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Women in Satellite: The Trailblazers

By | April 21, 2014

      SATELLITE 2014 was just a couple of months ago but it served as another reminder that men are far more predominant in the industry than women. Michel de Rosen, Eutelsat’s CEO, even hinted on the “Big Four” panel that the industry would benefit from having more women working in it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t strong, brilliant women effecting important changes throughout the business. We sit down with key female leaders in satellite to hear their take on the industry.


      Just in the United States, women currently hold 47 percent of all professional occupations, according to the Department of Labor’s 2013 Population Survey. Of the 3.9 million people working in computer and mathematical occupations, women represent 26 percent; and of the 2.8 million people working in architecture and engineering occupations, women are just 14.1 percent of that total. Of course, these numbers are much more encouraging than they were 25 years ago but, in terms of gender diversity in the technology business, there’s still a long way to go.

      The satellite industry is no exception. As Janet Nickloy, VP of strategy and business development for national programs at Harris Corporation and chairwoman of the Hosted Payload Alliance, puts it, “When you walk into a conference setting or an industry forum, you look around and you see a sea of 50-something year old men wearing dark suits.” While intimidating, this hasn’t stopped women such as herself to pursue successful careers in the satellite industry.

      The Origins

      In the early ‘80s, when Susan Miller, president and CEO at Inmarsat Government, received her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, she was one of only seven women in a graduating class of more than 1,000 students. For Nickloy, almost a decade later, it was a bit better; she was part of the 10 percent of women when graduating as a mechanical engineer.

      “I think at this particular point in time there are certain segments of the industry that have more men than women simply because at the time that the industry started — we’re going back 25 and 30 years now and coming forward 30 years — the people that were in the engineering and design programs were heavily weighted toward male population as opposed to female. So the people that were educated and trained in that time period were men,” says Peg Grayson, president of MTN government.

      Point in case, leaders such as Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General; Mary Cotton, CEO of iDirect; and herself didn’t start in highly technical career paths but rather business, finance and accounting respectively.

      “If I had one regret, it would be that I did not get an engineering degree,” Sears says. However, this didn’t stop any of these women from becoming strong voices in their companies, taking them to where they are today.

      “You can learn a lot about the technology in the satellite industry as a non-engineer. You may not be able to go deep into how everything works, but you do learn to grasp the basics,” Sears adds. “I really did spend time learning and I had great bosses and mentors; I had really good engineers as friends who would spend the time explaining how things work.”

      This was also the experience for Grayson who started in the finance department at Honeywell. From a finance standpoint, she made sure she was able to understand every part of the company’s process. “I knew nothing about what these major projects were until I sat down with the people that had the responsibility of performing and delivering on time and on budget,” she says. “I would wonder the floor and talk to the people … I asked them what they were dealing with and they’d explain each part.”

      While women are more encouraged (or not discouraged) to pursue technical degrees nowadays, there are still some stereotypes around these career paths. Miller talks about the socialization aspect; “there’s a lot more human interaction, a lot more ‘fun’ going on in sales and business development,” she says. “Men and women alike don’t have that much time for a social life if they’re going through to get these kinds of heavy technical degrees,” she adds. Finally, Miller adds that, while she thinks this is changing, there’s still a “nerd” stigma associated with technical fields.


      Sticking with Satellite

      So, what about satellite made these women stay in the industry? For Cotton, it’s the energy and the creativity behind making technology that has true tangible benefits, she says. “You can see the things you’re doing in technology really have an impact on markets, on people; it’s just one of those things, it’s a very, very, innovative, exciting type of very fast-moving environment,” she says. “There’s not a problem that can’t be solved, there’s not a market that can’t be tapped and I think that attracts a group of people that makes the environment very exciting.”

      Sears also talks about being able to see the impact her work has in the world and adds that the customers really made her work exciting. Sears started working for the U.S. Department of Commerce auditing major weather satellite programs. Later, she moved to the commercial side of the business when she joined Comsat where she realized the excitement around communications satellites. For her, it was about the customers.

