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Enabling & Support

Empowering young women to reach for the stars

02/02/2017 2033 views 3 likes
ESA / Enabling & Support / Preparing for the Future / Space for Earth / Space for Sustainable Development

The European Space Agency (ESA) has a long-standing commitment to promote gender diversity and equal opportunities. Spurred on by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, and in particular SDG5, which aims at ensuring equal opportunities for all women and girls, ESA's goal is to attract more women to a career in science and technology.

At the occasion of the second International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which was held on 11 February 2017, it is a good time to look at the efforts ESA makes to promote a greater involvement of women in STEM and empower future generations of young women at all levels.

“ESA follows an equal opportunity policy, the main purpose of which is to improve the representation of female staff, particularly in engineering and scientific fields, and at management level. Gender equality is recognised as being a basic principle of democracy and respect for the individual, as well as an essential factor in a balanced professional environment,” says ESA Director General, Jan Woerner.

Reaching for the moon, shattering the glass ceiling?

Since Valentina Tereshkova’s pioneering flight in 1963, 59 women have flown to space, among which three European female astronauts: Helen Sharman, Claudie Haigneré and Samantha Cristoforetti. ESA's human spaceflight program is dedicated to the training of highly skilled astronauts, both male and female. The Agency recognizes the key importance of promoting female role models within the space sector. Astronauts, as well as female engineers and programmers are important figures that can inspire the next generation to pursue a career in STEM.

Meeting up with Claudie Haigneré, First Female French astronaut and Special Advisor of the ESA Director General

Claudie Haigneré has been happy to represent Europe throughout her career. For her, it was a unique opportunity to live in Russia for 10 years during her astronaut training and to encounter diversity in all different facets: gender, cultural and background. “Diversity has a lot to teach all of us and enhances the human adventure”.

Today, she notices that women are still hesitant to pursue an astronaut career. Her recommendation to every young woman: “Do not let others tell you what is possible and do not let others tell you what you can or cannot do. Explore your limits and try to surpass them. When one has the will, confidence and audacity, one can go forward”.

Explore your limits and try to surpass them.

Claudie Haigneré highlights the importance of having female role models in STEM. She also points to the importance of female engineers, coders, astronauts,… to connect and meet with the young generation. In this way, young women can understand the meaning of an engineering job, which is often not quite clear for young girls.

“Human spaceflight still represents the universal dream”. It is important that space continues to inspire and attract young people around the world. Claudie will participate in Nigeria in the DStv Eutelsat Star Awards “Creating Space for African Ideas”, which invites young people in Africa to write a novel on how space can be a future for them.

Her advice to young women: “Dare!” (In French: “Osez!”)

Projects at ESA


Encouraging the development of science education programmes around the world is at the heart of several ESA projects. To this end, the Agency is for instance dedicated to narrowing the digital divide, enabling satcom in remote areas and by this, contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Enhancing the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) around the world is a means to increase access to quality education for young girls, empower women, help them improve their lives and overcome socio-economic barriers by giving them access to new tools and new future perspectives. The SWAY4Edu2 project aims at equipping 12 schools with satcom systems in the rural area of Mpumalanga in South Africa. It assists both rural young women and men along with their teachers to be more techno savvy and become aware of the benefits that information and communication technologies bring with them.

In 2015, ESA teamed up with international photojournalism agency Sipa Press to launch the initiative Space girls, Space women, highlighting female figures in the space sector, from young women dreaming of a career in the space sector to women already established in the field.

ESA is also an active member of WIA, Women in Aerospace, a global network whose ambition it is to “expand women’s opportunities for leadership and increase their visibility in the aerospace sector”.

Meeting up with Magali Vaissiere, Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications

I joined ESA 11 years ago as the first woman Department Head in charge of a Technical Department, the so-called Telecoms Department at that time.

Two and a half years later I was selected as one of the first two female Directors appointed at the same time by the DG. Both of us were in charge each of a Programme Directorate. At the moment, I am the only female Director of ESA.

Since the start of my career in the early eighties, I have been used to being the single female in a group of male colleagues. It never made any difference to me and it never affected my wish to do my job to the best of my abilities and at the same time pro-actively look for or happily accept opportunities that are offered to me to learn and grow.

For me, the success of a female career requires

  • A strong engagement, high motivation and hard work
  • To be able to take some risks and in particular in terms of mobility (changing jobs, countries,..)
  • To be lucky enough, in particular, to have a supporting partner

One additional asset that a female must have is that she must be deeply convinced that she can access the same jobs as any male colleague. In that sense it may be important to have some role models to refer to; in my own case my mother was my role model. She was a professor of medicine, which at that time was as exceptional as it was for me 25 years later to become an engineer.

Women must be deeply convinced that they can access the same jobs as any male colleague.


Regarding the practical constraints that a mother with young kids may have, the Agency is offering good social support. In my old days, when working in industry, I did not benefit from any special measures at all and that did not stop me.

Today, Teleworking is a good and useful possibility to better cope with family constraints.

