Cornwall's Women In Space (part two)

Cornwall's Women In Space (Part Two)

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2021 we spoke with three extraordinary women leading the charge in developing and enabling considerable growth in the UK Space industry from the very heart of Cornwall. 

In part two of our interview series, we asked if Gail, Mel and Kat are satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM - focusing on the biggest challenges they feel women face in this role and what can be done to address these, as well as dispelling myths they have come up against in their careers.

Gail Eastaugh, Programme Director, AeroSpace Cornwall:

“I think senior women in STEM need to take more responsibility for making their voices heard by the next generation and making themselves visible as role models.”

We asked Gail what she feels are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM that aren’t faced by their male counterparts....

I believe one of the biggest challenges we face as women is also one of our biggest strengths – generations of evolution means that we empathise more naturally and are used to maintaining harmony in a group. This makes some (not all) women great at collaborating and building rapport, but it can mean that the voice of the individual is sometimes lost. Men compete more naturally and therefore the individual voice is more often heard. It makes sense to me to consciously use the best skill-set you have in each situation – this means encouraging visibility of everyone’s strengths as often as possible, respecting diversity and inviting challenge.     

And what are the “myths”you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM?

I often hear that women are not as assertive as men when it comes to self-promotion or that they have different responsibilities when it comes to balancing family commitments and this affects their careers, but in many cases it simply isn’t true. Everyone wants to be judged on their merit not on their gender – in my opinion the more we talk about inequality the more we perpetuate the myths... what we should be talking about who is the most capable and inspiring people regardless of any other characteristics they may have.  

Dr Kat Hickey, Senior Business Development Manager, Goonhilly Earth Station:

“I get the feeling that the space industry is actually a great place for diversity and for all of us to be whoever we are, if we can just look a bit deeper. It appears that once people have found their niche in the space industry, they are welcomed and thrive!”

We asked Kat if she was currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM, and what specific changes she think are needed to shift this…

There are definite improvements in terms of women in STEM since I was in school. However, there is still work to be done. Even in 2021, it is still somewhat uncommon to see female leadership in STEM organisations. There are many contributing factors, and no one-solution-fits-all to serve as a simple fix. Without wanting to resort to stereotypes, part of a solution could be improved parental leave arrangements via HMG, and ideally incentivising organisations to implement policies that encourage fathers to evenly share, or even take the main share of parental leave (for example, by making women’s return to work as easy as possible through flexible working arrangements in terms of working hours/locations and/or by encouraging flexible paternity leave). Compared to some other countries, the UK still has a long way to go to achieve more equality and a good balance for working mothers and fathers.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

This is by no means universal, but some people still automatically assume that men they interact with in the workplace have very technical or leadership roles, whereas women work in supporting positions. Not just once in my time in the space industry have I met a new customer/colleague/business contact and their assumption was immediately that my role was secretarial (this is 2021!). While I wasn’t “raised” in the space sector and my specific technical knowledge related to the sector is indeed somewhat limited by this, I do hold a PhD in a very technical subject, and many of my female colleagues are highly trained and qualified space scientists and engineers – so I get offended on their behalf. We need to address this by: showcasing female role models, not just within our echo chamber of individuals/organisations, pushing for more female involvement, and enabling/encouraging more female leadership - I believe this would certainly help to diffuse this perception over time.

Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall: 

“I think when you come across leading women in STEM it is often because they have been picked out because they are a woman, rather than because they are doing an awesome job.  We work incredibly hard to get to where we are, with many barriers, but we are doing our jobs and want to be recognised because of that, not solely because of our gender.”

We asked Mel the biggest challenges she felt are faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts...

As New Space is quickly commercialising and expanding, being in it is exciting, but also, all consuming. In an industry where the technology is advancing so quickly, taking time off to have a family can feel like you are on the back foot. I watched people get promoted above me when I was on maternity leave. The pandemic has only exacerbated this, women are expected to work full time at home, whilst homeschooling, and running a household. While I know so much of this is shared with partners, the brunt of it seems to still be on the female. This isn't unique to space, but something I think we need to recognise and reconfigure expectations.   

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM? 

  1. That you can’t be feminine. My daughter loves airplanes and rockets. But she also loves fairies and unicorns and anything pink and glittery. She wears her NASA T-shirt with a tutu. You can be both, of course you can. I used to think that being feminine would lead to me not being taken seriously, and to be honest, sometimes it did. But I then decided to just be me and go and Oh how I absolutely love surprising people!
  2. The women’s brains are not ‘wired’ for STEM.  I have a logical and pragmatic brain, but in order to succeed in STEM I have had to bring in different elements and break down problems into bite-sized chunks. However, I do this in a way where I consider all outcomes, bringing in culture, behaviour and societal impacts. For instance, when I was studying Economics at LSE, I came at it from a very different perspective, using my statistical data analysis and combining it with human behaviour and technology to understand the impact of growth on communities.