen is for young women and girls to take the science, technology, engineering and math courses — the STEM courses, Jordan said.

Women within the industry need to mentor young women to keep them inspired to stay on the course from very early ages through college, she said.

For her part, Vance-Sherman hopes that the research will lead people to ask further questions.

“It’s not really my place to answer those questions,” Vance-Sherman said. “My role is providing information to help industry leaders and help people throughout out state make well-informed decisions.”

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