Elizabeth Strophus, a U.S. Army pilot during World War II, said she cried when she saw dozens of girls gathered at downtown St. Paul’s Holman Field for a Girls in Aviation Day event Saturday.
Women had a difficult time getting ahead in military and civil aviation decades ago, said Strophus, a former Women’s Airforce Service Pilot who was among a handful of high-profile speakers at the weekend event.
She said she identifies with today’s women, who also still sometimes face barriers when pursuing aviation careers and other technical professions.
“I am so proud of what they are doing today,” Strophus said. “Just be their best, that is what is all about, and to do their best. They are all heroes, all of them.”
Saturday’s event, part of Global Girls in Aviation 2015, featured an assortment of planes and aviation exhibits for the girls to excitedly inspect.
The event also was more broadly a crash course in STEM (short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which are careers that have long been male-dominated and, in some cases, even hostile to women.
At Holman Field, the girls got a different message from female titans in these fields.
They include former space shuttle astronaut Sandra Magnus, Honeywell senior engineer Elizabeth Bierman and Barb Wiley, the first female pilot for regional carrier North Central Airlines (which eventually became part of Northwest Airlines).
The girls got “to see iconic women who have paved the way in their fields and have done amazing things,” said Kristi Wangstad, president of the Minneapolis educational nonprofit AirSpace Minnesota, which organized the aviation event. “It is something that opens up the doors of possibility.”
AirSpace Minnesota isn’t the only organization working to open these doors for smart girls with a technical bent. Best Buy and the Girl Scouts are among those working on the problem in Minnesota and elsewhere.
The numbers often look grim.
U.S. women account for only about 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering, computer science and physics, according to data from the National Science Foundation and the American Association of University Women. Only about 25 percent of positions in these fields are held by women, according to figures from U.S. Department of Labor.
Aviation is a case in point. Only 22 percent of those working in the field are women, and just under 7 percent of pilots are women, according to the Federal Aviation Association.
The computing field is another example. In 2013, only 23 percent of U.S. computing jobs were held by women, down sharply from 35 percent in 1990, according to the American Association of University Women.
“That girls, who represent half of the population, are not seeing any value in getting these skills is alarming,” Wangstad said. “Those numbers won’t grow if girls don’t see value in participating.”
Onetime shuttle astronaut Magnus, now executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said Saturday’s event was useful because it exposed girls to the diversity of careers in aviation.
“It’s not just being a pilot,” Magnus said. “There is engineering and maintenance and operations.”
But girls sometimes are discouraged from pursuing technical careers, particularly when they are in mixed-gender educational settings, said Missi Arens, vice president of funded initiatives with the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys.
Often, “they don’t have the confidence to try something new,” said Arens, who has been working on this issue with the Girl Scouts in various capacities for more than 16 years. “In a boy-girl setting, they are afraid they will get laughed at, that they will be made fun of.”
As a result, the Girl Scouts have a number of activities revolving around STEM in what Arens describes as a “safe place” that makes them more willing to experiment and make mistakes.
About half of the group’s educational programs are STEM-related to one degree or another.
For instance, girls could be outdoors mastering global positioning system gear and other mobile tech “and not realize they have participated in a STEM activity until we have told them,” she said.
STEM education is important for everyone, said Magnus, not just those planning careers in such fields.
“We all need to have that basic level of STEM knowledge because our world is driven by technology,” the ex-astronaut said.
Best Buy, the Richfield-based retail giant, has a host of programs aimed at children with an interest in technical careers — and some of these programs put an emphasis on girls.
The organization has worked closely with the Girl Scouts, for instance, and has ties with the Silicon Valley-based nonprofit organization Black Girls Code.
Susan Roberts, the retailer’s community relations chief, points to the shortage of women in STEM and said “we need to close that gender gap. … That’s where the jobs are going to be in the future.”
Like the Girl Scouts’ Arens, Roberts believes girls will often need to work in a nurturing all-female environment in order to thrive.
Roberts offers the example of high-school robotics teams, typically those associated with the global FIRST Robotics organization founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen. The acronym stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Tech.”
Girls often fare poorly in mixed-gender FIRST teams, Roberts said, but thrive in all-girl robotics squads.
“There are now hundreds of girl-only robotics teams, and that is exciting for us because we are big proponents of FIRST Robotics,” she said.
Best Buy also is setting up a series of “teen tech centers” around the country — including one at the Hennepin County Library branch in downtown Minneapolis — and working to make the facilities extra-welcoming to girls who make up roughly half of their user base.
“We want to help them become makers of tech,” Roberts said.