Sexism in aerospace


Women have smaller brains on average. Therefore they should only stay at home and take care of children and the household.

Sounds outdated, doesn’t it? Studies have proved that the size of the brain cannot be directly linked to IQ. But there was a time, not so long ago, where this fact was used – mostly by men – to justify sexual discrimination.

Luckily today we know better. Women are as smart as men, and they are capable of not just work, but also heavy work, and highly intellectual work. Indeed three black, female mathematicians were an essential part of the 1960s NASA space program.

So women should be ok these days. No more sexual discrimination. We are allowed to work, to vote, to be a star of a multimillion dollar superhero movie.

Why then are still just a few women able to find roles in the aerospace industry sector? That was the online poll question that was put to readers of Aircraft Interiors International magazine a few weeks ago: “Why do you think there is still such a small proportion of female engineers in aviation?”

59% of voters were convinced that the imbalance is due to biological reasons. Women are just inherently just not interested in airplanes, or technical work in general, as men. Perhaps they’d rather do something something more social or creative: fashion maybe.

I however, as a female engineer working in the aerospace industry, clicked on another option: ‘Because of sexual discrimination’, and apparently only 13% of voters agreed with me.

Despite the graphs I believe that actually the 13% were right, not the 59%. Mostly males work in the aerospace sector, and therefore mostly men receive the newsletter and vote on the poll. And if mostly men voted, they would say they have greater interest in the sector than females.

And this is the answer to why such a smaller proportion of women are working in the aerospace sector! Because as a female engineer you first have to prove yourself, because men don’t believe in females’ capacity and technical talent. Because it is hard for women to be taken seriously.

Male candidates being chosen over female candidates for roles is just one side of sexual discrimination. But it starts before then with the surprised look we always get when we introduce ourselves as engineers: “Oh, that’s rare!”, people say.

And then of course there are the regular jokes and comments: would we rather have our tools in pink?, or how much better we’d look, if we just smiled more. Most of these men are not trying to be offensive. But just as a side-note, if you ever have the urge to make a joke about your female co-worker, just remember that she has most likely heard that joke before. Actually, she has definitely heard it before. All of the jokes. So just drop it.

This blog is not about getting revenge on every guy who ever made an inappropriate joke to me or about me. This is about trying to make males in aerospace look at women from a different angle. We just want to be seen as your co-worker, your employee, your supervisor – not as “the woman”. Don’t judge female colleagues because of their gender: judge them based on skills (and of course same of course applies for skin color, religion, sexual orientation, etc).

And not to start a whole discussion about gender equality and gender-based education, but I believe if we raised our girls with greater access to building toys like Lego Technic, they will grow more interest in engineering. You can’t give your sons Lego and your daughters Barbie and then wonder why more men choose a technical career. Interest is, to a huge extent, formed by how we are brought up.

So, as a suggestion, next time you change the wheel on your bike, or do some maintenance on your car, or build a treehouse, ask your daughters, granddaughters, nieces to help you. They will find their passion (or maybe not – and that’s ok) and they might become an aerospace engineer. And why wouldn’t women also be interested in one of the most sophisticated and astonishing engineering products in the world: the airplane.

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