4 Pre-Requisites of a Diverse and Equitable Workforce

by | Jan 25, 2024

Any workforce diversification strategy can gain from starting with these pre-requisites: (1) Historical Context, (2) Representation, (3) Workforce Analytics, and (4) Empathy.

Today, our 2-part blog series will show how these prerequisites are necessary better to empower Black women in the Aerospace and Defense industry.

The next generation of aerospace engineers are entering an industry going through immense transformation. The Aerospace and Defense industry need cyber resiliency, supply chain solutions, and alternative energy sources. Look at the workforce powering this industry, and you’ll find leadership aging toward retirement, steep talent competition, critical skill gaps, and a lack of diversity.

As a recruiting firm with several emerging A&D clients, our team spent a few weeks looking at workforce trends. We researched the industry’s history, representation, and hiring practices. 

It’s clear that the future of Aerospace and Defense depends on diversity. To truly harness the collective power of diverse individuals, A&D companies will need to uncover biases, change corporate cultures, and adjust power structures. Every individual working within A&D sector can be a change agent. To start, do your due diligence on the past and present, so you can confidently improve the future. Here’s one way you can do that:

  1. Learn the historical context of your sector’s workforce – specifically, how different identities faced discrimination and segregation and still supported our nation. A&D is unique – it’s one of our longest-running sectors as a nation. 
  1. Ensure leaders have a first-hand understanding of your company’s workforce analytics. Build ongoing action and accountability plans based on the workforce reality and your workforce equity goals. Look at employee demographics, pay ranges, levels, retention, and promotional rates. 
  1. Look for a deeper understanding of professional experiences and emotions from people who are different from you. Absorb books, stories, and live conversations told by BIPOC A&D professionals – listen and learn with open-mindedness.
    1. What did they go through? What are they going through now? What did they experience in starting their career? How did they navigate that? How does that infiltrate their emotional state and workforce capacities today? How might your organization and workforce representation be contributing to this? What is your lane of progress and responsibility now?

Awareness by Historical Context

Dr. Patricia Cowings is an aerospace psychophysiologist for NASA . Today, Cowings helps astronauts better
adapt to space by studying the effects of gravity on human physiology and performance

Understanding the historical context of Black women in Aerospace and Defense is a good place to start. The impact stories of Black women have been historically under-told and underappreciated. Many of our nation’s greatest aerospace and defense accomplishments have been made possible by Black women – all with their profound impact and influence across our nation’s history. If true empathy is derived from the ability to understand the experiences and emotions of others, we need awareness first.

NACA, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), modern-day NASA, began hiring white women in 1935 and refused to hire African American women until 1943, when labor shortages during World War II forced the need for more workers. African American women faced racial discrimination and pervasive opposition – yet still, they prevailed.

Several of the NASA researchers who made space flight possible were black women. Their contributions were silent for decades. These ‘Hidden Figures’ played critical roles in the aeronautics industry even as Jim Crow was alive and well. “When the first five black women took their seat in the office in 1943, it was in a segregated office with a ‘colored girls’ bathroom and a table for the ‘colored’ computers,’” Margot Lee Shetterly

Annie J. Easley originally studied pharmacy before finding a newspaper article about being a “human computer” for NASA. She applied for a mathematics and computer engineering position there. During her 34-year career, she worked on many projects and technologies that laid the groundwork for today’s spaceflight and exploration. At NACA, she faced discrimination daily. Her male colleagues had their undergraduate tuition paid for when she had to finance her education independently, and her face was deliberately cut out of pictures. Easley persevered, worked harder, and evolved alongside technology, learning to code with languages such as SOAP and returning to school to complete a mathematics degree while working full-time at NASA.

In the early 1900s, Bessie Coleman tried to enroll in flight school. No school would accept her as a black woman. Bessie looked overseas to change course – she learned there may be more opportunity in Europe. Coleman taught herself French in the evenings after work, enabling her to complete French flight school applications. Once accepted, she trained in France and earned her pilot license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921. Upon returning to the U.S., Coleman became a sensation – attracting mass crowds for her aerobatic stunt flying. She used her popularity to fight discrimination by refusing to perform at events where crowds would be segregated. She also advocated for more African Americans and women to learn to fly, influencing many who would follow in her footsteps.

When high crime rates in her neighborhood of Queens, New York grew concerning, nurse Marie Van Brittan Brown invented the first home security system to protect her and her family. This a complex, multi-view and sensory system. She’d go on to file and secure a  patent with her husband, “Home Security System utilizing Television Surveillance,” in August 1966. The invention served as the foundation for today’s security systems and earned her an award from the National Scientists Committee and an interview with The New York Times

In 1977, Barbara Richardson became the first Black woman to graduate from the aerospace engineering undergraduate program at the University of Michigan.

