Diversity should be the first, not the final, frontier in NZ space industry

A focus on bringing in women and minority groups now would help ensure that the engineering teams don’t look like they did in the 1950s.

retro astronauts with rocket on planet

As the New Zealand space sector takes off, is now the time to bake in diversity, before traditional hiring patterns become entrenched?

Spacebase, a company focussed on developing the space ecosystem in New Zealand, recently brought together a panel of entrepreneurs and academics to address the diversity question.

Commercial basis of space industry poses diversity challenge

According to a Deloitte report, the estimated revenue of the New Zealand space economy was $1.8 billion in 2018-19, representing 0.3 per cent of global space-economy revenues. While the report noted that the space economy supports about 12,000 full-time roles, it doesn’t provide a breakdown in terms of gender and ethnicity. It does note that more than 60 per cent of respondents to its survey were commercial companies, which points to an industry funded primarily by business rather than government.

Yen-Kai Chen, a New Zealand representative on the Space Generation Advisory Council, points out that diversity is hard to mandate in private companies. “The New Zealand space sector is in its early phase, so we have a great opportunity to do it differently from traditional space countries. … [It] is commercially led so while it is much easier for the public sector to execute gender and ethnic quotas and create jobs in rural regions, companies are not obliged to do this,” he says.

Priyanka Dhopade, a University of Auckland lecturer at the mechanical engineering department, says the opportunity for New Zealand is to build in diversity from the beginning. She points out that many tech and engineering start-ups are so focussed on getting established, securing funding and growing their business that diversity becomes an afterthought.

She noted that unconscious bias is present in areas that lack diversity. As a student, she had tried to change the way she talked and the tone of her voice to fit in, but then she decided it was not her problem. “Certainly, I’ve been on the receiving end of unconscious bias in a very, very male-dominated environment. If I’m exhibiting signs of femininity and show up in an engineering lab, they’re like ‘Oh, she probably does software’. I feel like it’s not my problem, it’s theirs. It’s the environment that needs to change to welcome different kinds of people who are bringing different kinds of skills,” Dhopade says.

Diversity of qualifications and professions

Mahima Seth, a University of Auckland science student majoring in physics and geophysics, and who has served as an avionics technician in the Royal New Zealand Airforce, says she has noticed that engineering is often favoured above the other STEM subjects. She wanted to see potential employers consider that science graduates often had the same skills their colleagues in engineering. “It’s obvious that mechanical engineering would know how to work with CAD, but other people might know that too,” she says.

Heather Deacon, business development manager at Xerra, a regional research institute in the fields of Earth observation, geospatial science and remote sensing technologies, says that if you have a passion for space you will find a way into the sector. She points out that many people are now eschewing degrees in favour of microcredentials, and that “we don’t always need degrees for everything.”

Dhopade points out that the skills needed for the space sector include management, communication and the ability to put things into context. “We are going into this area where we don’t know what’s coming. … It’s something that engineers are not always taught in classical engineering training.”

Inspiring children, finding pathways for teenagers

Deacon says internships and scholarships, such as those offered by companies such as RocketLab, can provide teenagers with an entry into the industry.

Babett Volgyesi, COO of ExtraTerrestrial Power, which seeks to provide clean energy on the Moon at a lower cost than on Earth, says that STEM subjects were huge in Hungary, where she grew up, and that this helped prepare young people for careers in the space sector. She cited Michelle Dickinson and her Nanogirl Labs company which entertains and educates students about science, as a positive way of encouraging children’s interest in STEM subjects.

Storytelling is also important to inspire young people and show them that the world has changed in favour of diversity. “It’s not like only men can be astronauts anymore,” Volgyesi says.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon