Breaking down the gender gap in the aerospace industry

Over the last 60 years, humanity has accomplished incredible things through our exploration of space. But we have done so with one hand tied behind our back, because – whether by policy or by practice – many brilliant minds have been excluded from our communal efforts.

Thankfully, workplace discrimination laws and wide-spread, legal segregation are now confined to the annals of history, but those barriers have left a legacy that seems likely to take generations to erase. Sadly, workplaces of almost every sort are still not free of a troubling degree of discrimination for members of many under-represented minority groups – discrimination ranging from unconscious bias to outright workplace harassment.

Virgin Orbit, Brooke Owens Fellowship

But innovators all around the world are getting creative about ways to close the gender gap and other forms of underrepresentation and discrimination. One fresh new programme that’s making waves is the Brooke Owens Fellowship. Now entering its third year, this program gives extraordinary undergraduate women an incredible start to their careers in aviation or space.

Each year, around 40 of these women are selected – through an incredibly rigorous application process that selects not only for academic talent and practical experience, but also for a dedication to service – as Brooke Owens Fellows. Each Fellow earns a paid summer job at one of most sought-after, interesting, and purpose-driven companies in aviation or space exploration – including NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and, of course, all three of Virgin’s space companies: Virgin Orbit, Virgin Galactic, and The Spaceship Company.

On top of that, they get a one-on-one relationship with a hand-picked mentor – incredible leaders like astronauts, NASA Administrators, CEOs, and more. And what’s more, they get exposure to industry leaders, elected officials, and, of course, a cohort of similarly passionate and extraordinary women in aerospace.

Virgin Orbit, Brooke Owens Fellowship

The programme was created by three aerospace industry veterans – Lori Garver, the former Deputy Administrator of NASA and Cassie Lee, the Head of Space Programs at Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen's Vulcan Inc, and myself (Will Pomerantz, Vice President of Special Projects and the first employee at Virgin Orbit) – who have seen the demographics of the aerospace workforce firsthand, and who believe we can and must do better.

We all came together after the death of a mutual friend – Brooke Owens, for whom the programme is named. Brooke was a beloved aerospace professional who succumbed to breast cancer in 2016. Together, we sought to honour her legacy with a programme that, like her, was original, service oriented, and incredibly impactful.

We’re dedicated to breaking down the barriers that have created an enormous gender gap in the aerospace industry, one of which is particularly pronounced both in the engineering jobs that make up the core of the industry (less than 15 per cent female in the US) and in the ranks of executives (around 11 per cent).

Virgin Orbit, Brooke Owens Fellowship

We believe that talent, creativity, and quality of character are all traits that are blind to any individual's colour, gender, or other demographics. But we also know that human beings are not blind to those same things. Historically, our industry has not been equally welcoming to people of all backgrounds. Thankfully, times are changing, but still, culture can be slow to transform. Although we hope our society as a whole will move more in the direction of acceptance and proper valuation of diversity and inclusion, we are not content to simply wait.

Virgin Orbit, Brooke Owens Fellowship

The 67 alumnae of the program are already beginning to make a major impact on the industry. With many of them still in university, and the most experienced of them only a year or two into their aerospace careers, the “Brookies,” are already racking up the honours and becoming leaders within the business.

The programme itself has already won awards from aerospace organisations like the American Astronautical Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, and received glowing press from sites like Ars Technica, Quartz, GeekWire, and Cheddar—but if you ask us, the most important accolades are the honours, and particularly the full-time job offers, that go to the Fellows.

There’s now a bit of a competition between companies to see who can hire the most Brookies. I’m proud that Virgin Orbit is right up there near the top of the rankings, but honestly, I'm even more thrilled that inspiring companies like Blue Origin, Ball Aerospace, and Bryce Space and Technology may have even more than we do.

Virgin Orbit, Brooke Owens Fellowship

The programme is accepting applications now for its Class of 2019. Brooke Owens Fellows are employed not only in engineering jobs but also in positions in science, policy and regulation, business analysis, investment, education, journalism, and more.

All undergraduate women – studying any field, from any university in any country – are eligible to apply. Check out the application form, and get your applications in by November 6th!

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