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Engineering women in the Canadian Space Agency

by Patricia Enborg | March 8, 2007

When you think of an organization that trains astronauts, does research and creates instruments for space flight, what image pops into mind? Maybe a place filled only with men sporting white coats.

But you’d be wrong.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA), located south of Montreal, has very talented women who work as engineers, researchers, communications experts and in many other fields. Sure, they're in the minority – making up 41% of the workforce – but they play just as vital a role as the men do.

Just ask Isabelle Tremblay. With a masters degree in Aerospace Engineering specialized in Space Technologies, she is a Flight Systems Engineer at the CSA. The role of a Systems Engineer “is really to look at all aspects of a project and work on the definition of the problem as well as the requirements for what we're developing.”

Isabelle, 34, works on the space program at the agency helping to develop specialized instruments or systems for space flights. Her latest project is Canada’s contribution to a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mission to Mars in August.

This will be Canada’s first foray to another planet.

She’s helping to design a meteorological station that will play a major role in finding out whether water existed on the planet. The price tag for Canada's role is $25 million. In what’s considered a low-cost mission, the United States is spending close to US$400 million.

The Phoenix mission involves a space vehicle (called a lander) that will go to the northern latitudes of Mars, where scientists believe there is some ice in the soil. “The overall objective is to understand the history of water on Mars. Some scientists think there was a lot of liquid water at some point. So what happened? They'll also study the climate and look for habitable zones on Mars to see if there is a potential for life to exist.”

For a young woman who was fascinated by astronomy and space exploration – even as a child – this is very exciting work. “I knew some engineers but nobody who actually was doing space engineering ... so that looked really far-fetched, almost like science fiction from my perspective.”

It was during her second year of high school that Isabelle discovered she could combine her interest in space exploration with engineering to become a space engineer. At the CSA, she is one of 31 women engineers working with 170 male counterparts. That's just over 15% – much lower than the overall number of women at the agency.

So is it difficult being part of a minority? Not according to Isabelle Tremblay. “No, no, absolutely not. I think the culture is very open at the Canadian Space Agency ... When you show a different way of doing things, sometimes maybe there is a little bit of resistance but, overall, I'd say my experience is very positive.”

In fact, the CSA goes out of its way to help the women who work there. It has a mentoring program, special sessions about how to manage conflict, as well as ones on how men and women are different in the workplace.

Says Isabelle, “They don’t want to reinforce stereotypes, they just want to talk about them and give us an opportunity to exchange and to also see that there are different ways of seeing things, of working, of communicating ... and everyone can find where they are in the whole spectrum of male and female typical behaviours or attitudes.”

For Isabelle, the bottom line is, “It’s more important to look at what an individual can do than to look at women or men can do.”

And she has a message for young girls who can sometimes find the prospect of a career in science daunting. “When you have a strong interest in something, you should pursue that. If someone is intimidated, I would encourage them to become more exposed, to look for the challenges and to go for that.”

As for how to pursue a career at the CSA, it’s not that difficult. Engineers are hired mainly through the Agency’s Directory of Engineers while the other positions are advertised and staffed through various Public Service Commission of Canada recruitment programs.

And the highest profile positions – the astronauts – are hired during the infrequent recruitment campaigns advertised in newspapers. The last one, in 1992, saw the hiring of Julie Payette, Canada’s Chief Astronaut and the only woman in the program.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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