Women are still a minority in the aerospace industry in the UK and globally, with only 17% of C-level and senior positions in the industry being held by females. As for the founders and owners of businesses in the New Space market, only 12% of them identify as women. That is a gross underrepresentation that might indicate certain barriers women face when pursuing careers in the sector. Of course, we cannot omit the fact that only 15% of engineering and tech graduates are females, which means that there are just not as many females pursuing careers in the industry as there are males.
We’ve conducted small research to find out how many women are actually engaged in space businesses in the UK.
Archangel Networks, a startup that is building laser communication infrastructure to support the space industry since 2017, shared that among 18 employees, five positions are taken by women. This makes for 28% of the company’s staff, with two women engaged in engineering and three – in operations. As a matter of fact, the COO at the company is a woman.
Deimos Space UK, which works on a variety of technical problems covering Earth Observation data processing and control systems for satellites/launch vehicles, shared they currently have 30 engineers on their team. Eight of them identify themselves as women, which makes 27%, like in the previous case. The company representative noted that among the five business directions they have, two are led by women.
Astroscale, another UK-based company, takes care of sustainability in space operations by working on space debris removal and in-situ space situational awareness. Among 60 company’s employees, 14 women (23%) are working in engineering, operations and business development to ensure the growth of the venture.
The problem of female underrepresentation in the industry stems from two main factors: not enough women pursuing careers in the industry and inherent barriers women face when entering a male-dominated industry. That is where organisations such as Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter come into play, supporting the progression of women into a senior position in the sector. Promoting inclusivity and gender equality in aerospace is essential for bringing women to the forefront of space exploration in the future. At the same time, it is also crucial to increase the public interest in the sector so that more women go for careers in the industry and graduate with relevant tech and engineering degrees.
Though women have been a minority in the space industry, they have managed to leave an important mark on the British space sector. There are also women that shape the industry today. Let’s get acquainted with some of them.
On May 18, 1991, Helen Sharman became the first British person in space, and the fact that Britain’s first astronaut was a woman says a lot. Sharman was chosen the best among 13,000 candidates who applied for the Project Juno, passed 18-month training at the Russian Star City Cosmonaut Training Centre, and finally flew to space along with her two Russian crewmates.
Throughout her 8-day stay aboard the space station, Sharman conducted agricultural and medical experiments, took pictures of the British Isles from space, and participated in a radio broadcast with the British schoolchildren. As Sharman herself puts it: “I’ve never defined myself by my gender, and I continue not to do so. People often describe me as the first British woman in space, but I was actually the first British person.”
To this day, Sharman continues to encourage children and youth to embark on daring journeys and venture beyond what is predetermined as possible. Her message is specifically aimed at girls who strive to accomplish success in STEM and want to become the leaders in the New Space era.
Source: Catriona Francis/Facebook
Catriona Francis is one of the prominent examples of women achieving success in the male-dominated UK space industry. Francis currently occupies the position of International Liaison Director at Orbex, the UK-based aerospace company that develops commercial orbit Prime rockets. But that is not her first encounter with aerospace sector.
Catriona has been working in the field for years now. With a considerable background in the industry rooting back to her Jacobs airport planning activities, it is no wonder she was a person responsible for grant-giving at the UKSA. Her department granted Orbex money not long before she transferred to the company. Yet, her expertise and connections in the field are a real asset for the company where she is taking an executive position.
Source: Kerry Sanz/Facebook
Upon receiving her Physics with Space Science and Systems degree at the University of Kent and Astronautics and Space Engineering at Cranfield University, Kerry Sanz has been actively pursuing new opportunities in the space sector. From a spacecraft operations manager to director of programs, Sanz keeps pushing herself further while expanding her expertise and knowledge in the space sector. “I worked on various missions ranging from commanding unmanned communications satellites to planning European operations onboard the International Space Station.”
It has been a spectacular journey so far, and Kerry currently occupies the position of Director of Programs at MDA, the international satellite systems, space operations, and geo-intelligence pioneering company.
One of the most important career accomplishments for Hutty is her involvement in the development of the ExoMars rover, also known as the Rosalind Franklin rover. The rover is due to be deployed to the Mars surface with a primary objective to find the traces of the past life on the Red Planet. She describes her involvement in the project as follows: “I had worked on the design of the structure for the ExoMars Rover – the actual chassis of the vehicle. Then as the delivery manager for the first full build of the rover (we build a test version before the real one) – not just the structure but all the other parts like wheels, equipment, camera masts, mechanisms and so on”. Right now, she occupies the position of Principal System Engineer at Airbus Defence and Space.
Abigail Hutty is considered to be one of the most influential female tech experts on Twitter and an active promoter of STEM disciplines among British youth. Abbie herself was inspired by the Beagle II British Mars probe in her teens, and now she is a role model for many female teenagers and kids who dream of careers in engineering.
The rising prominence of women in space
Today, aerospace is a male-dominated industry that has been mostly driven by male executives, inventors, and astronauts. However, women are becoming more interested in getting the education necessary to contribute to the space industry, and we’ll see more female leaders soon.
It is still a long way from becoming a truly equal and inclusive domain, but we can already see the right changes happening. Women have always been a part of the UK’s space effort, and now is the right time for female engineers, scientists, and astronauts to occupy their rightful place in the pursuit of the New Space.