Portraits of women (8/8) : Simonetta di Pippo

Simonetta di Pippo is Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs

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1. What are the specificities of your career as a woman at the United Nations? What particular difficulties have you encountered as a woman?

In the United Nations, where I currently serve as the Director of the Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the situation is very dynamic. The importance of gender parity and empowerment of women is recognized on a global level and we have an organization-wide effort to improve the position and representation of women. Unfortunately, while most entities are within only ten percentage points of parity, women remain starkly underrepresented in some of the most visible and critical categories: leadership and senior management, and in the field, particularly in conflict-affected settings. In fact, a negative correlation exists between the representation of women and seniority – as grade levels increase, the proportion of women decreases, indicating there are barriers hindering the career advancement of women within the UN. I, myself, still often end up being one of few women, occasionally even the only one, sitting at high-level meetings, or speaking at important panels or discussions. However, clearly, the organization recognizes that additional work is needed, and we are all collectively trying to make that final step happen.

In the past, the situation was quite different. Especially in the early stages of my education and career, there were instances when I personally felt the impacts of gender inequality. At the beginning of my master’s degree studies in Astrophysics and Space Physics, 50% of the 300 students in the class were women; however, by the time we reached the stage of our thesis defence, this number dropped to just 10%. Unfortunately, in STEM fields in general, and space sector in particular, lack of women became a recurrent theme and the situation has been changing only very slowly to this day.

Luckily for me, my curiosity and desire to discover kept me in the STEM fields and I would like to say from my own experience that the obstacles one might face can be overcome by having clear ideas about your goals and being fully committed to achieving them. And I am now, through different activities in the UN but also outside, trying to leverage on my experience from the past, both positive and negative, to empower and bring more women and young girls to education and careers, especially in STEM and space. Throughout the years, I have never considered these obstacles to be an unsurpassable barrier but perceived them more as opportunities to grow and strengthen my abilities. This drove me to become the first woman ever to take up duty as Director at the European Space Agency in 2008 for example, and I’m still in the records for having been, until now, the only woman in any space agency in the world the Director of Human Spaceflight.

What is needed is a set of skills, namely dedication, determination, commitment, passion, sense of duty, and very personal satisfaction in being able to do the right things and do them well!

2. How can we promote women’s access to positions of responsibility? What have you carried out to achieve this within your organization?

Before elaborating how more women can be brought to positions in which they wield decision-making power and authority to influence businesses, organizations and the society as such, it is necessary to underline why this is extremely important. Empowerment of women and girls is, first and foremost, ethical and social responsibility and equality between men and women is one of the fundamental human rights enshrined in the UN Charter, the core document of the organization signed already in 1945.

We are now seeing a much stronger focus and recognition of the need to ensure full and effective participation and equal opportunities for women in education, employment and leadership, and political and social life. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which the world’s leaders pledged for a better world for everyone, everywhere, lists gender equality as a standalone issue – one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 5. Women empowerment is and will continue to be the precondition for the successful achievement of the SDGs. In economic terms, recent research by McKinsey Global Institute found that, if women participated in the economy identically to men, this would add up to $28 trillion, or 26%, to annual global GDP in 2025 compared to current trends. Unfortunately, according to the World Economic Forum, reaching economic gender parity may take over 200 years under the current pace.

Today, women are still underrepresented in many of the key sectors, including public policy and STEM, which are the two sectors most closely related to my area of work. When women miss out on opportunities, or when their contributions are not fully realized, we are not making full use of their talent, potential, ideas, and perspectives which greatly impedes progress in dealing with global challenges of humanity. The gender gap tends to grow as you look higher up on the hierarchical pyramid.

Leadership positions and roles with a high degree of responsibility are too often perceived as male-dominated and the statistics only underline these issues. Women represent less than one-fourth of the world’s politicians, a mere 5% of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs, and in STEM, we only have 28 percent of female researchers. In the space sector, the situation is even worse, with women constituting only around 20 percent of the global space workforce, or historically, only 11 percent of astronauts.

It is shocking for me as a professional, but even more so as a woman, that we are still not taking full advantage of the talent, skills, and ingenuity of half of the world’s population in positions which are so crucial for society. Advancing women’s involvement and leadership in the space sector and encouraging young women and girls to study STEM has always been a personal and professional goal of mine and in UNOOSA, we assign the utmost importance to gender equality. The Space for Women Project developed and coordinated by the Office aims at strengthening awareness, capacity, and skills of individuals and institutions with an emphasis on the importance of promoting gender equality and parity in the space sector.

