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The Woman Who Conquered Rocket Science

by Weronika Pukrop

Rocket scientist, aerospace engineer and women’s advocate – meet the amazing Dr. Anita Sengupta, who talks about women in STEM, inequality and why we should care about environment

It is still not common for women to be part of rocket science and aerospace engineering. How did you get into those fields?

Right after graduating I got a job at Boeing as they came and interviewed at my school looking for young engineers to hire to work on the development of launch vehicles. From there I moved to a different Boeing facility to work on communications satellites. I was doing my graduate degree at the same time and my professor was with NASA. He asked me to come in and that’s how I started to work for NASA and then focused my PhD research on propulsion systems.

Where does your passion for aerospace come from?

I’ve always been a huge science fiction fan so I always knew since I was a little kid that I wanted to work on something related to the space program. For me it was more a choice of whether it was astronomy or astrophysics or aerospace engineering. Also, my father was a mechanical engineer, although he didn’t push that on me at all, if anything he pushed it on my brother. But at least I could see what being an engineer meant.

Do you think as a woman is it more difficult to get into you into this and succeed?

Much more difficult.

Why is that? It’s 2020…

So many reasons. There’s the general bias and also chauvinism and misogyny that exists in the workplace. You can see it in terms of pay differences, in difficulty in getting promotions, fewer women in leadership. And when you have fewer women in leadership, that means that you still don’t have an environment, which is supportive and friendly to women. For young people potentially coming into the field when they don’t see anyone that looks like them, whether that’s because you’re a woman to your part of underrepresented group, they feel intimidated and uncomfortable, there is no support network.

Do you think that it’s shifting now?

The problem is, that the percentages are still low. It’s around 15 percent and that’s what it was 20 years ago. I teach at University of California and the numbers there are also still low – only between 20 and 30 percent in the program that I teach in are female.  So in that sense it isn’t really changing. You have to look at the leadership structure, which is still primarily male. There are companies such as Lockheed Martin where the CEO is a woman. Also government entities have more diversity because they’re required to, which I think it’s great to have that. But generally speaking, that’s still not enough.

“It makes more sense to get degrees in the STEM fields, because you’ll just be a better functioning member of society as a result”

So, how to encourage women to become role models for the younger generation and to set an example? 

I think certainly in school ages there should be an emphasis on encouraging girls to take part in internships or join training clubs, to expose them to different career paths and show what it means to be an engineer. But I also think the education system in general has to make more effort to expose young people to different careers and options. And that should be done for everybody, not just for girls. Most jobs are shifting towards that anyway, so it makes more sense to get degrees in the STEM fields, because you’ll just be a better functioning member of society as a result. But I really do think it has to come from the education side.

You said that there’s bias, but does it just occur when it comes to getting into the field or is it also still affecting you?

I think it’s both. Part of it is that in any corporate structure, there’s an element of who you know who will want to help you move ahead. If you’re in an organization and you’re the part of underrepresented group, you don’t really have a mentor, you don’t have people actively helping you. You’ll have a harder time getting ahead because of that. That’s just the way office politics work.

Anything that individuals can do?

Certainly individuals like me should do mentoring and outreach. I think everybody can do that, make that part of their work life. Companies should also support their employees. If people, who are more experienced share their stories with younger people through outreach presentations and through active mentoring, all of a sudden there will be a whole slew of people that you didn’t have before, helping to educate the next generation. I think that’s really important.

Do you think that being in the United States is an advantage? USA is much more ahead of those topics than, for example, Germany.

It’s hard to compare just because I’ve not lived here. I’ve certainly worked with many colleagues from Europe and I’ve worked with lots of women as well as men. And actually the conferences I attend in Europe typically have a lot more female speakers than the ones in America. That’s why my perspective is very skewed, because I only attend these specific types of events, but I think that the education system in Europe is fantastic. All the engineers I’ve ever worked with have been amazing. I remember at my last job, which was with the Hyperloop technology company, we were taking a look at working with industrial suppliers here in Europe. One of my colleagues visited a research center in Spain and more than 50 percent of the team there were women. This is of course an anecdote, not a statistic, but having this conversation and making sure that young people are kept informed of their options and actively push towards these fields, is really beneficial for the society.

“I think the number one challenge we have as a society is climate change. Technology can actually help to reduce the things that are generating CO2 output”

You also focus a lot on environment. Can you tell me more about that and your approach?

I think the number one challenge we have as a society is climate change. There are many things that we as a species need to do to combat that and change the way that we live our lives and run our companies. There has to be a pretty big paradigm shift. The good news is that from a technology perspective, there are solutions to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation and energy production and agriculture.

How come?

Technology can actually help to reduce the things that are generating CO2 output. Even though I spent most of my career working for the space program, I started to realize I’m not doing enough to solve problems here at home. I wanted to shift my focus to take my engineering skills and my leadership skills and put them towards technology developments to solve the challenges of the carbon footprint of transportation. And I myself am a pilot, so I fly for fun and flying, obviously has a carbon footprint associated with it. For example, aviation currently uses jet fuel, which is a fossil fuel. It’s not a renewable. You have to electrify aircraft, which means instead of using fuel using battery power or fuel cells to produce the carbon footprint. That’s what my company is. And that’s what my new focus is.

“Being 100 percent renewable within the next 10 to 20 years is completely doable”

What can an individual do about climate change that doesn’t have the knowledge like you?

The good news is that we’re all consumers and our consumer choices allow us to drive change in the products that are made and how they are made. There’s almost every single thing that every person as an individual does that has an impact on solving the climate change problem. We are the source of it – therefore, we’re the solution. There’s so many things that are being done in the tech space as well as on the consumer side by what you purchase, which actually addresses that problem. I think the conversation, which, Greta has brought to the forefront from the group grassroots, from children on up is huge. Governments have to take responsibility from the top down to ensure there’s a regulatory framework to shift over energy production, for example, to be 100 percent renewables within the next 10 to 20 years, which I think is completely doable. It’s really just a choice as a government and as a species to do this, because it’s important and you always have to put purpose before profits.

 

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