Aerospace women need to be role models

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Women leading the next generation of women: this is what is developing in the aerospace industry in Michigan.

With a skilled workforce, a host of manufacturing capabilities, several globally competitive universities, and a government that supports business, Michigan is poised with incredible opportunities for those interested in aerospace. This is especially true for women in or interested in being part of the industry.

As a member of the Aerospace Industry Association of Michigan (AIAM), we keenly believe in the power of supporting and encouraging young women to dream big. In a recent virtual conference, the AIAM and the robotics organization FIRST in Michigan came together to inspire K-12 students to pursue STEM fields and provide information on what the aerospace industry looks like for female engineers. The conference had an esteemed panel of female engineers as well as two keynote speakers, Huy Tran, director of aeronautics at NASA Ames Research Center, and Janelle Wellons, instrument operations systems engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In sharing the journey that has led them to their careers, they opened the floor for engaging panel discussions moderated by women in executive leadership positions from companies in Michigan’s aerospace industry.

In addition to the panel discussion, Calumet Electronics engineers Dr. Meredith LaBeau, director of process, R&D and manufacturing engineering, and Audra Thurston, product realization/R&D manager, presented on developing next-generation technology in a traditionally male-dominated industry, breaking down barriers and never offering an apology for dreaming to the highest level. They believe that aerospace needs ambitious female engineers who think creatively and bring innovation that will influence the future of the industry.

Other AIAM members joined the conference such as Angela Kimber, mechanical engineer in product design, at Woodward; Lisa Peterson, VP of business development and marketing, at AirSpace Link; and Kaylee Konwinski, process engineer, at Barron Industries. These AIAM women believe in the power of mentorship and encouragement of the next generation.

Approximately 11% of aerospace engineers in the United States are female, according to Deloitte and Datawheel. Though the level of interest in the industry may never equal that of their male counterparts, the number of women is increasing, and being able to navigate the internal pathways of a structure largely tailored to men begs the wisdom and mentorship of women in aerospace.

With students returning to their schools this fall, the mentorship and direction starts with the school infrastructure. Principals, counselors, teachers and parents often are the mediator between a dream at a desk in a classroom and the first steps toward a career in aerospace.

Tony Vernaci of AIAM said, “It is the belief of AIAM and FIRST in Michigan that it is everyone’s collective responsibility to encourage and support the future talent that will lead our industry.” Janelle Wellons echoed this in her exhortation to the young women at the conference: “The universe lies ahead, nothing will hold you back, and if someone like me could end up at places like MIT and JPL, that means that you too, absolutely can.”

The creativity, collaboration, and moxie to be gained by the upcoming generation of women in aerospace are all too important to ignore. Encouraging young women who decide to venture into aerospace is our first priority. 

Stacy Paul, aerospace engineer and CEO of Array of Engineers, has worked in the aerospace industry since 2000 on various projects ranging from the manned space program at NASA to modern commercial aircraft. She grew up in a small town in northern Michigan where she found her love of exploring, creativity and the night sky. She has mentored/coached a middle school FTC FIRST Robotics team in West Michigan for the past five years.

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