When she was in kindergarten, a computer engineer visited Stephanie Lackey’s school for career day.
As he talked about his work and showed students the equipment he brought with him, she felt a spark of excitement that propelled her on the path to becoming an engineer and continues to burn brightly years later.
Now, as a director of engineering business analytics for the defense contractor Raytheon, Lackey hopes to ignite the same passion in a new generation of girls by giving them an experience like the one that introduced her to engineering when she was young.
Lackey and five other female Raytheon employees got the opportunity to do just that on Feb. 20 when they volunteered to join the Ox Hill chapter of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America in Chantilly for an event to celebrate Girl Day, an annual, nationwide campaign to encourage more girls to explore engineering through education and mentorship.
For 90 minutes that day, the Raytheon engineers gathered in the basement of the Ox Hill Baptist Church with two dozen girls and spoke to them about the appeal of pursuing engineering as an interest or, potentially, a future career.
“It’s an event like this that might help them think about, maybe, that extra math class in high school is a good idea, because I think I would like to be an engineer, and I know the more math I take, the better my chances [are] of being a great engineer,” Lackey said. “It was an event like this that got me into math and engineering.”
The Ox Hill event was one of three Girl Day activities that Raytheon and the Girls and Boys Club hosted in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area this year. Volunteering female engineers from the defense contractor also visited youth centers at Joint Base Andrews and Fort Meade in Maryland.
Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day – also known as Girl Day – started in 2001 as an offshoot of National Engineers Week, which was founded by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1951 and is dedicated to educating students about engineering and technology careers.
Now organized by an outreach nonprofit organization called DiscoverE that promotes engineers’ accomplishments and supports educational efforts, this year’s Engineers Week lasted from Feb. 16 to 22, and World Engineering Day will be marked on Mar. 4 with the release of results from a global survey of engineers, technicians, and technologists about the field’s future.
While there is a broad demand for engineers, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that nearly 140,000 new jobs will be created by 2026, women are consistently underrepresented relative to their presence in the overall national workforce, as are black, Hispanic, and Native American individuals.
According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics’ The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2020 report, which published in January, the number of women in science and engineering jobs went from nearly 1.3 million in 2003 to nearly 2 million in 2017, when they comprised 26 percent of workers in those occupations.
However, women still account for only 29 percent of science and engineering workers as a whole and just 16 percent of engineers, even though they make up 52 percent of the country’s college-educated workforce.
The majority of women who do work in science and engineering are white or Asian, groups that respectively represent 60 and 20 percent of the women employed in those fields. 8.5 percent of female scientists and engineers are black, 7.8 percent Hispanic, and less than 1 percent is Native American or Pacific Islander, reflecting the low rates at which women in those demographics obtain the highest college degrees in science and engineering.
Black, Hispanic, and Native American people of any gender are underrepresented in science and engineering occupations, where they have 13 percent of the jobs despite making up 28 percent of the U.S. population of adults 21 or older, according to NCSES.
Girl Day aims to attract more women to engineering and other science, technology, and math-related careers by providing opportunities for young girls to learn about engineering and to meet women who have broken into the profession already.
In a literature review called “Despite the Odds” published in December, DiscoverE reported that a positive attitude toward science, technology, engineering, and math is a more influential factor in high school students’ decisions to pursue STEM courses and degrees than their academic performance in those subjects.
A 2014 study reviewed by DiscoverE for its report found that seventh, eighth, and ninth-grade girls who are interested in science and engineering girls are more likely to have participated in formal or informal activities such as science clubs or enrichment classes before seventh grade than girls who are not interested in science and engineering.
According to DiscoverE, female mentors are critical for retaining prospective female engineers once they reach college. All the female engineering students given female mentors in one 2015 study stayed in their engineering courses, compared to 89 percent of students without mentors and 82 percent of students with male mentors.
By partnering with Raytheon for Girl Day, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a nonprofit that provides after-school programs to youths, offer their members an opportunity that they might not have gotten otherwise to explore engineering in a more hands-on, in-depth way than what they usually get in school and to meet female engineers.
“For a lot of our youth at our clubs…this is the only STEM or science or engineering access that they have,” Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington communications manager Kandice Ferrell said. “…We want to expose our girls to as much as we can related to the field of science and engineering to hopefully get them excited and make them feel empowered so that, as they transition on, it’s a career choice that they might be interested in.”
The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington encompass 15 different sites in Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland, including the Ox Hill club, that serve over 15,00 youth from kindergarten through 12th grade with membership and community outreach programs.
Of the organization’s 7,141 registered members, 68 percent are black, 10 percent Caucasian, 10 percent Hispanic, 6 percent multi-racial, and 3 percent Asian. 44 percent of members are female, and about 48 percent are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches from school, according to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington’s most recent impact report.
Raytheon has partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America for Girl Day for the past six years, sending volunteering local employees to work with girls on STEM-related activities at different clubs around the country.
After talking to the participants about engineering and why they should consider it as a possible future career, the Raytheon engineers who visited Ox Hill on Girl Day gave the girls advice and encouragement as they were tasked with building a pyramid out of plastic cups using a specific set of instructions.
Ox Hill Girls Club members also received a free backpack with a reusable water bottle from Raytheon before they left.
While the cup-stacking activity was done entirely by hand, it was designed to teach the kids logic and give them a glimpse of the thought processes behind computer programming, according to Lackey, who says she wants to break the stereotype of math as boring.
Given that engineers are in high demand now and make a median annual wage of $91,010, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, introducing more women to engineering has economic benefits for them, while also giving the industry a more diverse pool of workers to hire.
“I think engineering is a wonderful field for women,” Lackey said. “It allows us an opportunity to be creative, to be innovative, and to make our world a better place…If we could close the gender gap when it comes to females graduating with STEM degrees, that would go a long way to closing that gap that we have in the number of engineers we have available.”