Octavia Spencer stars as Dorothy Vaughan in 'Hidden Figures'.
Hopper Stone, SMPSP/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
By Joanna Geraghty
February 26, 2017

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “Why is a background in STEM important for shaping female leaders?” is written by Joanna Geraghty, executive vice president for customer experience at JetBlue and president of the JetBlue Foundation.

In my role at JetBlue, I see firsthand how important science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are to shaping future generations of leaders. Most of the critical functions of JetBlue require STEM, including aircraft flight, repair, and routing.

Yet the aviation industry still lacks women in technical and analytical positions, a trend that is seen throughout the aviation sector. Women pilots, for instance, represent less than 7% of the commercial pilot population, and women represent less than 3% of all mechanics, according to 2015 data from the Federal Aviation Administration.

A background in STEM, coupled with strong people skills, will help develop women leaders not just in aviation, but the workforce overall. STEM skills will impact innovation, business performance, and economic growth, in areas from data analytics to artificial intelligence.

Here’s how we can increase the number of women in STEM fields and how that background can help shape them as leaders:

Start early

Young women should take advantage of STEM opportunities as early as possible and companies should support them in doing so. Programs at science museums and career and technical education training at the high school level can offer the skills needed for specialized jobs, such as aircraft pilots and mechanics.

Early exposure to STEM—through classes and mentoring—helps hone career options and enhance success. More organizations are focusing on providing this encouragement and support to women, such as Girls Who Code. There is also a need for more women role models in STEM fields, which explains why movies like Hidden Figures have struck a chord.

The workforce is shifting to focus more on fields such as information technology, and this will only grow in the years to come. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report predicts that by 2055, robots could be performing half of all current work activities.

A STEM background will help women navigate these shifts, increase their marketability, and advance in their careers, though they will need to keep learning and leveraging skills as new technologies emerge.

 

Advance up the ladder

More women pursuing and advancing in STEM careers could have a positive financial impact on both the women themselves and their companies. Starting salaries for college graduates in STEM fields are the top three highest-paying, according to the National Association for Colleges and Employers. Research by the Peterson Institute for International Economics reveals that profitable firms that move from having no women in corporate leadership to a 30% female share see, on average, a 15% increase in profitability.

In order to ensure the future of the aviation industry and other STEM-focused sectors, we need to take STEM to the next level. Not only is it well-established that diverse teams are correlated with better performance and more thoughtful and innovative results, they are also more apt to challenge the status quo and foster higher-quality decision making.

I am one of only a handful of female senior executives at a major U.S. airline. As of 2014, 43% of JetBlue crew members and a third of employees at the managerial level and above were women. But at the senior leadership level, the number of women drops significantly, especially in departments requiring a strong STEM background.

It’s clear that if women with STEM backgrounds aren’t part of the applicant pool, we’ll never see gender equity in the C-suite.

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