By: Dr. Libby Osgood
I was going to be the first ballerina on the moon, or so I thought back in the early 1990’s around the age of 9. It didn’t matter that people had stopped traveling to the moon, or that I would be wearing a spacesuit, which would constrict my ability to jete and pirouette (leap and twirl, translating from proper ballet terms).
Sadly, the engineer in me now recognizes that the reason ballet (on earth) is beautiful is due to the hours of practice in our 9.81 m/s^2 gravitational environment. The moon has a lower gravitational field, so while my leaps on the lunar surface would be spectacularly large, it is more likely that I would overshoot the landing, tumble, and fall, and be a fantastically graceless spectacle. It would take a lot of practice in that zero oxygen environment, in a spacesuit, until I eventually produced an even slightly graceful maneuver.
While my inner child is still hoping NASA will call and beg to send me to the moon so this particular talent can be displayed, I am now content to shelve that dream and admire the bravado and ambition of my younger self. Those are the same qualities that helped me work in the rigorous, demanding satellite industry fifteen years later. I spent four intense years working on two satellites for NASA with General Dynamics and Orbital Sciences.
I am often asked what it was like to work in a field surrounded by so many men. The first few times I was asked this, it caught me off-guard because it was really only brief moments during my tenure when I recognized how few women there were on the team. What was more noticeable was that I was the youngest engineer, surrounded by so many accomplished and wise people. Looking back, I can identify some key moments where my gender was apparent.
My first major teleconference with the customer, left me blushing to a shade my coworkers described as purple. While sitting in a room of 20 engineers with as many engineers sitting on the other side of the phone, the lead systems engineer mentioned I was new to the team and I introduced myself. At the end of the very technical (somewhat mundane) teleconference, the line was open for questions.
Over the line, you could hear one person clear his throat and then said, “Hello, Elizabeth, my name is (Joe Smith). I just wanted to introduce myself”. There were 40 people on the telecom, Joe knew nothing about me, and yet I was singled out.
There was a pause of about 10 seconds as my face went through many colors of the rainbow, and then a burst of laughter erupted from the phone and around the room. A wonderful break in the tension, I later learned Joe was well known to be a bit creepy. I was teased about this for years to come, but it solidified me as part of the team.
My job as a young systems engineer was to collect the documentation that proved the satellite would work as promised. This entailed convincing the subsystem engineers, some of whom had 30 years of experience, to work on paperwork for me instead of the myriad of tasks they had on their to-do list. It was a fun challenge and I had to learn what motivated each person.
Some of the subsystem engineers responded well to kind requests, some to begging, some to sarcasm, and sadly for some, I may have resorted to giggling and flipping my long blonde hair. I am ashamed to say so, but in retrospect, that is what I did. I don’t remember making a conscious decision at the time, but for those particular engineers, it worked.
I got the documentation I needed, the satellite launched, and we moved on to the next project. My more feminist friends might be appalled that I propagated such a negative stereotype, but I never hid my intelligence. I worked long hours, proved myself in meetings, and approached each task, however mundane, as if it were the only one standing between us and launch.
In a comical twist of fate, the customer was in town on the day that I interviewed with the company. The engineers who normally dressed casually in slacks and polos, all wore suit and ties the day that I wandered through the company halls. When I was offered the job and moved to Arizona, I brought only my fanciest clothes, so that I could fit in with this surprisingly well-dressed office, and left my more casual wear behind.
On my very first day of my very first professional job, in the first five minutes, I realized my mistake. I was in a cute dress suit and heels, and everyone around me was in jeans or slacks. It sealed my fate and I became known as ‘that girl who wears suits’. More likely to be called a tomboy, this was a definite change for me, but I took it on, too proud to admit my folly.
A final story involves a pair of heels. You could call them my lucky heels, and they were hot pink. Not the kind of pink that was soft and pretty, but rather an aggressive, bright pink that you couldn’t help but see. The first time I wore them, I shyly hid them under long pants with the toe peeping out. Encouraged by how confident I felt when I wore them, the next time I was more assured and paired them with a skirt, showing off the whole shoe.
A few NASA engineers commented on them during the coffee break, and I continued to wear them for years to come, my confidence now as public as in my wardrobe choices. I was uniquely the girl that work pink heels, and I wore that badge proudly, knowing that my ability matched the boldness of my shoes. The heels eventually wore out and I chose to say goodbye to them in a poem on Facebook.
Through the magic of social media, I learned the shoes made an impression on one of the women that I worked with and gave her confidence in her abilities as well. My pink shoes not only helped me to be brave but encouraged others too.
Working in a male-dominated industry was great. If I had to be unique, either because of my age or gender, why not use that to my advantage? Since I was getting more attention than my counterparts, I wanted to be sure it was because my work was solid. In some ways, we all feel unique, or even alone.
If you ask someone if they feel different than their coworkers, they will likely say yes, either because of their particular research focus (if at a university), where they grew up, what university they attended, or even because of their sports team. I think we all feel (at least at some point) that we are different from everyone around us, and it’s absolutely true.
The irony is that it is our collective feeling of isolation and uniqueness that makes us similar and binds us together. I encourage you to embrace what makes you unique, and not shy away from it. If you are already getting noticed, use it to your advantage and show them the best things about you! It is by embracing our differences that we can share in our similarities.
I might still be a ballerina on the moon, and if so, I will probably be the only ballerina there.
Many thanks to Professor Libby Osgood, assistant professor at the University of PEI’s SSDE, for taking the time to be our first guest writer this semester. If you have any suggestions, send a quick e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org