March is Women’s History Month. This event, and a recent request from the officers of Women in Aerospace (WIA), prompts me to reflect on the status of women in our field. I find good news, bad news, and, in the end, a continuing need for WIA.
As a past president (2003) of WIA, I was asked, as the organization’s officers prepared for a planning exercise, to comment on what WIA is, has been, and could or should be. I offer some of my thoughts here as food for thought for others.
WIA was founded, 25 years ago, because the number of women then in aerospace was small enough to warrant a “support group” and large enough to generate an understanding that, individually and collectively, women could, and should, develop more clout in the field. WIA has been successful because its founders, officers, and members (men and women) believe in “woman power” and put it to work for the collective good.
Gender (as distinguished from sex) does make a difference. Given gender-based differences in socialization and opportunities, women develop particular ways of knowing and perspectives on the world. (Some men might call them biased — and they are, indeed, no more and no less than men’s ways of thinking are gender-biased.) WIA’s history shows that, especially in its first 10 years, our leadership and membership were, if not vocally then at least intuitively, “feminist,” advocating equal social, political, and other rights for women and men.
I hope that WIA continues to encourage and highlight the unique contributions that women can make to the aerospace field. WIA’s awards program is a positive contribution to this goal, and I hope that other aerospace groups consider working harder to solicit and consider nominations of women for their prestigious awards programs.
Over the past 10 years, WIA has made great progress in expanding its network globally. At the same time, it has become more corporate. The ranks of women in science continue to grow, and I would encourage WIA to expand its efforts to reach out to women in science, in the developed and in the developing world.
I hope that WIA will always focus on, first, lending a hand to newcomers in the field. It can be intimidating for a young woman to enter any male-dominated field — and, like it or not, the military-industrial complex is still predominantly a boys’ club (though not as solidly so as it was 30 years ago, thank goodness). Sadly, WIA’s premier networking event, its annual awards dinner, has followed the trend set by other aerospace industry groups by becoming too expensive for those who can’t “expense” the high cost (like this month’s see-and-be-seen “space prom,” the National Space Club’s annual Goddard dinner).
I have high hopes for women in aerospace, and for Women in Aerospace. I hope that WIA continues to fulfill its historic role of bridging boundaries, linking disparate groups, and giving women equal time with men to air their views on important issues in politics and policy. We’ve come a long way, but we still have far to go.