In celebration of #1ofTheMillion Day today, Dr Kathryn O’Donnell, Director of Delivery & Operations at In-Space Mission, takes inspiration from Dr Mae Jemison and insists more must be done to overcome the barriers that remain for women pursuing STEM careers.
“It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it and make it the life you want to live.” Impressive words from engineer, physician and former NASA astronaut Dr Jemison, the first black woman to travel into space, when she flew aboard Endeavour in 1992.
Society has come a long way since then, and thanks to women like her, I can do a job I love. But hurdles do remain.
As a director of In-Space Missions Ltd, a growing space mission services SME, I get exposure to the whole lifecycle of missions’ technical and commercial activities, and influence the culture of the company.
While celebrating being #1OfTheMillion women in core STEM roles across the UK, I have captured a few thoughts on why I believe more women should forge a career in the industry I love – and why those around them should be supportive.
So, why should more women look at a career in the space industry?
For the same reasons anyone should. It’s a fast-growing sector with a huge range of opportunities, whether you’re passionate about a specific technical area or are a good generalist. Additionally, a strong STEM background can bolster essential functions, from space laws to industrial strategy.
In my career, I’ve been lucky enough to support the Royal Air Force and US Air Force with spacecraft operations, and manage a huge number of R&D and spacecraft bids and projects, all while travelling the world. What’s not to like?
What challenges face women wanting to pursue a career in STEM?
Many people consider this a grass-roots issue. While this does still need attention (my primary-age daughter was recently told “you can’t like space, it’s for boys”), it’s not the whole story…
My situation today is a far cry from the shy 17-year old who won a place at Cambridge to read Natural Sciences. By that point, I was already used to being the only girl in my Physics A-level class – a situation that continued as I stayed in the firm minority of one or two throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate studies and into working life.
This may not seem significant to some – women get access to the same material as men, so it’s just about ability, right? Wrong. While I would love to say we are in an equitable meritocracy, that’s just not the case. In my experience, and that of many colleagues, women are treated differently. This ranges from being patronised or ignored – stemming from a lack of visible role models and indirect/benevolent discrimination – to more blatant forms of discrimination. This is all before considering other external societal factors. It seems strange to be writing this in 2020, but this kind of behaviour is still rife.
So, how can we change it? Women in industry, as well as our allies, are already shining a light on these issues and they are starting to improve – and the more of us there are in integral STEM roles, the quicker this will happen.
This isn’t all the responsibility of women though. If you’re a man in STEM and you’re not already supporting an increase in women applying for and succeeding in STEM roles, you might want to reflect on why that is…after all, your team won’t be the best it can be if half the population is discouraged from applying.
Finally, for those women and girls considering careers in STEM, have confidence in your abilities and seek out a support network to encourage and amplify your achievements. And as Mae Jemison said: “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations; if you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won’t exist because you’ll have already shut it out. You can hear other people’s wisdom, but you’ve got to re-evaluate the world for yourself.”