      “A lot of the Fortune 500 companies were using communications satellites to move their data around. … the 500 channel universe was just getting started so you had lots of new channel providers that wanted to use satellite to distribute their programming,” she says. “HBO, MTV, those were all brand new channels back at the time so it was a pretty exciting business to be in … I would say it was definitely the customers that made the communications satellite business really dynamic.” Grayson adds people to this mix. What made her passionate about this industry was working with people who love their jobs. “It’s almost infectious when you deal with people who love space and love satellites and the capabilities that they bring to what has always been a terrestrial environment,” she says.


      The Challenges

      While it’s all very exciting and dynamic, it’s not always easy being a woman in a male-dominated business. Getting things right in the early years in terms of education is absolutely key.

      “We still have some issues keeping girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields,” Sears says. “It has to do with having to be in a class where 70 percent of the students are male and you’re in the 30 percent, feeling a little bit intimidated.” She says more mentoring and promotion programs are still needed.

      But there are still more challenges ahead for women after entering the business. “In the earlier years I think it was more difficult because the expectations I believe were different at that time,” says Grayson. “Women weren’t encouraged to be leaders, nor encouraged to step out of a defined role.” Fortunately, this is changing and is not that common to find nowadays. However, Nickloy says there’s still room for improvement and that the best way to change things is through mentorship and stronger STEM programs.

      “I think we need to look at the entire process from young girls all the way through the more experienced engineering ranks, but certainly in the schools today we need to reach out to girls and let them know that there are exciting careers where they can still be creative, they can still develop as a woman in a technical field and not lose their identity,” she says. “I think we are making gradual progress but certainly not the level that we need to. As women enter the field of engineering they need to have mentors, they need to have people they can reach out to that will continue to nurture and encourage them and make sure that they’re given opportunities to grow and to really develop to their full potential.”

      Sears agrees, “It takes women mentoring other women, it takes women mentoring male bosses to understand how to manage women and it takes women role models; I think we really all have to do our part,” she says.

      Cotton, however, goes a step further. She doesn’t believe there are any particular challenges for women coming into the business nowadays. “If I were talking to you 30 years ago, my answer would be different,” she says. “I don’t think you really see any more challenges than you would if you were a guy. You’ve got to do your job, you’ve got to do the work, you’ve got to build the relationships, you’ve got to do all the things that are going to make you successful.”

      The only problem Cotton sees for women is coming into the industry believing they’re at a disadvantage because of their gender. “If you end up believing that there’s a reason why you can’t succeed, that’s not a real reason,” she adds. “I’ve seen a lot of women over the years that really have been impeded more because they felt like they needed to be better than everyone.”

      Sometimes, there are real challenges too big and tougher to overcome. As the world becomes more and more globalized and borders blur in terms of commerce and trade, cultural differences are sometimes hard to beat.

      “Even in some of the other very developed countries, women have not entered the workforce in these fields at a pace even close to what they have in the United States,” says Sears. “That’s another challenge for women; to be taken seriously in an international environment.” It helps to understand the culture to its last detail in order to be accepted and respected, she says, but it might take more time as opposed to what a man experiences. In some other cases, as unfair as it may sound, “the answer might be, that you can’t send a woman into that environment,” Sears adds.


      The Advantages

      It’s not all a struggle, though. There are some benefits of being a woman in a male-dominate industry; sometimes being different is a good thing.

      “I think the advantages of being a woman in a technology industry like the satellite industry is that we can combine our skills into a powerful and differentiated style that is often more desirable, especially as a manager and a leader,” says Sears. “Women can be tough but they can also be very compassionate. … They can be highly technical but they can also be very creative and compromising.” For Miller, being a woman provides “a lot of basic thrills,” she says. “You get to be a pioneer, especially 20 years ago when I was just starting in this field and in many ways you get to be a role model.”

      There’s also the fact that just being physically different makes women stand out in the industry. “People tend to remember me because I don’t look like the others and frankly I think that that’s an advantage,” Nickloy says.

      Cotton agrees but points out that it can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. “You have to be very conscious of your points and how you’re expressing yourself,” she says.


      Key Lessons

      Navigating through all of this in the a fast-paced and dynamic business that is satellite has yielded important learning that women in the industry are happy to pass down to the new generation of female leaders.

