Benefits of space must be accessible to all


ITU News recently caught up with Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) Simonetta Di Pippo, who leads UNOOSA’s strategic, policy and programmatic activities and advises the United Nations Secretary-General on space affairs.

UNOOSA carries out an important mission regarding activities in space. What exactly does UNOOSA do, and how does this differ from the work of its sister UN agency, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)?

UNOOSA’s mission is to promote the peaceful uses of outer space and ensure that everyone, everywhere, has access to the benefits of space technology and applications. ITU, on the other hand, is committed to connecting all the world’s people, wherever they live and whatever their means, so that they can effectively communicate through radio and satellite technology. Therefore, our missions are closely aligned and interdependent.

Space exploration is the backbone of modern communication technologies: every time you make a phone call or access the Internet, you are benefitting from space technology, which also enables satellite navigation, remote financial transactions and many more of the activities that make our modern lives possible.

UNOOSA’s work, in ensuring strong international cooperation in space, the sustainability of space exploration, and inclusiveness for developing countries in benefiting from space, creates a strong foundation for ITU’s work in leveraging the potential of communication technologies.

Would you describe yourself as a woman pushing space frontiers?

As an astrophysicist and someone who has worked in the space sector for decades, I certainly know well how it feels to be in a male-dominated sector. Throughout my career, I have always strived to help more women succeed in the space field.

Role models are vital for empowering and educating women and girls − shedding light on opportunities, explaining different career paths, providing advice and connections, and showing that, if you are dedicated, you will succeed. I have always tried to provide this encouragement, support and inspiration to the women, and the men, around me.

What have been your most inspiring projects to date?

At UNOOSA, we are working to close not only the gender gap in accessing space, but also other kinds of gaps, for example, for countries to be able to leverage the benefits of space.

Through our Access to Space for All Initiative, in collaboration with exceptional partners such as leading space agencies and private sector companies operating in space, we offer opportunities for teams from all over the world, particularly from developing countries, to acquire space capabilities.

One of the flagship programmes under the Initiative, KiboCUBE, has already enabled two countries, Kenya and Guatemala, to deploy their first ever satellites. Other winners of the programme are expected to follow suit, with Mauritius likely next, so this is pretty exciting.

What made you decide to co-found Women in Aerospace Europe in 2009 and then, more recently, to become a United Nations International Gender Champion?

I have always believed in the power of association and networking to help women break glass ceilings. I co-founded Women in Aerospace Europe as an organization dedicated to increasing the leadership capabilities and visibility of women in the aerospace community, aiming to change things from within.

The contribution of senior leaders is also essential to drive change and empower women in all sectors. Through the UN International Gender Champions network, which I joined in 2017, high-level professionals commit to making a difference for women through their work. This is aligned with my long-time efforts and vision to help women reach their potential, so naturally I am delighted to be part of this network.

How is UNOOSA supporting girls and women and encouraging them to take up careers in the space industry?

In 2019, we launched Space4Women − an initiative to promote gender equality in the space and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sectors.

As research shows, the lack of mentors and women leaders in many scientific sectors is an important factor preventing more young women from pursuing, or even thinking of, education and career opportunities in these fields. To address this issue, Space4Women created a network of mentors through which space leaders from all over the world can help young women and men navigate education and careers in the space sector.

Over the past year, we matched over 100 young people with our mentors, who provided them with career advice, support and inspiration.

The Space4Women website is also in the process of collecting capacity-building needs, from governments and institutions worldwide, to design the necessary support to strengthen gender equality in space and STEM.

Is the outlook for women and girls in the science community better today than when you began your career?

Things are changing, and many more girls and women today dare to dream about careers in “non-traditional” sectors that were out of bounds for previous generations of women.

At UNOOSA, we often work with inspiring young women who are advancing the space sector in their own country, such as Pooja Lepcha from Bhutan, a beneficiary of our joint Kyutech (Kyusha Institute of Technology) fellowship with Japan to study nano-satellite technologies, who went on to be part of the team that created Bhutan’s first satellite. Another example are the women scientists who were part of the team that developed Guatemala’s first satellite.

Despite these inspiring examples, substantial obstacles remain for women. According to data from a UN report, women make up just over 35 per cent of STEM graduates worldwide. According to a 2019 OECD report, female employment in aerospace engineering hovers around 10-15 per cent in Europe and the US, and women account for slightly more than 20 per cent of space manufacturing employment.

Little has changed in these figures over the past thirty years.

While the gender gap may now be narrowing, the share of women graduates in aerospace engineering remains low in many developed countries, despite government and private sector efforts. We must do better.

Every leader has a role to play to ensure equal opportunities − to unleash the talent of women in science and in all other sectors for the benefit of all.

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