Companies that Ignore Diversity Will Lose Out, Leading Women in Space Say

Karina Perez Molina has not always felt represented in the space industry. At space conferences in the past, she sees herself more in the service staff than in the keynotes and experts on stage.

Perez Molina, who is a co-founder of the Zed Factor Fellowship, which encourages students from underrepresented backgrounds in aerospace careers, appeared on the main stage at the SATELLITE 2021 conference on Sept. 9. She spoke alongside a group of women taking a hard look at the state of diversity in the space industry, and how it needs to move forward.

“I'm really excited to be here because I didn't feel as represented in our industry as I would have liked to. Usually when attending these types of conferences, I see myself when I see the service staff, but never really around the conference, or on the actual stage,” she said. “For me, it's very important to open those doors and see more people like our fellows eventually sitting on stage.”

Debra Facktor, head of U.S. Space Systems for Airbus Defence and Space, put the situation in blunt terms — diversity is good for business.

“Research shows that diverse teams, diverse companies, those who have women and minority representation on their board, C-suite and through the leadership teams perform better. It's just a fact — their stock price is higher and their returns are better,” Facktor said. “This points to the collaboration and innovation that comes out of bringing new voices and perspectives to problem solving.”

Yet as anyone who looked around the SATELLITE 2021 conference could tell, the space industry has a ways to go. There aren’t many reports on the issue from the space industry, but a 2020 survey of aerospace and defense manufacturers by Aviation Week found that the number of women in aerospace and defense is around 24 percent, and only about 6 percent of respondent’s workers identified as Black and less than 8 percent as Hispanic/Latino.

Josephine Millward, head of research for venture capital firm Seraphim Capital, said she sees the disparity among entrepreneurs. She said she has been surprised by how few female entrepreneurs she has met, especially when working in Europe.

“I think it has a lot to do with the investor community. It's very male-dominated and people tend to back people who look and sound like them. We all have biases that we're not really aware of,” Millward said.

Giselle Stewart, senior manager of Diversity and Inclusion for Boeing, pointed to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 as a watershed moment for the company. Stewart said that Boeing leadership reflected and shifted the trajectory from talking to action. At the same time, the board of directors began to push for and expect progress in equity and diversity.

“That's probably where I saw the biggest paradigm shift,” Stewart said. “We've been saying it for years, and have a commitment all over our company website. It was a difference in transparency that increased a shift in our strategy.”

This year, in line with that transparency, Boeing released its first-ever Global Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Report. The report found that overall, about 24 percent of Boeing employees are women, and 31 percent are racial and ethnic minorities. The report included company goals including increasing the Black representation rate among its U.S. workforce by 20 percent and achieving parity in retention rates of all groups.

Stewart shared a practical habit that Boeing is encouraging called “seek, speak, and listen.” It encourages employees to seek out different opinions on a problem, encourage others to speak, and truly listen to what is being said.

It might seem basic, she said, but “there are things we tend to do on a daily basis that we ignore. Just thinking about those three habits has really shifted how teams collaborate and engage,” Stewart said.

Facktor of Airbus said that earlier in her career, when she was the only woman in the meeting, an idea she shared was ignored, and then brought up a few minutes later and claimed by a man. A customer in the meeting stood up for her and said: “Deborah brought that up a couple of minutes ago. I’m glad you agree, let’s take it forward.”

“When you sit at the table, you have a voice. Include others. If you see that happen where somebody's idea is picked up, then you [can speak up],” Facktor said. “You exhibit the behavior of what you want to happen for others. A simple takeaway is how we can all have that behavior and what difference that makes in changing our conversations.”

Companies that don’t take diversity and inclusion into account are going to lose out — on employee talent, investments, and supply chain security, the panelists all agreed.

Stewart tied diversity into the current trend that is being called “the Great Resignation.” Companies that don’t focus on diversity will be limited in their ability to attract top talent, she said.

“People have options and opportunities to pursue companies wherever they want to be,” Stewart said. “Thinking about the generation that we're attracting, they care about a company's commitment to diversity and inclusion. If your company doesn't express that commitment or reflect that in its representation, it’s going to be hard to be the innovative, disruptive company that we all want to be.” VS

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