It is not up for debate. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is committed to both sending at least one woman to the moon in 2024, and sustaining a crewed United States presence there. But the commercial space industry that NASA must rely on – now more than ever, to get back to the lunar surface and stay – has a workforce sustainability problem.
Bridenstine pulled no punches in July when he told a US congressional hearing about the imminent talent crunch facing NASA. “We have a bow wave of retirements coming … Half of our workforce is above 50 years old. That puts a tremendous challenge that we need to address on the table,” he said.
The US private space sector is facing the same wave. Industry reports suggest around 60 percent of the commercial space workforce is over the age of 50 and nearing retirement.
Failure to address the talent shortage could compromise US space competitiveness now and in the future. That is why a growing number of space experts and executives say there is an urgent need to recruit more women engineers, scientists, mechanists and non-STEM space-related professionals – and create a work culture designed to keep them.
As long as women are underrepresented in critical operational and engineering roles, the industry will be hard-pressed to meet its talent needs.
Maths and misogyny
The demand for commercial space services – launch, satellite, fuel, mining, manufacturing, communications, habitation, tourism, and more – is expected to triple, possibly quadruple, from today’s level of $350bn to more than $1 trillion by 2040, according to Morgan Stanley.
“The industry’s trajectory is driving a growing need for talent throughout the value chain. Space companies and high-tech firms are fighting for the same workforce skilled in software, hardware, data science, engineering, artificial intelligence and manufacturing,” according to a Boston Consulting Group report – How Women Can Help Close the Talent Gap in Aerospace and Defense – published in June.
“As long as women are underrepresented in critical operational and engineering roles, the industry will be hard-pressed to meet its talent needs,” the report warned.
Data on the number of women entering, staying in, or leaving the US space industry is uneven, and some metrics are not tracked at all. The one definitive report, commissioned by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), suggests that the percentage of women who leave US aerospace – taking their talent, experience and institutional knowledge with them – could be as high as 70 percent by the second decade of their careers, despite the lure of six-figure salaries.
That attrition rate came as a shock to many – including women who advocate on behalf of other women and the space industry.
Charity Weeden, vice president for global space policy at satellite services and space debris removal technology firm Astroscale, mentors women pursuing careers in space. She told Al Jazeera that her first reaction to the finding was one of disbelief.
“I was trying to process [it],” she said.
While women have earned roughly one-fifth of all engineering degrees in the US, Weeden says she found that only about 10 to 15 percent of aerospace engineering graduates are women. And that is despite a starting salary of $100,000 at the low end.
“When I went to school 20 years ago, it was 10 percent. Nothing has really changed,” she said. “After all of this time, why haven’t things changed? Twenty years is long enough to make a difference and change perspectives.”
If you think of a brilliant engineer, people first think of a tall white guy.
Why women are leaving aerospace careers
Aerospace behemoths like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and others have all instituted programmes to promote and support women in the workplace. Women do hold C-suite positions in US aerospace companies, but their female employees are still looking for the exit.
In 2016, SWE published a report it commissioned from the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California that surveyed both women and men engineers. The findings were telling.
“First of all, if you think of a brilliant engineer, people first think of a tall white guy,” Joan Williams, the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law told Al Jazeera. “Because women don’t fit the automatic image of what a brilliant aerospace engineer is, they may find that while men are judged on their potential, they’re not. They actually have to show they have the goods. They might find their successes are written off or attributed to luck, whereas men’s are attributed to skill. And women’s mistakes are often noticed more and remembered longer.”
Motherhood triggers very strong biases, Williams found, calling it “a kind of prove-it-again bias squared”.
Some 45 percent of women responding to the survey said that their commitment to work, their competence and their commitment to their children were negatively judged with effects on their professional careers. And more than half of the women surveyed felt that asking for family leave or flexible work arrangements would hurt their careers.
Williams also found that some women put off pregnancy, or decided not to have children altogether for fear of how that would affect their work environment.
“Women are walking from aerospace because all of these forms of gender bias,” Williams said. “We couldn’t even get male engineers to fill out the survey.”
Despite gathering more than 3,000 completed surveys, the report’s authors found that few respondents were men. Even after purchasing an email contact list of 5,000 male engineers, only one percent of men contacted through the purchased list completed the survey.
“We had many, many comments from men, who said things like, ‘women get all the breaks now; women get all the promotions, and all the raises; it’s hard to be a white man in engineering’ and this is so counterfactual,” Williams said, adding there is “open backlash.”
Preparing the pipeline for Mars
Commercial space organisations do give lip service or even an occasional early morning conference stage to aerospace workforce diversity.
But Executive Director of the Society of Satellite Professionals International (SSPI) Robert Bell says concrete action must be taken.
“This is a very male-dominated industry,” he told Al Jazeera. “That’s a long-term change that we need to make. And what will happen is that companies, as they compete more aggressively for female employees, they’ll begin to change how they deal with them internally.”
Bell says a change has to be deeper than setting recruitment goals.
“We haven’t thought through changing how we operate inside to keep them … Everyone knows this is something that they need to work on, but nobody works on it fast enough,” he added.
A report commissioned by SSPI found that among both male and female employees with one to five years of service in a company, 67 percent left.
But even that study did not look at the rates of female employee attrition. Bell said that will change in the coming reports produced for his organisation’s members.
“The whole effort here is to explore beyond Low Earth Orbit, sustainably,” said Weeden. “We’re already there. Now let’s take that a step further, to Mars. That’s where you need a massive level of talent. Don’t tell me there’s no pipeline preparing women. You are just not trying, because there is a huge mass of talent. It just doesn’t look like you.”