Empowering all Women, in Space and on Earth

Spotlight: Dr Sarah Beardsley, Head of Space Engineering and Technology at RAL Space

RAL Space joined WIA-E as a gold corporate sponsor in December 2019 at our annual Appleton Space Conference.

This was the 15th of these events and I was struck by a notable difference, in 2004 all of our speakers were male, in 2019 our line-up was exactly 50:50. 

I’m not going to pretend that we don’t work hard to achieve this balance but it was a visible reminder of how far we have come in the past 15 years as an organisation and as an industry.

The division I lead at RAL Space is made up of mechanical, thermal and systems engineers, project managers and technicians. In the UK just 12% of engineers in a group like mine would be women (1). I’m proud to say that a massive 40% of my team are female.

This I believe is the result of the practices we have put at the heart of RAL Space and our parent organisation UK Research and Innovation. We offer family friendly policies including part time and flexible working, shared parental leave, onsite nurseries and other amenities. I have benefited from these policies myself and continue to support my staff to balance work and life while exploring their careers. 

Any organisation can have gender-friendly policies, but I believe those who embed them in their culture are the ones who are truly successful in improving the gender balance. I think this is what makes us so special – the people here really embrace the positive culture we have – we emphasise the person, value their skills and see the positives in what they can bring, no matter their background.

Our work promoting equality, diversity and inclusion is ongoing. Like many of you, the current situation with coronavirus is forcing us to work in different ways. That is something we have been good at, for example, part-time working for some roles wasn’t considered possible until we tried it – and now we see the positives. This, I believe, has helped our gender balance. Our recruitment team is actively thinking about how we structure, advertise and recruit for posts in order to maximise the audience they will appeal to. Our public engagement team work with schools and communities to promote science and engineering careers for all. And now 18 of us, including Prof Chris Mutlow our Director, are members of WIA-E. 

But ultimately I think it is because of the way we work – valuing everyone (not just those of a diverse background) that creates a diverse workforce. We use the words supportive, teamwork (real teamwork) and motivation – we genuinely try to work (and recruit) to our core values.

There are important reasons we invest in promoting diversity. There is a shortage of engineers in the UK and we want to secure the future of our workforce, but we also want to nurture talent and ideas now. Research has shown that diverse groups are more innovative and make better decisions (2). As a leader, this means that my team are positioned to tackle the range of complex challenges involved in getting a spacecraft into orbit.

At the Appleton Space Conference I not only valued the gender diversity amongst speakers but the diversity of voices – 15 years ago we would have only heard from the “leaders in their field”, today we listen to people at different points in their careers, bringing different perspectives and experiences. As an industry at the cutting-edge of innovation, it is only by listening to these voices that we will continue to thrive.

I am looking forward to learning from our new WIA-E community and continuing to champion my colleagues in the aerospace sector.

(1) https://www.engineeringuk.com/media/1691/gender-disparity-in-engineering.pdf

(2) https://www.forbes.com/sites/eriklarson/2017/09/21/new-research-diversity-inclusion-better-decision-making-at-work/https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter


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