Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics industries have a gender-gap issue, and aerospace is not immune. And that fact bothers Kara Chuang, a 16-year-old sophomore on a team from the San Gabriel Valley in California, standing among other competitors in the Hart Senate Office Building.
"By doing competitions like this, by promoting STEM, it introduces girls into a mainly man-dominant field," said Chuang, who is on a team filled with fellow Girl Scouts. "We can do just as well as them."
"We can do just as well as them."
Chuang is a member of one of the few all-girl teams at the competition. Her teammates stand around her, all confident in their career hopes and with the knowledge they deserve to be there. While there are science programs in their schools and they were able to compete here, they also acknowledge that not everyone has those opportunities.
Her teammate Hannah Kim wants to fix that. "Women don't have as much access to these fields in general," the 15-year-old freshman chimes in. "What we'd like to do is open up programs in public schools that will help students learn about these competitions and choose based on their interests."
Kim wants to be an aerospace engineer one day, but she's one of the few who actually do. According to that same Aviation Week study, just 12 percent of engineers in the aerospace industry are women.
The problem for many of these girls is not a lack of funding in aviation programs. Rather, it's a lack of corporate outreach to children at early enough stages in their education.
Susan Lavrakas, director of workforce for the 336-member Aerospace Industries Association (one of the event's sponsors), says this is her priority. She wants to get girls and women in STEM subjects and recruit them into their industry.
"We are very frustrated. Those are not acceptable numbers," Lavrakas said. "We need to reach girls when they're in elementary school. By the eighth grade, they've already made choices or are making choices that would make it impossible for them to pursue an engineering degree."
Lavrakas, who has been in the aerospace industry for 32 years, said her organization is focusing on new metrics and best practices to change the way the industry allocates funds to programs that actually work and reach women at the right ages.
"Even though our companies collectively dedicate an excess of $160 million a year, we feel that we're not seeing a return on that investment," she continued. "Statistics nationally are not changing significantly."
"We are very frustrated. Those are not acceptable numbers."
Just last year, there was a 30 percent increase in women studying engineering. But there's a difference between getting women to study in the field and getting them to actually practice it. While 20 percent of engineering graduates are women, just over 10 percent work for related companies.