Heather Rarick knew from an early age that space was in her future. As a young girl growing up in Mt. Lebanon, PA, she watched television footage of rocketships blasting to the moon and was hooked. “Those images meant a lot to me,” she says. A natural math whiz, she pursued a degree in aerospace engineering at Penn State University.
There were about 100 students in the major, and only 10 of them were women. She says:
“I never gave it a thought whether there were men doing it or women doing it, I just pursued it. It was interesting that there weren’t a lot of us, but I was such a tomboy and I was used to spending most my time with men. It didn’t matter to me.”
Today, Rarick is a rising star at Nasa. She is a flight director who works in Mission Control for the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. She has led international space station expeditions and space shuttle missions. Women are a growing force at Nasa, but they’re still a distinct minority: there are only seven female flight directors out of 25 at Johnson, and only 35 per cent of the total number of civil servants who work at Nasa are women.
“I once overheard my mother give a piece of advice to another woman. She said: ‘Don’t ever take a job you’re not capable of doing because you’ll ruin it for every other woman out there.’ At the time, [any singular woman in the workforce] could represent an entire gender. That was a lot of pressure, and it was unfair.”
As more and more women have joined the workforce, many of those pressures have thankfully eroded, she says. But still, Rarick is unpleasantly surprised that the number of women engineers has not increased by much since her days at Penn State.
According to figures from the Department of Education, women received less than 20 per cent of the engineering degrees conferred in the US. Women comprised less than 30 per cent of doctoral grads in math, computer sciences, and engineering, according to figures from the Council of Graduate Schools.
“There’s not the growth I would’ve expected,” she says.
She believes that many women may be deterred from entering the field because they don’t have an accurate idea of what an engineer does.
“How we talk about engineering isn’t necessarily how things are,” she says. “When you think of engineer, you think of an old man sitting at a desk number-crunching or building software. But so much of engineering is about helping to solve problems – problems in transportation, or the medical arena. The messaging isn’t there yet.”
But she is hopeful that things are changing and that more young women will be encouraged to pursue careers in science and technology.
“We are moving in the right direction. A little more time will get there.”