Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day at GDST – advice from leading women in the space industry

Today marks International Women in Engineering Day, honouring the best female minds in engineering and the wider STEM community.

At the Girl’s Day School Trust, we are proud of our track record in STEM. As part of our commitment to ensuring a science education without limits, this year we launched our Space Technology Diploma. This computer science qualification combines academic sessions with hands-on practical Python coding exercises. The diploma’s purpose is to help year 12 pupils learn the skills needed to consider Space Science further education and career opportunities.   

As part of our celebrations of International Women in Engineering Day 2022 we spoke to female luminaries involved in our Space Technology Diploma and leading figures in our wider alumnae network. Here are their thoughts on why it’s so important to give girls the skills to code, engineer and realise ambitions in the space industry.

Elizabeth Joyner is Community Coordinator, NASA Earth Data Science Systems.

Elizabeth sat on our inaugural panel for the Space Technology Diploma, advising pupils on their Python coding activities. Here’s her advice for aspiring female space sector programmers and scientists, and thoughts on why we need more diversity in the sector:

“At NASA Earth Science, we leverage space technologies to help us solve the wicked problems facing Earth. How? By turning those instruments towards our home instead.  To this end, many of the careers that will be central to our sustainability on this planet haven’t been invented yet. That is mind blowing to ponder! We must engage all populations of people in the design, observation, modelling, and sense-making of the complex systems of our Earth.

“It is important that girls (and those who identify as such) have role models to help reveal insights into a life that may be different from the ones of our family members or friends. These role models also make it possible to understand and navigate the unspoken rules of the STEM workforce, where women have been marginalised for way too many years. 

“Girls, anticipate that your role models will help you to do the following.  When no role model presents itself:

  1.   Seek out opportunities to get out of your comfort zone… that’s where you identify the strengths that you bring to the proverbial ‘table’.
  2.   No one is great at everything, so give yourself a break. We must work together to encourage the best from each other. 
  3.   Reframe the way you think about your limitations; envision them as opportunities for you to improve.
  4.   Actualize the power of the word ‘YET’.  I add this word to the end of any statement that describes how I feel when I am not satisfied with my understanding or skillset. This affirmation signals to myself and others that I am capable of being successful in anything I put my mind to, as is true with you, my sisters.” 

Kate Gunderson is Flight Test Engineer, National Test Pilot School

In her own words Kate “grew up with my gaze fixed towards the sky, dreaming about how I could be part of humankind’s journey to discovery. I scored my dream job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center directly out of college”.

After spending five years with NASA, Kate’s career has led her to her current role as Flight Test Engineer with the National Test Pilot School. Her blog and social media profiles promote her mission to inspire women in STEM. Her advice for women and girls looking to begin a career in the space industry emphasises

“The importance of connecting with a community that can provide contextual support (which I built with my social media platforms), the importance of finding advocates, and learning to speak up for yourself as well. In addition [there’s] the importance of building diverse teams in order to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges – which I think is what STEM professionals do every day!”

Susie Allen-Sierpinski is Flight Systems Engineer at NASA, and a GDST Alumna

Having forged a career in the space industry, Susie is keen to encourage more women and girls into this exciting sector;

“I was fortunate that I found my passion in aerospace early on, it still takes hard work to achieve but it is easier when you really enjoy and are passionate about what you do. There is nothing more rewarding to me than knowing that I am part of the team that sends people into space, enabling them to live and work safely in such a challenging environment.”

Nicola Jane Buttigieg is the Head of Computer Science at Sutton High School

Nicola is also the founder and teaching lead for the GDST Space Technology Programme. She’s passionate about creating a generation of space coding girls, because;

It is important to normalise the idea of women working in the space industry by seeking to place more women in space industry roles. Historically, many icons of the industry are male and there also appears to be to less of an approach by women to train in certain areas to take on careers and further education in the sector.”

Nicola designed the Space Technology Diploma specifically to help girls realise ambitions of a career in space. Some of the principles of the programme are to

“Make girls aware of all the possible space tech-related career roles available (along with the specific departments that these roles belong to), feeding their understanding and knowledge so they understand the responsibility that comes with the various technology related roles, particularly involving operational, design or analytical programming of critical systems. E.g, a system to monitor the health of an astronaut whilst on a spacewalk.”

Dr Alice Bunn OBE, another GDST Alumna, current Chief Executive Officer at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers

Dr Bunn was formerly International Director of the UK Space Agency. She offers this for those looking to push themselves into STEM education and careers. For International Women in Engineering Day, she offers this for those looking to push themselves into STEM education and careers;

“Don’t ever be afraid to stand out, it’s what makes you memorable, but make sure that memory’s a positive one and always be kind”.

To find out more about the GDST Space Technology Diploma, click here