Women in Engineering: Aerospace Engineering

Engineering

National Women in Engineering Day is just around the corner and, to celebrate, we’re continuing our exploration of women working within the industry.

In the second of our week long series we’re supporting #RaisingProfiles by delving into the role of women in aerospace engineering – an industry that has long been dominated by male employees.

What is aerospace engineering?

Aerospace engineering is predominantly concerned with the designing and building of machines that fly.

Roles vary across business and field, but aerospace engineers are generally employed in roles involving analysis, design, manufacturing and development. Broadly speaking, they design aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, missiles or systems of national defence, as well as test prototypes.

The term was coined in the 19th century, alongside the first experiments in powered flight, and, as technology progressed, split into two specialities:

  • Aeronautical engineering: this refers to the designing of aircraft, including gliders, fixed-winged planes, jets and helicopters.
  • Astronautical engineering: this is focused on the design and development of spacecraft.

The current status of women in aerospace engineering

According to Susan Chodakewitz, CEO at Nathan Associates Inc., women account for just 25% of aerospace roles. This dips significantly to just 10% when referring specifically to jobs in aerospace engineering.  Shockingly, this statistic has remained relatively unchanged for 20 years. One positive, however, is that the wage gap between genders is narrowing.

Interestingly, many within the industry cite a lack of role models as the reason women aren’t getting involved, as opposed to discrimination or absence of opportunities. This, at least, implies future prospects should be promising.

Indeed, Chodakewitz herself says the days of a single engineer working alone in a lab are over. She says aerospace engineering, like any other field, requires teamwork to succeed. Women have the opportunity to excel here thanks to their ability to bring a technical, as well as interpersonal, side to the lab.

Women in aerospace engineering

Anita Sengupta

Anita is a graduate in aerospace and mechanical engineering. Her degree has enabled her to enter into a career at NASA, where she’s currently Project Manager of the Cold Atom Lab at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Previously, she headed up the team behind the development of the 70-foot, supersonic parachute system deployed to slow the descent of the Curiosity Rover, enabling it to land safely on Mars.

Alongside her career at NASA, she’s also a Research Professor at the University of Southern California.

Camille Wardrop Alleyne

Camille has played a lead role in the design and development of various space vehicles, including the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle.

She’s received numerous awards from NASA, as well as commendations from the US Department of Defence for her work on its ballistic missile defence system.

Alleyne is now Assistant Program Scientist at the International Space Station, where she leads educational and public outreach campaigns, as well as drives to encourage more young people into scientific roles.

Mary Sherman Morgan

Mary is one of the earliest examples of a female role model in the world of aerospace engineering. She was credited with the invention of the liquid fuel Hydyne back in 1957; the fuel that powered the Jupiter-C rocket that boosted Explorer 1, the US’ first satellite.

For years she was employed at the Plum Brook Ordnance Works munitions factory, designing explosives for the military during the Second World War.

She then moved on to a role in the Rocketdyne Division of the North American Aviation, where she was promoted to Theoretical Performance Specialist. Of the 900 engineers at the company, she was one of the few without a degree – and the only female.

The future for women in aerospace engineering

Promisingly, Melanie Jordan, COO of Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance, says she’s already noticed a shift in the number of women interested in the field and believes the biggest change will come when younger women join and start to inspire others.

Fortunately, numerous organisations, including Women in Aerospace (WIA), have begun to spring up dedicated to raising awareness of the trade. WIA’s goal is to increase the visibility of women within the field and it provides programmes, conferences and networking opportunities for the aerospace community.

Similarly, in the UK, the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign is actively working to inspire young women to study and focus on careers using science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Their mission is to get one million more women working within the STEM workforce in the UK, including aerospace engineering.

This combination of organisations promoting the roles – and role models – within aerospace engineering, and the Baby Boomer generation hitting retirement age, means opportunities for younger women to enter the field are rife.  

Although there is currently significant room for improvement, this drive for new talent – that will not only work for, but promote, the industry – signifies a bright future for women in aerospace engineering.