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Why more women in aerospace is good for everyone

By Baz Bardoe - posted Thursday, 28 December 2017


In 1959 in England Delia Derbyshire graduated with a BA in mathematics and music. She had been accepted by both Oxford and Cambridge and had won a scholarship at the latter. She used this to explore mathematical theories of electricity, before focusing on music. She was by her own admission "quite a clever girl". Shortly after she graduated she approached a record company called "Decca" with the intention of becoming what we would now call a "sound engineer", that is someone who records and mixes music. Decca advised her that they did not employ women in recording studios. Luckily she found a home at the fledgling BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which had been instigated by another pioneering woman called Daphne Oram.

What Derbyshire went on to achieve changed music and culture forever.

She is possibly best remembered for her futuristic treatment of the Dr Who theme, but her output was prodigious and she was well known to many artists who went on to become very famous such as Pink Floyd and The Beatles. In an age before digital and multi track recording became standard, Derbyshire pushed existing technology to the limits, famously filling the hallways with vast reams of recording tape which she edited by physically cutting and splicing the tape. Each sound and each note had to be edited individually, and it required a very precise mathematical mind to achieve the desired result. Derbyshire was a genius and a visionary whose influence on modern culture is almost incalculable. An entire generation was drawn to the science fiction concepts of Dr Who embodied in its stunningly futuristic theme music. But if the Decca mindset had been shared by the BBC her boundary pushing genius would never have had an outlet.

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In Aerospace it is a given that we must be innovative. Looking at the totality of human history there is no precedent for what has been achieved in Aerospace in the last century. In 1914 military aviation in Australia began with the flight of the Bristol Boxkite which as the name implies was a very large powered kite that could do little more than rise a few hundred metres from the ground. Today we are seeing the introduction of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, which may as well be from another planet in terms of the difference in technology. What lies ahead may be every bit as stunning. We have some big challenges.

We need sustainable fuels that reduce the pollution foot print. New materials beckon. Speed, capabilities, carrying capacities and many other elements urge us to innovate. And once again the dream of space beckons and as experience has shown the advances made in the name of reaching out into the Cosmos flow onto almost all areas of everyday life. In the Aerospace industry we are justifiably proud of how innovative approaches have positively impacted upon the human experience. Next time you go on holiday overseas think about how safe, convenient and comfortable it is to travel at hundreds of kilometres an hour. But with what lies ahead we will never be all we can be unless we welcome the new generation of Delia Derbyshire's into our industry.

At the recent Women in Aviation and Aerospace summit in Melbourne there was a record attendance by men. There has been great progress in the industry and increasingly a shift in consciousness away from seeing the participation of women as a special case, to a realisation that what makes the industry friendly to women, makes it better for everyone. This was a point underscored by Kristen Raby, Operations Manager of Nova Systems. Raby is a former Canadian Air Force test flight engineer with some impressive 'firsts' to her name. She is also a humble person who stresses the need to lead by example and engage with your workforce in a genuine fashion – sound advice for anyone. At Nova Systems a lot of work has been done to create an award winning workplace, with high retention rates. People want to work there, and a big part of this has been making it gender inclusive.

"When looking to tackle this important issue, Nova Systems initially focused on Women in Nova, but over time we broadened the discussion around Diversity and Inclusion to include all of our employees", says Raby. "We realised that rather than saying 'good for women' it was more about creating an environment that was 'good for everyone'. Promoting policies and practices that embrace the behaviours we want across our entire team creates a stronger culture within a more inclusive company. Nova Systems consistently features in the top 25 Best Places to Work in Australia, coming #11 in 2016 and 2017 for organisations with over 100 employees". And it is not only a great place to work, it is growing fast which further underscores Raby's point that everyone wins.

Female colleagues of mine are concerned that the next generation of women may not realise the sacrifices that have been made to date starting with the Suffragettes who risked their lives to gain the vote for women, and the more recent past where women were blocked from careers in Aerospace such as pilots and engineers. I think we need to make sure we educate the current, and future, generations so they can appreciate what has been achieved, and contextualise it. There has been good progress in many ways, but we need to retain the momentum. As a parent of two girls and a boy, I am also concerned that girls are being sexualised at increasingly young ages. This commodification of young women is harmful to developing the self esteem and confidence to pursue careers in our industry, let alone being able to lead a life that reaches its fullest potential. It also sends a negative message to young males. We need to emphasise that girls can be valued for their intellect, creativity and leadership attributes, and that boys benefit from this as well. Treating people more fairly in general creates a better workplace culture and an environment where innovation and lateralism can thrive.

The role of men in developing a more inclusive approach is vital, and through forums like the summit we are being involved in a process where everybody wins. "I wasn't expecting many men to attend the summit", said Flight Lieutenant Rashmin Gunaratne from the Defence Aviation Safety Authority. "I was also expecting (and was prepared to receive) a one sided discussion against men. On both accounts I was pleased to say that I was wrong. It was quite interesting to hear what some of the leading companies and organisations have been implementing. There were a number of good ideas which I believe a lot of the participants were able to take back to their organisations. I also believe it's important for more men to attend these summits as successful change requires all parties involved to commit to that change."

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As an innovative industry Aerospace has become used to being recognised for technological benefits that flow on to many other areas of society. As a progressive industry we are doing some good work with creating new models of workplaces that are more inclusive. We are seeing that the sorts of things that make our industry better for women make it better for everyone. Concepts such as flexible working arrangements build a better work/life balance for everyone. Different ways of thinking are allowing us to approach and solve complex problems more effectively. For example Feminist Standpoint Theory provided a trigger for me to look at a particular problem from a perspective that was more holistic. This in turn led to a different approach that was more effective. Innovation comes from being challenged in our thinking. I have seen vast change when people are empowered to take a step back and look at things differently. We must be open to this and draw upon the widest range of talent and intellect in order to remain innovative and competitive. And creating an open and friendly workplace that feels welcoming to everyone makes for a more pleasant place to work. Our industry can provide an example that everyone benefits from.

When "quite a clever girl" turns up we need to think about Delia Derbyshire, and what we stand to lose if we are not providing an environment she can thrive in.

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About the Author

Baz Bardoe is a military aviation public affairs specialist. He is currently completing post graduate research in emerging trends in communications, social organisation and "information warfare". he is a widely published aviation, defence and technology writer.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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