Slowly but surely, women and minorities finding their place in space

By Warren Ferster

WASHINGTON – Many industry analysts are predicting the space economy will reach $1 trillion in the coming years, and workplace diversity just might be the ticket to getting there.

Women, minorities and younger professionals today make up a growing portion of the space and satellite industry, a trend that studies suggest bodes well for growth and profitability. But the industry still has some work to do to if it hopes to become more representative of the population at large.

Maintaining the momentum of the last decade or two was a prominent theme during a general session on diversity May 8 at the SATELLITE 2019 conference organized by Access Intelligence. The panel session featured women in senior-level industry and government positions who rose through the ranks at a time when the aerospace profession, and technical fields in general, were still dominated by the stereotypical middle-aged white males.

The industry’s changing demographics are reflected in the conference itself. In 2009, for example, only 10 of nearly 400 speakers at the annual industry gathering were women, with an even smaller number under the age of 35, according to Jeffrey Hill, the conference chairman and executive editor of Via Satellite magazine. At SATELLITE 2019, those numbers were up to more than 60 and 50, respectively, he said in opening remarks at the session.

Workplace diversity is often seen as desirable in the name of fairness, but as it turns out, it’s just good business.

Debra Facktor speaks on a panel at SATELLITE 2019 regarding diversity in the workplace being "good business". Image Credit: Via Satellite

“Research shows that the more diversity you have, the more profitable you are,” said Debra Facktor, vice president and general manager of Strategic Operations at Ball Aerospace. In the last six and a half years, she said, Ball’s diversity has continued to grow while its revenues have doubled.

That’s no accident, Facktor said. A workplace populated by people from different cultural backgrounds and age groups encourages the exchange new ideas that help companies retain and expand their business, she said.

Kay Koplovitz, founder of cable television provider USA Networks and co-founder and chair of Springboard Enterprises, an accelerator that focuses on woman-owned ventures, agreed. “We all bring different perspectives to the table and sifting through those really produces better outcomes,” she said.

Diversity also enhances a company’s ability to identify new or underserved markets, Facktor said in an interview. “If you’re going to sell to a certain audience you have to look like that audience,” she said.

For example, Ball’s team on Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a NASA astronomy mission currently in development, is “diverse in every sense of the word” and is “super innovative” as a result, Facktor said. “The customer sees where we’re giving opportunities, and we have good ideas and innovation,” she said. “That is rewarded.”

But Ball might be ahead of the space industry curve when it comes to diversity. Celeste V. Ford, founder and chair of Stellar Solutions, a space engineering services company, noted that women comprise some 50 percent of the population yet make up just 8-12 percent of the aerospace workforce.

“Even though we all feel like we’re doing well because you look around and you’re not the only woman in the room anymore, there’s lots of them, when you look at the percentage – we’re only 8 percent, not 50, not 30 – that’s just a message that we can do better,” Ford said. “And that’s just gender – the rest of it goes downhill from there.”

Moreover, women’s salaries have some catching up to do. On display at the session was a statistic attributed to the U.S. National Science Foundation that said women engineers in 2016 earned 87 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

The panelists offered a number of ideas for bringing women and minorities into the aerospace field – and getting them to stick around once there.

The U.S. Space Foundation, for example, has programs designed to “demystify” space for those that might view it as exclusive or unwelcoming, said Shelli Brunswick, chief operating officer of the non-profit organization.  “Space is for all of us,” she said, adding that if NASA hopes to return to the moon in 2024 as currently planned, everyone had better be invited.

Multiple panelists cited mentoring as crucial to attracting and retaining women in the field.

“Not enough women are supportive of other women,” said Carmen Gonzales-Sanfeliu, chief compliance officer for satellite-operator ABS Global Ltd., adding that men, too, have a role to play in this regard. She passed along a piece of professional wisdom that an executive coach once shared with her: “He said, ‘To be successful…make sure you have a mentor, a supporter and an ally. One talks with you, one talks about you and one talks for you.’” 

Ford said diversity begets diversity. “I was just back at [the University of Notre Dame] last week speaking to a group of woman students and I felt like that was the input I was getting,” she said. “Where they’re going for their jobs is where they see women leaders.”

While the space industry still has room for improvement on the diversity front, Facktor is optimistic. She noted, for example, that 40 percent of the engineering freshman class at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in Ball’s back yard, are women.

Young people and women are drawn to professions where they can make a difference and help the planet, Facktor said, noting that women are flocking to fields like biomedical and environmental engineering. Space, in addition to being a primary means to monitor the environment, is today providing more opportunities than ever for early career professionals to get their hands dirty working with actual flight hardware, she said.

“As we communicate more about how space can change lives, have an impact on sustainability of our planet and how it already is part of our day-to-day lives, that attracts more diversity,” Facktor said.

Warren Ferster covered the global space industry as a journalist for 25 years, including 21 at SpaceNews, where he last served as editor in chief.