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Women and space: a gender gap issue

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Tempo di lettura: 6 mins

European women are currently underrepresented in the aerospace sector. In Italy, as reported by the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR), more than 1200 students graduated (bachelor or master degree) in aerospace or astronautical engineering in 2012 but only 15% of them were female students.

We had the great pleasure to speak about this gender gap with Simonetta Di Pippo, the new Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), as well as President and co-founder of the association for Women in Aerospace Europe (WIA-E). UNOOSA is responsible for promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. WIA-E is working to expand women’s opportunities and to increase their visibility and leadership in the aerospace sector. We also contacted Cristina Valente, Marketing Strategist at Telespazio and coordinator of the WIA-E local group in Rome, founded in 2013.


Simonetta Di Pippo, the merit has no gender, or rather should not have it. However, women are currently underrepresented in the aerospace sector. From this point of view, what role can the association Women in Aerospace Europe play? Your recent appointment as director of UNOOSA is certainly a good thing and it could represent a model for the girls who have to choose which faculty to attend after high school.

Indeed, merit should be independent from gender. That’s unfortunately not true, or at least, not yet. Women in Aerospace Europe has been founded in 2009 with two main goals: on the one hand, to support women to find their career paths in the aerospace sector; on the other hand, to advocate space activities in general as a driving sector for social and economic benefits. What we seek for is to reach a balanced representation of genders since we believe that, the aerospace professional environment being still dominated by males, we need the ignition of a virtuous mechanism to allow more women to be in the loop. My recent appointment as Director of UNOOSA shows that merit counts and this stands as a concrete result of extreme value for the youngest.

Another positive model is the ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who graduated from the Technical University of Munich, with a master's degree in mechanical engineering and a specialisation in aerospace propulsion. What are your expectations for the Futura mission?

In my previous capacity as Director of Human Spaceflight at the European Space Agency, I had the privilege and the honour to select her, together with other five young Europeans, to become an astronaut. In that case, ESA got 8413 applications, and about 13% were from women. At the very end, we got one woman out of six selected candidates. Still a lot to do!

The association for Women in Aerospace Europe, which you chaired and co-founded, was established in 2009. Currently, there are about 350 associates and 15 corporate members. In practical terms, how do you plan to increase the presence of qualified women in the aerospace industry at all levels?

When I was a young astrophysicist, and I just started my career, I was convinced that each and every individual has to get his or her own position in the professional environment on the basis of his or her skills, abilities, commitments, in other words, on the basis of his or her merit. In our real world this is not practically happening, mainly due to an unconscious discrimination between genders. Therefore, I got convinced that we need to establish a virtuous mechanism to allow this balance to occur and I also got convinced that, as a temporary measure, introducing quotas is the way to go. Women in Aerospace Europe is also mainly providing a platform for exchanges of views and experiences, and offers a high value network which happens to be of extreme usefulness when it comes to the need of solving issues in your own professional set-up and even more, it helps to develop new ideas and start new businesses and partnerships. I also have the dream to federate all this kind of associations in a World forum, through the creation of a big network of women in the aerospace sector. With my new role at the United Nations, I hope to bring this issue up at world-wide level, to help women in developing countries to build up their own capacity. It’s such a challenge, but I’m sure highly rewarding.

Is the situation in Italy similar to that of other European countries or are the Italian women further penalized? If yes, what are the main reasons for this evident “waste of talent”?

Italy is not a champion in gender balance, but also other European countries are not so good in this. It is for sure a waste of talents and exactly at the same time of the explosion of what is called “the war of talents”, which is more and more of an impact with emerging countries that are using all the tools they master to become leaders in innovation. To use a parallelism with a team sport, the habit of leaving half of the team in the locker rooms or, at best, on the bench, will not be rewarding, or at least, not anymore. We need a change in paradigm.

Cristina Valente, many WIA-E local groups were established in 2013, such as the units in Paris, Friedrichshafen, Darmstadt, London, and Rome. How important is it to have a constant local presence, with frequent meetings and training workshops?

The WIA Local Group aims to deepen the knowledge of members and creates a comfortable relationship to share information, achievements, knowledge, tips and much more. In addition, it becomes easier to meet frequently.

In particular, what are the main activities and services offered by the group of Rome? How many people are involved? The next meetings should be with Claudia Zesch (ESA) and Alessandra Farese (Telespazio).

Yes, I am very happy because the Rome Local Group has grown rapidly and is composed of several young women, professionals and experts in the sector of industry, research, universities and institutions. The next meetings are focused on two aspects: the first is to help you understand how to approach a job interview whilst the second is to listen to the experience of a woman who has made a nice career in a male dominated world like the technic-operating sector. We are working to deepen roads in order to support younger girls for training opportunities and courses.

Simonetta Di Pippo, what can the association Women in Aerospace Europe offer to a girl who decides to pursue a career in the aerospace industry? For instance, mentoring programmes, awards, grants, training workshops, local networking groups.

We offer indeed mentoring programs, awards and grants, training. We also offer a growing network, which has been often much underestimated in power in the past. To summarize, actions and goals of Women in Aerospace Europe can be described through a famous Latin motto, also at the roots of the European Union: In varietate concordia (United in diversity). Thus, building up a world forum is for me the next logical obvious step. United in diversity, when no difference will be noticed anymore between genders, and not only genders. That’s my goal, that’s my life, that’s my passion. And as Director of UNOOSA, I do hope to be able to give my imprinting to this process.

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