Women in Aerospace Offer Lessons in Overcoming Industry Barriers. Being the only woman in a room of scientists, engineers, and business professionals is nothing new to many women in the aerospace industry. And for the eight female industry leaders who led Wednesday morning’s general session, “Our Collective Role in Empowering Women and Cultivating Diversity in Aerospace,” at SATELLITE 2019, this reality is both something to celebrate and something that needs to change.
“Women in aerospace are experiencing a renaissance in the satellite and space industries,” said moderator Charity Weeden, president, and co-founder of Equinox Consulting, an independent space consulting company. “This is a time for all-hands-on-deck. And you know what? Diversity is here to help.”
While each of the eight speakers at the SATELLITE 2019 panel came from different backgrounds, they shared the common bond of having to work harder than their male peers to succeed.
Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, Senior Vice President (SVP) of government policy and strategy, Inmarsat Government, recalled leaving her first name off her resume when she began looking for engineering jobs after college. “When I started in college, in electrical engineering, women made up 3 percent,” said Cowen-Hirsch. “People were surprised when I went for interviews and a woman walked in.”
Ball Aerospace Strategic Operations Vice President (VP) and General Manager Debra Facktor said she nearly missed an important opportunity to engage in high-level talks with Russia’s leading scientists in the 1990s. At first, she said, her Russian counterparts were reluctant to engage in conversation — they were downright shocked when she asked technical questions. But once they saw that she was as capable as any male engineer, their tone changed. “I found the common language for us was engineering,” she told Via Satellite. “When you know math and science, whether you’re young or old or a woman or not, you have another language to speak to bridge the barriers.”
Little by little, small milestones like these are producing measurable results — including the growth of women-led aerospace startups.
When Kay Koplovitz founded Madison Garden Sports Network (which became USA Network) in 1977, a time when satellites equated to big, parabolic antennas, she became a role model and recognized industry leader. But over time, as more women entered the aerospace industry, Koplovitz became acutely aware of the barriers that female entrepreneurs faced when they tried to start their own businesses. It was incredibly difficult to obtain funding because they were ignored by most investors. “Women would try to launch these companies without any venture capital,” she recalled.
Seeing this inspired Koplovitz to start a foundation that would help women secure funding, and “speak investor side.” Today, Koplovitz said 82 percent of these startups are in business today, building their organizations, getting acquired by large companies or becoming Initial Public Offerings (IPOs).
Perhaps no setting demonstrates how far women have come than the SATELLITE Show itself. As Via Satellite Executive Editor Jeffrey Hill noted, in 2009 fewer than a dozen women spoke at the SATELLITE Show. Today, in 2019, it’s hard to find a session without at least one female speaker, moderator, or industry thought-leader present.
Yet, the aerospace industry still has a way to go before we can achieve true equality. During the session, Weeden highlighted a few data points to illustrate this point: Just 21 percent of women earned engineering degrees in 2017, but only 15 percent in mechanical engineering and space engineering. In the career world, women make 87 cents for every $1 a male engineer makes.
Nevertheless, speakers said they are trying to do their part to create a more diverse, inclusive work culture in their own organizations.
National Science Foundation Head of the Office of International Science and Engineering Rebecca Keiser said she aims to be a more inclusive leader through small acts, like holding meetings in common areas, as opposed to dedicated meeting rooms (which are frequently laid out in a hierarchical design). She regularly encourages individuals who don’t speak up to share their views, rather than having the most vocal colleagues dominate conversations.
Space Foundation COO Shelli Brunswick said she has taken an active role in her organization’s economic development programs and STEM initiatives.
Celeste Ford, founder, and chair of Stellar Solutions, who started college as the only female aerospace engineering student at University of Notre Dame, said she makes it her personal mission for “everyone on day one at Stellar to feel included and empowered.”
ABS Global Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) Carmen Gonzalez-Sanfeliu said she had the “double whammy” of starting her career as a Hispanic woman and leverages her global marketing and sales experience to mentor the next generation of young workers. “When I meet other women [in leadership positions], we have an immediate bond,” she says. “We know how tough it was to get here.”