How to Succeed as a Woman in Aerospace

At the age of 15, Mikaela Shopa had a rare experience. She took a career aptitude test that was accurate. Some kind of high-school software algorithm determined that she should 1) become an aerospace engineer or 2) become a sanitation worker (essentially a garbage collector).  While both seemed like admirable careers, Mikaela found herself drawn into the complex and challenging field of aerospace.

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Early Days

Mikaela’s first day of university was intimidating for a few reasons. A professor decided to strike the fear of God into students by sharing the shockingly high statistic of students who drop out of engineering, followed by global warming predictions, and finally, the projected oil demand for the next twenty years. There’s nothing like imminent failure and global scale disaster to motivate a group of 18-year-olds. And that was just the start. In addition to 30+ hours of class a week, over the next four years Mikaela would spend her time cooped up with other engineering students (the vast majority of whom were male) working on gruelling projects that all sought to determine one thing: how do humans defy gravity?

When the Going Gets Tough

It takes a particular kind of woman to be successful in engineering, especially in aerospace, which is still a male dominated discipline. “Each project was harder than the one before,” says Mikaela, “And I was spending my time with pretty much all guys working out really difficult problems. It was challenging and fun, but could also be emotionally straining.” Like anything else, it was survival of the the fittest. Women in science are often subjected to unfounded doubt and belittlement based on notions about gender binaries. Rather than curse a dysfunctional system, Mikaela found that she needed more than just dedication and intelligence to get through. She needed to be a leader. “I find myself in leadership positions,” Mikaela reluctantly admits, “I’m the oldest of four and have three younger brothers so I naturally take the lead in engineering teams that are usually made up of men.” Many studies support that Mikaela is on-track to become a powerful leader in the high-stress, male dominated, engineering world of start-ups.

Beyond the Classroom

A driving force for Mikaela was getting her hands dirty. It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and learn the theoretical, mathematical, scientific side of engineering, but listening can’t beat doing. “It’s so cool to be at Solar Ship. I took a class that discussed Radio Frequency welding. Now I actually get to do it.” Because Mikaela knew what she wanted to do from the time she was 15, she was itching to get through the first three years of survey courses and overviews so she could get her hands on an aircraft: “I think the theoretical part is important. You need to know why you’re doing something, but the hands-on building aspect is incredible.” Her first co-op project was working on repairs and modifications for a former military aircraft. Not a typical job for a twenty-year-old girl. And she loved it.

What Aerospace Engineering Doesn’t Teach

Solar Ship presents Mikaela with a new kind of challenge. “There’s no precedent for this project so it brings trial and error to a different level. You have to use what you know and apply it to something that’s never been done. It’s terrifying, but so rewarding,” she says. The problem seems to be that Aerospace programs teach students the fastest way to build a fuel guzzling engine, but don’t teach them how to build sustainable transport. Why? Because sustainable aerospace is still in its infancy. Students can’t analyze and deconstruct how and why a solar powered plane works because projects like Solar Impulse are just starting to develop. “I didn’t learn about the transport capability gap until I started working Solar Ship. New transport isn’t a priority and it should be.” Mikaela joined the Solar Ship project to help bring about a new phase in aerospace.

Set the Stage

Solar Ship doesn’t get a lot of applications from female aerospace engineers. In fact, the ratio of female applicants to male applicants is about 1:40. Mikaela made it through four years of schooling surrounded by almost all men. Now, she’s fully immersed in a male dominated field. “Women can be successful in STEM and aerospace. They just need to be given the opportunity to succeed,” says Mikaela. More than that, women need to be willing to step-up, take the lead, and prove that gender biases are false. There aren’t as many success stories about women in aerospace as we’d like, but Mikaela subverts that expectation and is thriving in a setting that is usually reserved for men. She sets an example for any girl who is intimidated by STEM, and shows that meritocracy is real if you are intelligent, brave, determined, and willing to be a leader.

It is early on a Thursday morning. The CEO of Solar Ship knocks on the door of where Mikaela and her male teammates are working on a break-through design. The CEO introduces them to an important investor by saying, “This is the dream team. It is part of our future feminist movement. Women are taking over the world,” to which the investor says, “Mhmm. I’ll invest in that.”