Four concrete actions will constitute the basis for the project. Firstly, to create sound and effective policies, and to promote dialogue between a variety of stakeholders, the Project aims to organize international conferences with representatives from governments, private sector, academia, civil society and public figures to share ideas and opinions on how we can best address the under-representation of women in STEM and act together.

Additionally, as part of the capacity-building efforts, we intend to facilitate activities in developing nations and provide advice, expertise, knowledge, and data to relevant institutions all over the world to improve access and use of space technology to motivate, educate, and train women and girls in their societies.

Lack of female role models has been proven to be of the major deterrents for young girls and women to opt for STEM education and career. In order to attract broader audiences and boost the appeal of STEM, the project aims to establish a Space for Women Champions Network. The Champions Network will focus on advocacy and awareness raising, to provide role models and mentors to inspire, guide, encourage and support women and girls in pursuing STEM education and careers in the space sector.

Finally, to extend networking opportunities to audiences worldwide, we are developing a Space for Women platform as a central hub for global initiatives under the UN roof. Here, women and girls will be able to talk to one another, share and exchange information about studying and working in the space sector and in STEM fields. These strategies are designed to reduce barriers and increase the participation of women and girls in STEM education and space sector careers so that there are no limits to what they can achieve. Through the Space for Women Project, UNOOSA will help give women equal access to the tools, resources, and support they need to succeed in the space sector and to reach leadership positions in the field.

Moreover, as part of the UN Secretariat, our strategies are aligned with the UN System-Wide Action Plan (UN-SWAP) on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and UNOOSA also contributed to the development of UNOV/UNODC gender equality strategy which focuses on achieving gender parity in leadership and senior management positions in the Vienna International Center. I have also taken part in the International Gender Champions initiative, launched in 2015 in Geneva as a leadership network that brings together female and male decision-makers to break down gender barriers. The initiative already brings together over 230 active Champions to introduce real change in the way we work and programmes we deliver.

3. What are the issues involved in combining personal and professional life in your organization? How can a better balance be encouraged at this point?

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance in the busy environment like the UN, and in many senior positions overall, can be challenging and in my case, it is no exception. Busy travel schedule and longer days in the Office are part of the routine, however, seeing the results of extra effort is always very fulfilling. For me personally, I can say that as much as the time at the UN can be tiresome and demanding, that inherent positive feeling of helping people around the world is rewarding and I enjoy every second of it.

Enabling a work environment that is inclusive, diverse and that prioritizes a healthy work-life balance is indeed crucial in keeping employees driven, dedicated and able to deliver their work in high quality. Recognizing and accommodating the needs of the workforce can reduce stress while increasing productivity, which benefits employees themselves as well as the organization. In the effort to ensure that such an environment is available to an increasing number of employees, the Space for Women Project encourages industry leaders and decision-makers to create an enabling environment in the workplace through family-friendly policies, flexible work arrangements and standards of conduct to spur a cultural change in space-related organizations.

Balancing out work and life is always a two-way process. While the organization and its leadership should recognize and work towards a well-balanced environment through formal processes and effective adaptation to new employment trends, it is also individuals who play a key role in this. Each person uses different methods at work and brings in their own work ethics or daily routine which allows them to elaborate their own work schedule to match their preferences. Also, it is the staff who shall be vocal about their needs and concerns and communicate them clearly to their supervisors. Training employees to handle pressure, tight deadlines and at times an excessive amount of work through prioritizing, delegating and diligent planning should be the prerogative of all managers and senior leaders using their own experience to serve as role models. Only if both sides are able to effectively communicate with each other, you can find sustainable solutions.

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4. How do you see the evolution of the place of women in your scientific field?

Over the years, women have made valuable contributions to success in space exploration, even in times of great inequality. At the turn of the 19th and 20th century, a group of talented women was hired as skilled workers by the Harvard Observatory to process astronomical data. The group, famously referred to as “Harvard Computers” were female pioneers in the field of astronomy and their work led to the establishment of a stellar classification system that is still in use today. In the 1920s, Cecilia Payne put forth her PhD thesis on the composition of stars – a fundamental topic of astrophysics still not well understood. While the results of her work were not accepted immediately, later recognition brought a revolution to the understanding of the stellar structure.

In the 1940s and following decades, a remarkable group of women, working at what would become NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, were breaking down their own gender but also racial barriers, as several African American women were also hired. It was the precise calculations made by the hands of these women that helped humanity launch rockets, send Voyager spacecrafts beyond the solar system and land on the Moon. A more recent example includes an American computer scientist who helped the Event Horizon Telescope team to capture the first image of a black hole. Throughout history, we have also seen famous female astronauts, including the first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova, to help humanity break boundaries in space.

