Simonetta Di Pippo is considered as one of the leading worldwide experts in international cooperation in the aerospace sector. She served as Director of Human Spaceflight at the European Space Agency (ESA) from 2008 to 2011, and led the European Space Policy Observatory at the Italian Space Agency in Brussels until March 2014. Since June 2009, she has also been President and co-founder of the international association Women in Aerospace Europe. In March 2014, she took up duty as the new Director of the Office for Outer Space Affairs at the United Nations.
WIA US was created 30 years ago to increase the visibility of women in the aerospace community. How has female presence in this sector changed during the course of these three decades?
Women in Aerospace was indeed created about 30 years ago in the United States. Their presence in the US territory has led to an increase of female presence in the aerospace community. Even so, also in the US, women in top-level positions are still the exceptions, not the standard.
Why create an association such as WIA?
Very often I answer to this question showing an interesting picture taken at the Head of Space Agencies Summit in Washington D.C. in January 2014. 32 head of space agencies are depicted there. Guess how many of female gender: none! Any interpretation cannot go beyond the clear evidence that in the aerospace sector we experience the well-known glass ceiling. That’s a fact. In my personal case, I have to say that, even if I’ve been experiencing discrimination attitudes in my career, this didn’t prevent me from getting high level jobs up to my current position as Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. It was hard, but rewarding. So, in 2009 I started to think about the importance to help the new generation of women in aerospace. Claudia Kessler, CEO of HESpace, shared my approach and my values. A few months later we co-founded Women in Aerospace Europe, taking advantage of the expertise and experience gained by WIA in the US. You can find more info on our website, www.wia-europe.org. We recently reached 400 individual members and 15 corporate members, quite a good result for us. This is clear evidence that there really was a great need for it.
WIA Europe was launched in Le Bourget back in June 2009. What progress have you made during these last 5 years?
In 2014 we began a first evaluation of our achievements and of the areas on which WIA-Europe must focus its attention in the short-term to better perform, eventually. WIA-Europe has demonstrated its increasing maturity with several initiatives. As mentioned already, we have reached 400 individual members and 15 corporate members, substantially doubling the result obtained at the end of 2012. In addition to the Strategic Agreements already signed with WIA in US and with ISU, COSPAR and SGAC by the end of 2012, in line with our objectives and in order to support education of women in the aerospace sector, WIA-Europe has partnered with the LUISS School of Business and Management’s Aviation MBA Program. Moreover, in 2013 we also became a member of IAF. One of the 2013 key strategic guidelines which brought the most for WIA-Europe is the growth of Local Groups. In 2013, we launched Brussels, Paris and Rome, and in 2014 Toulouse, adding to existing groups in Bremen, Munich and Leiden. The number of members in these last three towns immediately increased, confirming that there is a direct link between the local presence of WIA-Europe and the interest of members in the activity of the Association.
The strategic plan has been structured flexibly, conceived as a rolling document, to be updated every year on the basis of experienced gained and demonstrated in the previous year. 2013 was the first year that the WIA-Europe strategic plan was finalized and approved by the General Assembly.
We, Women in Aerospace Europe, believe it is our duty to increase our presence and credibility in order to become more “incisive” in the European aerospace arena, and even more worldwide. The strategic plan will help us to fulfill such a goal, it identifies the opportunity for us to grow and contains a collection of challenges to which our association will decide how best to respond. We aim to show why we are the association to be part of…no matter what!
Which actions and programs aimed at empowering the presence of women in the aerospace sector are running?
In order to create a balanced representation of women at all levels of the aerospace community we believe we need to spread awareness and to create a network of men and women who recognize the issue and are willing to improve the status quo.
At WIA-Europe we have a wide number of different programs available to our members. Some programs are run Europe-wide. We have a grant scheme to send up to four talented students to international aerospace conferences for free every year. We have a mentoring program where members can coach each other based on their capabilities and skills, and an awards program where we honor one senior woman with a lifetime achievement award and a young professional each year. Networking is also a very important aspect of our association, and we organize get-togethers and panel discussions at major events such as the International Astronautical Conference, the IAF Spring Meeting, Le Bourget, etc.
We have also created local groups in the major aerospace cities in Europe. These groups meet on a monthly basis to give members more in-depth networking opportunities and also provide training seminars and workshops as well as professional visits and more leisurely activities.
What are the major challenges we face?
I feel that each and every individual considers his or her own challenges on the basis of his or her own experience and personal characteristics. Sometimes, what it is not at all a challenge for me, seems like an avoidable show stopper for others. My main challenge, which is also at the basis of the values on which WIA Europe has been created, is to avoid discrimination of any kind. My main challenge is to support a better society, with less if not any discrimination at all, where merit counts. This is the only way to cope with the economic crisis we are suffering all over the world: make use of the best talents we have, not leaving anyone behind with merit and therefore, who can contribute to the “future we want”. And to do so, we also need to understand that each and every one of us can make the difference. And that’s the reason I like to mention very often a famous Mahatma Gandhi sentence: be the change you want to see!
Within the aerospace industry, in what types of jobs do women still not have a significant presence, and in which are they active?
Let me answer with another example here. In 2008-2009, in my capacity as Director of Human Spaceflight at the European Space Agency, I supervised the European astronaut selection process. We started with 8413 valid applications, out of which only 13% were from women. At the end of the process, only one was selected out of the final 6 astronaut candidates. The percentage of women at the starting point was already low: we couldn’t expect anything better then. More generally speaking, in the aerospace sector in Europe, if we consider also the women employed that aren’t in the technical branches of industries, space agencies, institutions, universities and research centers, we barely reach 20%. At top level, the number is really ridiculous. Again, I don’t believe we need more proof to be convinced that there are serious issues for women to get on board and to move up during their careers. Facts speak for themselves.
From your point of view, do companies in the aerospace sector promote equal opportunities?
To my knowledge, the issue is well known in the main aerospace industries. Very often, equal opportunities committees and/or working groups are created with the aim of proposing solutions and actions. My experience tells me that we need a committed CEO to allow the company to move ahead in the direction of seeking a more balanced gender distribution in the employees’ population. A few companies have been supportive of WIA Europe by becoming corporate members and contributing therefore to the creation of a common basis at least for discussing the issue. This is thanks to the visionary approach of the top management of these companies and space agencies. The process is slow, but we are already seeing, after just five years of activity of WIA Europe, an improvement in the role of women in the aerospace sector.
WIA Europe has reached recently 400 members. What is your working system and how do you effectively coordinate the participation of the members?
All WIA-E Members can participate in all our activities anywhere in the world. WIA-Europe is organized on two levels, as mentioned above. Our Board of Directors manages the activities at European level and carries out the overall strategic plan of the association. Each local group also has a management team which takes care of the organization of all the local level activities. We have a members database which we use both to communicate with our members, but which can also be browsed by our members for them to see who is part of the overall network.
Last but not least, our presence on social media via our website (http://wia-europe.org), Facebook and LinkedIn enables us to communicate effectively about our activities and also to stay connected to a wider audience that shares our values and our beliefs.