I wish to contribute to an increase in the number of female staff at ESA in technical roles, not necessarily by implementing a positive discrimination policy, which may be counter-productive, but by creating opportunities for females to make them better aware of what the space sector can offer to them. This year, for instance, I have launched a contest for female YGTs (Young Graduate Trainees) at ESA and it seems to be quite successful so that I am encouraged to develop it further and possibly propose other actions in the future.

I have participated in several promotional campaigns to show through concrete examples (my own career) that a woman can have a fantastic job with a lot of responsibility and still enjoy a full personal and family life.

The message I give in short is that it is of course possible to succeed in both your professional and personal life and it is very much worth trying to achieve it.

You will feel as happy and satisfied as I feel, living every day of my life with the positive excitement that my job gives me and the energy I find in the support, love and affection of my family and friends.

Educational activities

Students holding their CanSat at the 2016 CanSat launch campaign
Students holding their CanSat at the 2016 CanSat launch campaign

ESA's Education Programme, by exploiting the fascination for space and by using space as a learning, teaching and training context, is aiming at increasing the literacy of young women and men in STEM subjects and to motivate them to pursue a career in the space sector in particular.

At primary and secondary level, the Education Programme offers classroom resources and training sessions for teachers. Particularly, since 2006, in close collaboration with the national institutions in charge of formal education and managed by renowned experts and operators well integrated into the respective national education systems and networks, the European Space Education Resource Office project (ESERO) essentially offers training opportunities to thousands of teachers completed by the development, production, promotion and distribution of space-related resources tailored to the national curricula.

At university level, the ESA Academy provides students across Europe with complementary academic training in areas of ESA’s expertise and with unique hands-on opportunities to gain, within a space-working environment applying professional standards, significant practical experience during the full lifecycle of real and challenging space projects. As such, educational projects, like CubeSats for instance, are prime examples that show what can be achieved in support of Europe’s need to inspire, engage and prepare students to undertake scientific and technical careers and to eventually better face the job market.

The adoption of innovative teaching methodologies and programmes, which directly reflect the real-life scientific and technical processes applied within the space sector, provides an extremely exciting learning environment for both boys and girls.

In particular, at school level, the adopted enquiry-based learning approach favours the involvement of each individual pupil in a way that allows expression and participation by positively building on individual’s skills and differences as an element of richness.

In addition, the multidisciplinary nature of space offers a vast variety of subjects and topics in which every student – boy or girl - can find an entry angle while growing awareness of the complementarity of skills, competences and profiles needed to run any big scientific endeavour. The systematic use of role models, both male and female, also continuously sets positive life examples for young people and helps breaking the still existing gender-related career stereotypes.

Gender diversity at ESA

High profile attention has been given to diversity at ESA, not just gender but in the broader sense. This is a topic high on the agenda of ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner who wants concrete actions to be taken. Following the results of the ESA Staff Engagement Survey made in 2016, the topic of Diversity is being sponsored by two directors who will ensure the follow-up actions in the years to come. It is an excellent signal that these changes are driven by top management.

Already today the agency has a series of policies and actions to promote gender equity and equal opportunities. These include measures to reconcile work and family responsibilities and a pro-active policy towards the recruitment of women. ESA, as an equal opportunity employer, does pay specific attention to applications by women. In addition, the agency strives to increase participation of women in interview boards, in particular for managerial positions.

The percentage of female workforce at ESA has slightly increased over the last ten years and 40% of all recruited staff in 2015 were women. And although there are still few women in decision-making positions, ESA is actively trying to tip the balance by offering for instance to both their female and male employees the options of a part-time job, flexible work time and there are day-care services at some of its larger facilities. Additionally, the agency is planning to implement targets for women, in order to improve the representation of women at each level of hierarchy and organises specific learning and development opportunities for women, in particular in the context of future leadership.

Lastly, ESA is actively looking at what other organisations are doing for the betterment of equal opportunity and gender diversity in order to continuously improve its own measures and policies within the field.

Annalisa Donati
Annalisa Donati

Meetin up with Annalisa Donati, Young Graduate Trainee in the Industrial Policy division

One of the inspirational aspects of my past experiences was the chance to work closely with female mentors (Maria-Grazia Abete, ESA Strategy Department and Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of UNOOSA).

Both work within the space sector, with different backgrounds and also promoting different approaches. Also, it was really motivating to see how they managed to keep a good work–life balance despite busy agendas.

At first glance, space really looks like a men's sector but in reality it is not totally true. On a daily basis, I can see many women evolving in the field. However, in my opinion, what is really needed is more mentoring activities. These are really important, not only in international organisations but in big firms as well.

It is crucial for the young generation to see women in high-level positions and to comprehend their different paths and backgrounds. For me, mentoring activities can also make young women realise that, with the right determination, they can also reach leadership positions without affecting their private life. And this can also be achieved through more educational activities in that sense.

At the end of the day, it is important to have gender policies to make young women understand that space is also something for them.

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