The insignificant change of women’s participation in the space sector in the past few decades may suggest that we have every reason to be sceptical about the improvement of the situation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the need to recognize and encourage the participation of women, including in the space and in STEM fields, is more significant now than ever before and in fact, we are seeing efforts to address this already. For example, Claudia Kessler, a leading woman in the space sector with whom I co-founded the organization Women in Aerospace Europe, is now leading “Astronautin”, a non-profit organization aiming to fly the first German woman into space by 2020 and to inspire girls.

Space has always represented a field of “tomorrow”, source of dreams and inspiration, driving new inventions, technologies and scientific discoveries. The future of jobs is indeed a future full of STEM. Estimates show that around 90 percent of new employment opportunities in the next years and decades will require, in one way or another, STEM-related knowledge and skills. There shall be no barriers as for the participation of girls and women neither in this nor any other field if we are to achieve a just society and ensure that everyone has equal access to opportunities, now and in the future.

The international space community needs an additional collective effort to push further for gender equality in space, and I am certain that together, we will succeed in bringing more women and girls into STEM fields in general, and space in particular. We also need more female role models, and I like to mention here the historical encounter on board the International Space Station between Peggy Whitson, ISS Commander, and Pamela Melroy, Shuttle Commander, in 2007. Will we see a woman as the first astronaut back to the Moon? We do hope so!

5. What would you suggest to improve the position of women in international organizations?

As gender inequality has no place in the modern world, international organizations, especially the United Nations, have been particularly scrutinized. The goal of gender parity at all levels at the UN is a commitment that is reflective of the core values of the organization.

The UN Secretary-General’s system-wide strategy on gender parity adopted in 2017 elaborates a number of concrete measures that must be encouraged and implemented to address this issue head-on. The consistent application of special measures to achieve parity in recruitment, retention, progression, and talent management is a critical step. These measures include requiring hiring managers to recommend 50% women and 50% male candidates for selection for all types of job openings at all levels including senior appointments, wherever possible. Also, we must address unconscious bias in recruitment through specific training for hiring managers and by having gender balanced assessment panels.

In the space domain, we will, as part of the Space for Women project, deliver dedicated career mentoring to young girls and women to attract them to the sector and improve their prospects to reach leadership positions in organizations that have such a significant impact on the society. The importance of mentors and role models working in the industry to coach, sponsor, and inspire women through their personal experiences constitutes an integral part of what the whole project is about. A network of role models, of women in STEM and space, may also help to reduce the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect, where girls and women self-select out of STEM subjects or space sector careers. The Space for Women platform, already mentioned above, will also include a mentoring network where young experts, as well as space champions, are invited to support and mentor colleagues in the Space Sector.

6. The United Nations has launched the "gender champions" initiative, whose representatives have committed not to participate in exclusively male panels. Have you ever refused to attend a panel composed exclusively of men, or been the only woman on a panel?

In the space arena, the issue of all-male panels can prove to be very tricky. When an event ends up with a male-only panel, it could be the result of insufficient thinking about exploring options on how to ensure female participation. Occasionally, the reason can be even more worrisome as when it comes to certain leadership panels, such as a panel of the Heads of Space Agencies it is, unfortunately, a fact that there are simply not enough women in these positions and therefore I use these panels as an opportunity to raise awareness on the importance to break the glass ceiling and to advance more women in leadership positions.

In the selection process of the speakers for any panel, one should aim for the most qualified representation, and I believe that only rarely, there could be constraints to finding both women and men that have a unique insight on a given topic. As an International Gender Champion, there is a responsibility, which I have already exercised several times, to have a conversation with organizers about panel composition. Bringing the issue to the forefront and asking for a change may remind organizers, the audience and other panellists to be mindful of gender empowerment and its importance until it eventually becomes the norm.

UNOOSA includes a gender perspective in all its capacity-building activities, including by seeking equal participation of women in the panels, workshops, training, and education opportunities it organizes on space activities.

Without giving equal opportunity to women to voice their opinions and specific concerns, any discussion or capacity-building effort is incomplete. In order to achieve the 2030 Agenda, it is critical that we capitalize on the unique perspectives and skills that women offer and ensure that women are both benefitting from but also contributing to capacity-building efforts that involve or affect women.

As I frequently say to the audiences around the world when discussing gender equality, space technologies and applications are crucial for the existence of humankind in the 21st century as they provide us with means to communicate, navigate, manage disasters, predict the weather, monitor climate change and much more. It is an important resource for all of us; men and women.

We have a great challenge ahead of us but at the same time great opportunity to shape one of the most influential fields, and ultimately, shape the whole society for a better, just, and sustainable future for all of humanity.

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Dernière modification : 29/07/2019

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