In 1992, Mae Carol Jemison became the first African American woman in space. 

Wendy Okolo, PhD | Aerospace Research Engineer at Ames Research Center

In 2019, Wendy Okolo became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. Wendy is Nigerian and has five siblings. She achieved her bachelor’s degree and doctorate from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2010 and 2015. During her collegiate career, Wendy was President of the Society of Women Engineers and an intern at Lockheed Martin where she worked on  NASA’s Orion spacecraft. She’s gone on to pilot the world’s fastest manned aircraft. Today, she is an Aerospace Research Engineer at the Ames Research Center, a major research center for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Silicon Valley. In 2019, Wendy won the BEYA Global Competitiveness Conference award for the most promising engineer in the United States. Wendy has often shared that her two sisters, Jennifer and Phyllis, are her heroes – they taught her math and science as a child. 


“When we see elements of our social identity reflected in others who embody the success and impact we strive for, we get a real-world picture of what is possible, and our potential becomes uncapped.” – Cassie Rosengren

“People are more likely to align themselves with companies and brands where they see themselves represented. Not only does having more diversity in an organization help to understand both the target and general audience better, but it will also attract a larger, more diverse talent population.” – Jackie Bycinthe 

Black women comprise about 6.5% of the United States population, but only 2% of the STEM workforce – even less in the Aerospace and Defense sector specifically. Organizations like Obap.org, which mentor Black aerospace professionals and bridge career development, are helping Black aerospace pros with the off-paper challenges minority workers face – like coping with isolation in a majority-led workplace. There’s company action like Virgin Galactic’s BLAST scholarship program, advancing Black Leaders in Aerospace. Aerospace President and CEO Steve Isakowitz announced the Spaceforce Workforce 2030 pledge, the first-of-its-kind consortium of more than 30 leading space companies, all committed to working collaboratively to advance diversity across the industry. The pledge comes with more than a promise as the aerospace sector sees record investment and accelerated innovations.

Mary Jackson was the first black female aeronautical engineer. She started with NASA in 1958.

NASA has recently renamed its headquarters in honor of Mary W Jackson, its first-ever Black female engineer, and they’re in the process of renaming more facilities to reflect work done by women of color across the agency.

There’s promise in this progress, but it’s slow to show measurable results – especially regarding Black women in Aerospace Engineering. This is true across demographic statistics for university, recruitment, workforce representation, and leadership advancement. Senior leaders who acknowledge societal inequities and recognize that their organization isn’t a leveled playing field are better suited to recognize their diverse and equity problems, with greater chances of impactful change.

Aerospace and Defense Workforce Insights

  1. The US A&D industry has an ave. annual salary of $108,900 (Deloitte, 2023).
    • That’s approximately 55% above the national average (Zippia, 2023).
  2. Gen-Z prioritizes employment options with purpose, mission, a stable income, and a growth path.
    • To achieve meaningful talent traction, organizations must find an inclusive purpose that everyone can identify with.
  3. In 2023, 63% of A&D workers who left their jobs quit voluntarily, and 19% of those quit due to finding remote work instead.
    • A&D has more talent competition from Automotive and Tech – these industries have adjusted their pay, benefits, and workplace experiences to compete for top talent.
  4. 26% of the A&D workforce are over the age of 55. (Deloitte, 2023)
    • This will leave a 3.5 million worker gap by 2026 upon retirement.
  5. Women in Aerospace have been stuck at 24% representation with incremental improvements, compared to their competing industries of tech and automotive, which have far surpassed A&D in representation year over year.
  6. According to Zippia, only 11.25% of aerospace engineers are women, and only 4.1% are black.
  7. No single diversity group represents more than 10% of the industry workforce.
    • White men are the majority of our A&D workforce today. 88% are men, and 69.3% are white (Zippia, 2022).

Ask yourself what insights you can uncover from your company’s workforce analytics now that a few industry benchmarks are known.

Awareness Leads to Empathy.

We need to be aware of other’s experiences and emotions to truly have empathy. This is never true with people who are unlike you. In the workplace, belonging and inclusivity depend on awareness and empathy being everpresent. We can all advance awareness and empathy through human connection.

Learn From Different Workforce Experiences.
No single person represents an entire race, and no race represents an entire people. We must recognize the demographic trends and uncouple those from a monolithic view.  It’s important, then, to listen to voices different than ours – to hear their career experiences first-hand and learn more about the stereotype threats they face and how we ourselves may be keeping those stereotype threats alive.

With that, we bring a featured story of Lisa, a Black woman entering the aerospace industry. Lisa has already endured constant headwinds and hiring biases. Her dream is to become an aerospace engineer. Her journey has just begun. 

Co-Authored by: Cassie Rosengren and Jackie Bycinthe


Written by Jackie Bycinthe