Week of Women Aerospace: Meet four of Cornwall’s key players in the industry

Week of Women Aerospace: Meet four of Cornwall’s key players in the industry 

To celebrate the Week of Women in Aerospace Europe, we spoke to four women in Cornwall’s rapidly growing Aerospace sector to get their perspective on the industry, how they entered the sector, what they see in their role day to day and what more they feel can be done to encourage inclusion and narrow the gender gap. Find out what Emily Brown, Production Engineer, DP Engineering; Olivia Opperman, Supply Chain Manager, Windracers; Heidi Thiemann, Project Manager, Cornwall Space & Aerospace Technology Training; and Gail Eastaugh, Director of AeroSpace Cornwall, had to say. 

How did you get started in the Aerospace/ Engineering sector? (What has been your career path so far?)

Emily: When I was younger my dad worked in the Navy (he now works for Leonardo), so all my life I’ve seen him work around helicopters, and on high profile, exciting projects. I knew that I wanted to work in engineering from then. So once I’d left secondary school I completed a 2 year Engineering BTEC at Camborne College. I then widened my knowledge and skill set within the Engineering sector and completed an FdSc in Engineering – again at Camborne College.

Heidi: Space has always been a big part of my life. One of my earliest memories was of watching the ’99 eclipse and feeling in awe as the day turned to night for just a few minutes. As I grew up, I decided to become an astronaut (it’s not a spoiler that I’m not one!) and researched how to become one. This led me to joining the RAF air cadets, attending Space School UK, and then heading off to the University of Leicester to study for a degree in Physics with Space Science and Technology. 

While I was a student I joined the national student space society, UKSEDS. This gave me great opportunities to get involved with the space sector and I soon found myself running SpaceCareers.uk, which is now the UK’s leading space careers advice website. After my degree, I was given the opportunity to do a PhD in astrophysics at The Open University in Milton Keynes, where I researched the variability of stars observed by the SuperWASP telescope and discovered some very exciting binary stars. 

During my PhD, I also finished my work at SpaceCareers.uk and started a company called the Space Skills Alliance with a friend and colleague. We spent time analysing data and writing reports in order to tackle the skills shortage in the space sector. After my PhD, I moved to Cornwall to project manage the Cornwall Space and Aerospace Technology Training programme at Truro and Penwith College and that’s where I am now!

Olivia: I studied Chemical Engineering at the University of Sheffield and loved my degree. I had been interested in engineering from a young age and as my father was a mechanical engineer, he encouraged me to pursue this interest. I graduated in 2020 and during lockdown, struggled to find a job and place for myself. The opportunity to work at Windracers fell into my lap and I couldn’t give up the chance to join such an exciting project. I didn’t know much about aerospace, but I have learnt very quickly and realised that the core engineering principles don’t change no matter the engineering discipline you are specialised in. Over the 16 months of employment, I have been involved in operations logistics and managing multiple UKRI projects at the same time – including helping write Windracers’ two successful Future Flight 3 bids for Government funding. I am thoroughly enjoying this role and have now developed a keen interest in expanding my career into project management and coordination.

Gail: When I was seventeen, Helen Sharman came to my school to open the new science block. As the first British astronaut in space her story was inspirational (it was an all-girls school) but importantly she presented becoming an astronaut as a perfectly normal job – something anyone could do. I didn’t realise until much later how important this was in breaking down any barriers that may have existed in career planning. I have been working towards a career in the sector ever since and am thrilled to find myself at the head of a rapidly expanding regional space cluster.

Do you find there is a gender gap in the Aerospace/ Engineering sector?

Emily: Yes, there is clearly a gender gap within the Engineering Sector. I think this is predominantly down to the fact that women/girls start to lose confidence in themselves as they grow. Aerospace/Engineering is viewed as a masculine career path and therefore people within it tend to underestimate girls’ abilities.

Heidi: Yes there is a gender gap in the space sector, and this is backed up by research we’ve done at the Space Skills Alliance, and from Women in Aerospace-Europe and the Institute of Physics. Women make up only about one third of the space sector and typically feel less welcomed and have experienced more discrimination than men in the sector. They also tend to be paid less on average! There’s still a long way to go to reach full gender parity.

Olivia: Yes, I believe there is. I am one of 3 women in Windracers which is a company of ≈25 employees.

Gail: On a personal level, there’s a really good gender balance within the team I work in and across the key influencers in our local space community. What I’m not satisfied with is that this isn’t the case across the board and there’s still some work to do. I think senior women in STEM need to take more responsibility for making their voices heard by the next generation and making themselves visible as role models.

How have you seen that change/ progress in the past few years?

