Cady Coleman, retired NASA astronaut, speaks to attendees at the Girls in STEM event on April 24 at the White House. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Vandenburg)

We were excited to see the April 23 Capital Business cover story on local companies focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. The need is dire. As the story noted, “Many companies, such as defense contractors who need employees with security clearances, simply can’t find enough people to fill their jobs.”

Despite the justifiably upbeat story, we have so far to go, especially for the 50.8 percent of the U.S. population: women.

Most people think women are pursuing STEM careers and degrees at the same rate as men. The facts? According to the American Association of University Women’s “Why So Few” report, “by college graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some, such as physics, engineering and computer science, the difference is dramatic, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees.”

Nothing changes if nothing changes. We have to do better.

At a Girls and STEM event at the White House last week, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson hosted a large group of girls to hear from female pioneers in STEM fields. Jackson introduced the panel by noting “how far women have come” but also reminded the group that “for most of our history, half of our team of innovators was sitting on the sidelines.”

Can we even imagine what could happen if we unleash women’s talents, she asked the crowd?

Local girls participating in the White House event were invited by our organization, the Mid-Atlantic Girls Collaborative.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, we represent a coalition of corporate, educational and nonprofit organizations dedicated to promoting girls involvement in STEM. We work locally — under a parent organization called the National Girls Collaborative Project — to change the equation by ensuring girls are at the table. Our supporters include Microsoft, Google, Lockheed Martin, the Girl Scouts, and both Montgomery and Fairfax County Public Schools science departments.

In the metropolitan D.C. area, we have funded 14 local projects such as the Girls Excelling in Math and Science Clubs in Fairfax County schools to support teachers who are working everyday to encourage girls in STEM.

Please join us as we ensure that all students — especially the underrepresented girls — receive the encouragement and support they need to pursue STEM.

Paige E. Smith, co-leader of the Mid-Atlantic Girls Collaborative, is the director of the women in engineering program at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. Elizabeth Vandenburg is co-leader of the Mid-Atlantic Girls Collaborative and a member of the AAUW STEM Task Force.