Insight | International Women in Engineering Day 2020


International Women in Engineering Day 2020


Marking the awareness campaign, Inmarsat's Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch says the space industry’s diversity matters more than ever.

When I was an engineering student at the University of Kentucky, there were very few female students in my classes. This was the norm across the United States at that time.  Today, the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) reports that women still only account for less than 15%  of those who earn bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering, as well as aerospace engineering.

When I joined the U.S. federal government after graduation, other than administrative staff I was the only woman in my profession at my workplace. Yet I never considered myself as a minority or that what I was doing was part of a cause or a movement. I was simply pursuing my passion for science and innovation and applying my talents towards my profession. It was a refreshing change, however, when I joined Inmarsat in 2008 and found a much more balanced workforce in terms of gender and diversity. At that time, Inmarsat had roughly 500 employees representing 52 nationalities. Today, we have roughly 2000 employees representing 68 nationalities.

Today’s International Women in Engineering Day provides an opportune time to reflect upon the positive impact of diversity in our industry, and Inmarsat’s commitment to this important topic.

Research indicates that the topic of inclusion in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers remains as timely as ever.  While they account for nearly 47% of the U.S. labour force, women hold only 14% of engineering jobs and one quarter of computer-related occupations, according to findings from Pew Research Center. Only 38% of women who major in a computer-related field of study end up actually pursuing this as a career, compared to 53% percent of men. Similarly, less than one quarter of women who major in engineering end up in this profession, compared to 30% of men.  The numbers of these women who then go on to hold executive management positions in technical fields or C-level roles are even more stark.

I strongly feel that diversity is more than the “right thing to do” – it is good for business.  This apparently is not just my personal opinion, numerous research reports prove that organisations benefit themselves when they embrace diversity:

  • Nearly three out of five companies in the top quartile for racial/ethnic diversity financially outperform their national industry median, compared to 44% of organisations in the bottom quartile which do, according to findings from McKinsey. Fifty five percent of companies in the top quartile for gender diversity financially outperform their national industry median, compared to 45% of organisations in the bottom quartile which do.
  • Nearly one half of businesses in which leadership exhibits diversity values are likely to improve market share within a 12 month time frame, while only one third of organisations that do not exhibit these values accomplish this, according to research from the Center for Talent Innovation.
  • When their leaders are perceived as being inclusive, 81% of employees have improved their performance and productivity; 84% experience an increase in motivation; and 86% boost their innovation/creativity levels, according to a report from Shapiro Consulting and Opportunity Now.

At Inmarsat, we do not simply preach about the business value of diversity – we build our practices around it through our recruitment initiatives, community/academic outreach, mentorships and other programmes, including WIN – Women at Inmarsat. We “walk the talk”.  It cannot be overstated that one of our key competitive advantages is the quality of our people, our company value structure as well as our core principle of inclusion. Respect and diversity are universal principles that serve as the bedrock of our company culture. There is no question that, in order to maintain our global advantage and deliver the new levels of innovation and creativity demanded by the digital world, we must attract and recruit the best talent in the market.

Our CEO Rupert Pearce has said, “We don’t just want diversity – we need it. As digitalisation and globalisation continue to transform the world, every aspect of our lives becomes more connected.” Doing so enables us to benefit from a wide range of perspectives, including diversity of gender, ethnicity, disability, social background and any other form of diversity.

I believe our industry, led by Inmarsat, should initiate the following actions to capitalise on the value of diversity in the workplace:

Build a pipeline

We cannot live exclusively in the present in terms of how we are doing with diversity. We should always ask, “What does our future look like? How will we replace ourselves?” We have to constantly look to build a pipeline by reaching out to universities, secondary schools and even elementary schools to demonstrate to young people that the satellite industry is an exciting place to be – and that our doors are open to them. Then, we should clearly illustrate the path, to show them how to get there.

Increase the voices – not just numbers

Much of the conversations about diversity are focused on the numbers, or just statistics. Genuine efforts to build an inclusive industry culture should involve the encouragement of men and women of all backgrounds to articulate a meaningful, impactful voice within their companies.

It is human nature in business, after all, to “size up” a conference room when we walk in. Through our unintended biases, we may silently dismiss various voices in the room, or talk over them. But we have to overcome these instincts. We have to actively seek out pearls of wisdom from across all of the workforce if we are to derive its value in full.

Embrace the power of mentoring

Mentorships play a critical role in discovering and nurturing talent. And yet in order to be successful, it must be truly diverse. Whether the mentorship is horizontal, vertical or coming from a multitude of directions, we must aim to educate and assist those around us while engaging with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds.

Ultimately, I encourage each of us to answer this question every day: “Did I prevent someone from contributing to our organisation today, or did I enable them to succeed?”  Diversity is an individual responsibility and a professional obligation.

At Inmarsat, we dedicate ourselves to empower men and women from all walks of life to emerge as difference-makers.

About the author

Rebecca M. Cowen-Hirsch is Senior Vice President for Government Strategy and Policy for Inmarsat Government, based in Washington. Rebecca brings 25 years of defence, aerospace, and executive leadership experience to Inmarsat. As a decorated member of the Senior Executive Service (SES) in the U.S. Department of Defense, she served as the Program Executive Officer for SATCOM, Teleport and Services at the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and in several key SES executive positions including the first Vice Component Acquisition Executive for DISA, with executive management responsibility for the acquisition oversight and horizontal integration of DISA’s products, services, and programs. Rebecca established the Defense Spectrum Office, serving as its first Director where her responsibilities included the development of national security spectrum strategic plans and policy, and national and international negotiation of defense spectrum issues. Her broad defense career ranged from systems engineering, experimental flight test, program management, spectrum management, and a wide range of executive leadership positions. Rebecca was a rated experimental flight test engineer; was the first female civilian Mission Commander for the Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft (ARIA) mission; and was the recipient of an Exemplary Service Medal for her years of selfless service to the Department of Defense.