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Air Force working to break the 'STEM mold'

  • Published
  • By Susan A. Romano
  • AFTAC Public Affairs
In 1976, esteemed historian and author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote a book entitled, “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.” The premise of her work was to shine a light on famous women throughout history who challenged the way things were done. While the title may seem to be a modern-day rallying cry for women to go out and break the rules through misbehavior, that was not the premise of her message. Ulrich’s emphasis was to encourage women to do more – to break with convention, make a mark on history and prove that ordinary people, including women, can have a lasting impact on the world by doing the unexpected.

Today, women from all walks of life are taking Ulrich’s words to heart and finding ways to break those proverbial molds as they seek out careers in positions traditionally held by men.

Women make up half the current U.S. workforce, but only 26 percent of them are in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 61 percent of women in STEM are in the social sciences (communication, education, public health, etc.), and only 13 percent are in a hard science field such as engineering.

From an Air Force perspective, 64,367 of the nearly 321,000 Airmen currently on active duty are women. Of that 20 percent, even fewer are in STEM-related fields. Air Force leadership is trying to break that cycle.

In a live session with The Washington Post’s David Ignatius last month, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson discussed new Air Force initiatives aimed at inspiring more women to enter scientific career fields. During the interview, Wilson elaborated on steps the service is taking to recruit more women.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is to encourage more young women to go to engineering school,” said Wilson. “Sometimes the way in which we talk about engineering is not resonating with our daughters, and it is with our sons. We found that if you look at teenagers, more boys are satisfied by solving the problem. They get satisfaction out of fixing something. A disproportionate number of girls want to know why the problem matters. So, if we say, ‘Come be an engineer and you can do cool stuff,’ we’re talking to the boys. If you say, ‘If you want to make a difference in someone’s life; if you want to have clean water or save the life of a family member you love, or make the environment cleaner, or provide energy to the world, be an engineer.’ Then we’re talking to both boys and girls.”

One Air Force entity has made great strides on making Wilson’s STEM goals a reality. The Air Force Technical Applications Center, headquartered at Patrick AFB, Florida, is a highly-technical organization made up of scientists, technicians, engineers and analysts whose role is to detect, identify, analyze and report nuclear detonations underground, in the atmosphere, underwater or in space. It is the sole organization in the Defense Department charged with this vital international mission. Despite its vital role to national decision makers, AFTAC’s pool of employees skews heavily male. Of its more than 1,000 members who make up the center’s workforce, only 160 are military or civilian women. Even fewer are in STEM positions.

One of the ways AFTAC is looking to increase the number of female employees in technically-skilled roles is hosting its annual Women in Science and Engineering Symposium. For the past four years, AFTAC has invited the best speakers from various industries – academia, defense, corporate and commercial – to share best practices on how to recruit, engage, employ and encourage women into hard science career paths.

Rose Day, AFTAC’s chief of civilian recruiting, believes the best way to “break the mold” is to expose girls at an early age to the sciences.

“One of the messages I like to relay to students when we travel for recruiting efforts is very simple: I tell the girls, ‘You are needed.’ Everyone wants to hear those words because it makes them feel like they are a valuable, needed contributor,” Day explained. “We have to be advocates, we have to set the example and we have to collaborate. But we can’t do this alone. We also have to partner with the men in the room because their advocacy is a critical part to the partnership. That’s how we break the mold.”

Parveen Kapoor, 23rd Analysis Squadron Atmosphere and Space Operations Flight chief, also believes talent in STEM fields must be groomed early in the school system.

“Recently, there has been a major emphasis placed in this area for young girls, and while I’m completely on board with that, I believe there needs to be encouragement across the board for both boys and girls in STEM,” Kapoor said.

When AFTAC celebrated National Pi Day March 14, Tech. Sgt. BreAnne Groth’s section was amazed when she picked up a dry-erase marker and began writing out Pi in decimal form from memory. With ease, she surpassed 100 decimal points and stopped only because she ran out of room on the white board.
Math and science have always been a passion of hers, and she applies her knowledge in her everyday responsibilities at AFTAC. As the center’s satellite technique alert officer, she is a qualified national expert in analyzing and reporting global nuclear detonations to national decision makers in accordance with ratified nuclear treaties. She is also responsible for monitoring state-of-the-art health and configuration control of more than 200 sensors on 38 orbiting space vehicles.

“This means I’m not only concerned with ensuring and optimizing current sensor performance; I also advise the treaty monitoring community of future constellations and make recommendations for sensors that will be used well after I retire from the Air Force,” Groth said. “Any career field may seem like a challenge, but the secret is to embrace and learn from the differences. STEM has so many different kinds of people, including really smart women, but the one thing that we all have in common is our passion for science.”