Emily: I do think companies are doing more to promote females within the engineering sector. Inspiring girls from a young age about the creative aspects of engineering is key to attracting more women into the sector. I believe people are forever going to think of engineers as men, and therefore dissuade girls from studying subjects required for engineering careers. But this is definitely changing and I think that the sector in Cornwall is particularly focused on championing females in the industry – I was thrilled to win ‘Trainee of the year’ at the Cornwall Manufacturers Awards in 2019. 

Heidi: It’s not all bad news though, and thankfully there’s been significant improvements over the past few years. We now see that for those entering the space sector, there’s almost gender parity, with 40% of those people being women, so it looks like we’re on track to have a more equal sector. 

We’re also now seeing more women in visible leadership roles, like the fantastic Mel Thorpe of Spaceport Cornwall and Gail Eastaugh, head of the Cornwall Space Cluster, and more representation at conferences as organisers are more aware of the benefits of having a diverse range of speakers. Being able to see more women in prominent leadership roles is a really positive sign and gives me a lot of hope for the future.

Olivia: ​​Yes, I have seen a change. When I started my degree at Sheffield there were about 30% women on the Chemical Engineering Course but when I was graduating the incoming first year had about 45% women which is a significant improvement. I understand this is a slightly different engineering discipline but the gender gap within engineering is still there, however it is getting smaller.

Gail: There has definitely been change in the hiring of senior roles to create more balance within companies. It’s great to see key roles are being filled by women in Space Agencies but the profile of female technology developers and entrepreneurs needs to be raised to give this credibility – we can’t keep hearing from Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson without it influencing perceptions. 

What more do you think could be done?

Emily: I think females are automatically drawn away from pursuing a career within the Engineering sector early on during education – girls are just as capable as boys. Give girls more encouragement and educational opportunities within the Engineering sector. Increase awareness of higher education and career opportunities with women.

Heidi: To encourage more women to enter the sector, there’s lots of work to be done. Women have identified that they are more likely than men to have been influenced to join the space sector at school, so we need to make sure that gender stereotypes aren’t perpetrated at young ages in the classroom and by the adults in young people’s lives. 

 However, we also need to make the sector itself a welcoming and supportive place to work and doesn’t drive women away. We need to make sure that women are promoted to senior roles at the same rate as men and are paid equally, that companies provide good maternity and paternity leave and support return to work, and the working environment doesn’t allow for discrimination to occur. 

Olivia: More campaigns like this giving more information about engineering to women and showing young girls that there are role models for them to look up to and show them that they can achieve their goals. That if they want to do something, go for it, no one is going to stop you because you are a woman. I have seen more and more campaigns in schools/colleges to introduce girls to the industry and showing them how fun it can be. I also have enjoyed seeing how toy companies are producing dolls and other toys that are aimed at young girls that are more engineering tailored.

Gail: I believe one of the biggest challenges we face as women is also one of our biggest strengths – generations of evolution means that we empathise more naturally and are used to maintaining harmony in a group. This makes some (not all) women great at collaborating and building rapport, but it can mean that the voice of the individual is sometimes lost. Men compete more naturally and therefore the individual voice is more often heard. It makes sense to me to consciously use the best skillset you have in each situation – this means encouraging visibility of everyone’s strengths as often as possible, respecting diversity and inviting challenges.      

What piece of advice would you give to women/ girls looking to progress into a career in this industry?

Emily: After completing my FdSc Engineering I worked full time at a pub for 3 years. Although this was down to the lack of jobs available at the time, this was somewhat down to the lack of confidence I had knowing I was going into a predominately male based industry. Having been employed now by DP Engineering for just over 4 years, applying for jobs within the Engineering sector is the best thing I have ever done. It is initially very daunting however you soon realise that there is so much support around you. Engineering is an ever-changing field and that’s what makes it so exciting – There is always so much to learn. “Bite the bullet” and show them what us females can do!!

Heidi: Honestly, just go for it. There’s a huge range of opportunities to get involved in, from UKSEDS to Space Placements in Industry, and from ESA Academy to being an analogue astronaut. Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone and get involved in some of those opportunities – I can guarantee you’ll find it helpful and enjoyable. The space sector is exciting, constantly changing, and full of wonderful people who are excited to get more people into the space sector.

Olivia: Networking is key. Try and meet as many people as you can in the industry to build up a network, you can do this through events or reaching out online. This can then help you to get work experience and internships to establish what part of the engineering or aerospace industry you are interested in and would like to go into.  

Gail: Convey the enjoyment and enthusiasm you have for STEM or Tech to as many people as possible. I have two goddaughters who are mad about space – maybe they always would have been or maybe it’s the International Space Station puzzle I gave them when they were five or the Apollo 50 concert I took them to in 2019. Children respond brilliantly to people having fun and enjoying themselves and I don’t think as adults we’re any different. I think it’s great that some of the most successful people on the planet are tech ‘geeks’ who love what they do – what could be more inspiring?