      Since technology changes so rapidly, Grayson’s first advice is to always stay current. “In just a very short period of time you can fall behind,” she says. “In just a very short period of time you can fall behind,” she says. “You have to keep reading and talking and you need to make an effort to stay on the forefront of what’s new, what people are developing, what’s exciting so that you can determine how you can be part of it; not only in the current stage of its development but also with what’s coming.” To do this, Nickloy says, you have to be flexible about new talent and new technologies, but also not being afraid to make mistakes. “If you fall down every once in a while, pop back up, don’t stop, keep going, don’t be afraid of failure, lean forward and have fun,” she says.

      In Miller’s experience, she has found that “in engineering it’s not whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s how good you are … can you design this piece of hardware and will it work?” she says. Staying current and being open minded about new talent and new technologies are all part of it. “It’s a meritocracy and if you can do a good job, you’re going to succeed, you’re going to get recognized, you’re going to progress,” Miller added.

      But there’s always going to be that person along the road that will try to deter you, Grayson says. So, her other advice for women in technology is to walk away from these people and keep pushing to achieve her goals, letting her work speak for itself. “You’re never going to win everybody over but as I said before, if you know what you’re doing and you deliver results, then you will succeed,” she said.

      Adding to this, Miller says having self-confidence is also key to success. “You really have to not worry about it if you’re the only woman in the room, it’s going to happen, but just go for it, if you have confidence you’re going to be a trailblazer,” she says.

      Being confident is also key for Sears, who says women have to be bold and ask for what they want. “Don’t wait for it to be offered to you,” she added.


      The Future

      Fortunately things are changing and the future looks bright for the next generation of female leaders in satellite and technology. Not only due to the work of many foundations, schools and industry organizations, but also due to the direction our society is headed toward.

      “Everyone is growing up with so much technology around them now, it’s really commonplace and it’s developing a real coolness factor that it didn’t use to have,” Miller says. “You didn’t really used to know what was going on in a computer and you didn’t care because the interface was not that exciting but now it’s iPhones and Google and Facebook; it’s everywhere. … My sense is that not just boys but girls too and young women are fully exposed or just inundated with this kind of technology and they take notice.” Cotton agrees. “I think I’m just seeing that the interest in participating in technology has changed a lot over the past years and I’m seeing a lot more women coming up to the ranks.”

      As technology steers away from old stereotypes, Miller says we are going to see more young women entering the satellite industry. It will just take a while, Cotton says. “It just takes a little bit of time from the time you get out of college to the time you start seeing people in leadership positions,” she adds.

      “I really do believe that more opportunities exist now and will exist in the future than there were 30 years ago,” Grayson says. VS


      Female Leaders Comment on the Future of the Satellite Industry

      The promise of High Throughput Satellites (HTS) continues to be key in the discussion around the future of the satellite industry. The world craves mobile broadband at high speeds and satellite is eager to rise up to the challenge. “HTS architecture is really perfect for supporting the growing demand that we’re seeing for broadband mobile communications,” Miller says. This new demand, Cotton says, is driving more and more innovation in terms of applications for satellite. “We’re at the point where there’s going to be a lot more business for all the companies that are providing either satellite bandwidth or ground segment. It’s an exciting time to be part of this industry,” she says. As applications expand, satellite will become even more present in the life of the average citizen, Sears says. “If you think about the word satellite and you go back maybe 10 years ago, it wasn’t a household word. Yeah, maybe people knew what a satellite was but they really didn’t understand much about it,” she adds. Now, whether it’s home Internet access or television, or mobile applications, people are much more aware of satellites and their capabilities. “The generations that are moving into their 20s and 30s now, where everything is mobile, everything is hand-held, have the immediate need for information and so the future of the satellite industry is a key component of delivering that future,” Sears says. There is no doubt that satellite will continue to play an important role not only in people’s lives but also in government markets. As the world continues to become more complex and government budgets continue to have constraints, Miller says satellite will also continue to have an expanded playing field ahead of itself in this market. “The satellite industry is, for me, after decades of being involved, amazing because it keeps going places, it keeps reinventing itself; it’s the technology that keeps rolling out and pushing the limits,” she says.


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