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NASA's female-spacewalk failure illustrates far-reaching problem

History was supposed to be made at the end of Women’s History Month: America was to conduct its first all-female astronaut spacewalk. For women and young girls everywhere who dream of a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), this spacewalk was meant to be a milestone. However, the celebration will have to wait.

Why? NASA didn’t have enough spacesuits in women’s sizes.

This failed mission drives home the fact that without the right tools and opportunities, you can’t leave the ground, let alone reach the moon. How many of our young women — especially those who are economically disadvantaged — are precariously close to being cut out of the STEM economy altogether? Shutting out the potential and promise of this group of women undermines the power of our workforce, the vibrancy and inclusiveness of our society, and our future competitiveness and integrity as a nation and world leader.

America is facing a leaky STEM pipeline: We don’t have enough qualified people to fill the computer science and information technology jobs that we have now , nor those we will need to add. And although a digital world is upon us, our technology industry is not only facing a shortfall in qualified applicants, it is also woefully lacking in diversity, with 90 percent of workers being white or Asian, and 75 percent male. This does not reflect America.

Today, of all the high school students taking AP computer science, a strong indicator for those who will pursue college degrees, only 4 percent were Latinx girls, 2 percent were black girls and less than 1 percent were Native American/Alaskan Native girls.

And even within diversity, there are inequalities. The difficulties for poor students are compounded. Millions of American students who lack the resources to succeed find themselves in similarly under-resourced schools. These are hard-working kids with hard-working parents who, even though they might have the skills, ability and desire to pursue higher education, often don’t even consider it a possibility. They are often the first in their families to graduate from high school, and they don’t feel prepared. They don’t have access to the internet to complete the admission applications, not to mention the funds for tuition. These bitter truths take root in a student’s mind long before high school and follow them into their lives and careers.

At the same time, American companies are investing millions of dollars into diversity, equity and inclusion programs, but with little impact. For these programs to work, for students to go from being shut-out to leading in STEM, we need to understand the challenges that minority and under-served students and workers face, and work with schools and organizations on the front lines to help them succeed. This is the only way to design effective solutions to keep students engaged, motivated and successful, all the way from pre-K to higher education to workforce and even entrepreneurship.

Will we ever see a spacewalk of astronauts who are all women of color in the next 50 years? Despite the leaky STEM pipeline, and despite a skewed playing field, I dare to say “yes!” Why? Because earlier this month, there were people gathered on Capitol Hill to tackle these questions and to have this overdue discussion, people like the educators and leaders from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions and Community Colleges.

They, and others who are equally committed to see the promise of America’s education system restored, are creating collaborative public-private partnerships to plug the leaks in the talent pipeline that runs from middle school to college, and from graduate school all the way through to the moon. If anything, this failure to launch has taught us is that to have a diverse and skilled workforce, we need to ensure we are prepared with the tools and opportunities to fit them and meet them where they are.

Rose Kirk is chief corporate social responsibility officer at Verizon; her email is rose.kirk@verizon.com.

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