I recently stumbled upon the recording of a talk by Imma Martinez during the Satellite Applications Catapult Innovation Week 2020. Imma’s talk on human-centered design and what it means for our era made me remember a question from the audience during the Women in Aerospace Europe launch at Reinventing Space Conference 2021, “Where do you think the space industry would have been today if women had been involved in the decision-making process?”
Interesting question – to say the least. And a bit jolting when you realize that the answer is, “a lot further, both technically, politically, and creatively.”
From being the first-ever human calculators to pioneering some of the most cutting-edge science and engineering, ranging from astronomy to human-space programs, women have contributed heavily into the progress of the space industry. However, women, for various structural reasons, have been systematically excluded from the work force and their contributions erased from history.
Even today, not much has changed. Women make up a measly 20 percent of the space workforce while the numbers at board level are even more alarming. It is still considered non-essential to discuss equal opportunities in any workplace setting. Many times, after raising the topic of diversity or women in space, people’s reactions are always interesting, if not downright distressing. Comments range from, “We never discriminate” as if the very act of discussing a problem is a head-on attack, to, “I only recruit for skills as opposed to gender,” washing away in one anecdotal flippant remark the massive mountain of evidence which points to the opposite.
Diversity conversations are either seen (incorrectly) as positive discrimination or thought to be a non-essential exercise imposed on companies. Many take the path of least resistance by ticking the box to stay under the radar, sabotaging their own growth. Even without bringing morality and decency into the discussion, such short-sightedness is a financial and innovation disaster from a planning perspective.
Today, we have unprecedented threats looming over us — climate change, global warming, new viral mutations, lack of access to clean drinking water, lack of access to food to support the growing population, etc. We have a growing need to innovate in accelerated timelines to ensure the survival of our species. Be it using space data to gain better insights into renewable energy sources, monitoring soil and weather to augment agriculture, disaster monitoring to prevent and prepare for forest fires and global-warming related flooding, space weather monitoring to avoid damage to critical infrastructure such as power grids, or using optical comms to connect remote areas of the world with access to medicine and education — space as a critical infrastructure has a big role to play.
Inclusion and empowerment of women in the workforce is one small aspect of overall Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) challenges. Research has already established the symbiotic relationship of diversity (of thoughts, sexes, genders, (dis)abilities, races, economic classes, neurodiversity, etc.) and innovation. We know that our current problems need diverse skills and fresh perspectives to find sustainable solutions. Thus, it is imperative to build a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and empowered workforce to support this. The question of the hour is “How do we actually build this dream workforce of the future?”
As the chair of the New Voices in Space working group of Space Scotland which works to promote DEI in the Scottish space sector, I believe the solution lies in systems thinking.
Systems thinking as described by Peter Senge is “a discipline for seeing wholes rather than parts, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots, and for understanding the subtle interconnectedness that gives (living) systems their unique character.” It is a critical skill set to understand the emergent behavior of highly complex interconnected systems from the intrinsic interactions of subsystems (such as space missions) in order to predict them better and ultimately make sound decisions.
Space is one of the biggest industries which uses systems thinking routinely. In any space company, you will find systems engineers who are tasked with understanding, managing, and logging all system behaviors such as mass, power, and link budgets in order to come up with a strong set of technical requirements and an “inclusive” architecture for other teams to work off of. Any and all space project teams must have a systems engineer as their glue and most big decisions are passed by them for review in order to ensure correct design.
Interestingly, another field which is a big proponent of systems thinking is (intersectional) feminist theory! Systems thinking used as a powerful sociological tool helps us understand that the dialog around DEI is not just an isolated conversation but rather the very stepping stone toward a sustainable and stable future.
This includes understanding various aspects of our workforce such as inclusive and diverse recruitment practices, inclusive language on our websites, vulnerabilities in the intersection of race, sex, gender, finances, and social status that skew equal access to opportunities, microaggressions, disability-friendly design and architecture for workplaces, flexible working hours for people with caring responsibilities and non-judgmental but evidence-backed policies for change management to support all of the above.
It’s high time we understand and map exactly how generations of implicit and explicit bias combined with a lack of research into equitable practices has led, today, to the so-called “leaky pipeline,” through which women and other vulnerable demographics leave the workforce instead of advancing in their careers, which is a huge loss to the innovation landscape.
As mentioned previously, systems thinking is routinely used in the space industry since it is vital to the planning and execution of highly complex space programs with multiple moving parts. The space industry boasts of some of the most innovative minds in the world and stands to benefit by having a brilliant and diverse workforce.
It makes perfect sense to me for the space industry to be a beacon by extending a systems perspective to DEI. Maybe I am an idealist, but I think it is high time we ensured that our world benefits from our common unified, diversely firing neural networks. Together, I hope to walk towards a common empowered future which is equitable for everyone. VS
Sonali Mohapatra is the Space Applications lead at Craft Prospect and chair of the New Voices in Space working group of Space Scotland working to promote DEI in the U.K. space sector.