Women in
the UK space sector

Summary


Introduction

This report is the third in a series analysing the results of the 2020 Space Census. It presents a deep dive into the demographics and experiences of women in the UK space workforce.

Poor representation of women has been a feature of the engineering, science, and technology sectors since their earliest days as a result of systemic discrimination and exclusion 1, gender stereotypes 2, and a masculine culture 3. Our report earlier this year found that this is also true for the space sector, where women make up about 29% of the workforce. This is a lower proportion than in the science & maths workforce (40%) but higher than for technology (21%) and engineering (9%) 4.

This report seeks to explore why this is the case. One factor is the different choices men and women make about what subjects to study and which jobs to work in, but another is that women don’t feel welcome in the space sector. They experience and witness far more discrimination than men and are also underpaid and underpromoted. Despite all of this, they appear to be no more likely to leave their jobs.

A better understanding of why women join and leave the space sector, what roles they hold, and their experiences in the industry is vital to fixing the gender imbalance, ensuring women are able to enjoy as rewarding a career in space as their male peers, and ultimately helping to address the sector’s skill shortages.


Methodology

The 2020 Space Census was conducted by the Space Skills Alliance on behalf of the Space Growth Partnership's Space Skills Advisory Panel, and supported by the UK Space Agency and UKspace. It was funded by the University of Leicester.

The survey was conducted via an online form open for 12 weeks from 7th October to 31st December 2020. It comprised approximately 50 questions covering demographic information (age, gender, ethnicity, etc.), work information (role, company, salary, etc.) experiences discrimination, and paths into the sector (qualifications, influences, etc.).

We surveyed 1552 people from more than 250 organisations across industry, academia, government, the military, and the non-profit sector. This is approximately 5% of the UK space workforce. More details on our methodology and the characteristics of the dataset can be found in our earlier report.

This report focuses on the 452 women who responded to the 2020 Space Census; we included anyone who self-identified as female. We conducted follow-up individual interviews with several of those women to further understand their experiences in the sector. We selected interviewees based on their answers to the census and made the group representative of the demographics of the whole cohort.

This report is a follow-on from our demographic summary report earlier this year 4. Some statistics and graphs from that report are repeated in this report for convenience.

Note: though the Census included people of all genders, only male and female are discussed here, as the number of people identifying as neither (approximately 1% of all respondents) is too small to allow us to draw any statistically significant conclusions.


Demographics

452 women responded to the 2020 Space Census, making up 29% of all respondents, which is about average for STEM fields. 5 women (1%) reported that they were assigned male at birth but now identify as female.

Age

We know that the entire sector skews slightly younger than both the workforce as a whole 4 and other STEM sectors, but this is particularly true for women.

Younger age groups are generally closer to gender parity than older ones. While the age distribution of men is roughly even across each of the ten 5-year age brackets, fully 20% of women in the space workforce are in the 25-29 age bracket, and fewer than 15% of women are over the age of 50 compared to 33% of men.

This may indicate that the gender balance in the sector is improving or it may be an example of a phenomenon known as the ‘leaky pipeline’, common in STEM fields, in which women drop out of the workforce as they get older, usually in order to care for children or because of hostile working environments. With only one data point we cannot yet determine whether the improvements to gender balance seen in the youngest cohorts will be maintained as they age.

The 35–39 group bucks the trend, with a significantly larger proportion of women (40%) compared to either 30–34 year-olds (33%) or 40–44 year-olds (32%). It is likely that this result is due to a combination of effects: first, that women tend to leave the workforce to care for children in their early 30s (the median age of a degree-educated first-time mother is 28–30) and then return in their late 30s; second, that a similar but age-shifted phenomenon occurs for men, who are on average 3 years older when they have their first child.

Gender splits for each age group. Women tend to be younger on average than men, with a notable drop off from age 50 onwards.

Ethnicity

The space workforce as a whole is about 89% White, with diversity higher among women (14% non-White) than among men (9%). The majority of women in the sector are White (86%), aligning with the population (86%) 5, and slightly underrepresenting the wider workforce (88%) 6. This is partly a result of women being younger on average than men, and younger cohorts being more diverse on average. Among women under 35, just 79% are White, compared to 91% of over 35s.

The primary difference from men is the large percentage of Asian people who make up 9% of women compared to 5% of men, which is higher than both the population (8%) 5 and the wider workforce (5%) 6. This trend is seen across all organisation types, with two notable exceptions: defence (where all women surveyed were White), and non-profits (where 19% of women surveyed were Asian).

Ethnicity splits for men and women. There is more ethnic diversity among women than among men, driven primarily by Asian women who make up 9% of women but just 5% of men.

Nationality

Women in the UK space workforce are more likely to be foreign nationals than men (23% vs 16%). The gender balance is the worst amongst British nationals, where 28% are women compared to 37% of European nationals.

We know that European nationals are more likely to be considering changing jobs or leaving the sector due to immigration related issues such as Brexit 4, and this may negatively impact the number of women in the space workforce if immigration continues to be restricted.

Nationality splits for men and women. Women are less likely than men to be foreign nationals.

Sexuality

Note: We use LGBQ+ rather than LGBTQ+ here because trans identity was asked about separately from sexuality and is discussed in our previous report.

Women are more likely to identify as LGBQ+ (15% vs 7% of men) and are more likely to be bisexual than men (8% vs 3%). Women are more likely to be younger, and younger people are more likely not to be straight, but these trends hold even when controlling for age. Among the cohort of under 35s, 22% of women say they are LGBQ+ compared to just 12% of men. For over 35s, 9% of women are LGBQ+ compared to 4% of men.

Women are more likely to be open about their sexuality, with 80% saying they feel comfortable being open about their sexuality in the workplace compared to 72% of men.

Sexuality splits for men and women. Women are more likely than men to be LGBQ+.

Disability

While more women than men in the sector have a disability (11% vs 7%), they are much less likely to be open about their disability, with 80% saying they feel comfortable being open in the workplace compared to 91% of men.

Whilst most disabilities are equally common among men and women, women are significantly more likely to have mental health problems than men (6% vs 1%). This is especially true for young women under the age of 35, where 1 in 10 (10%) experience mental health problems compared to young men (2%). These results align with trends seen nationally of a mental health crisis among young women 7.

Disability splits for men and women. Women are more likely than men to be disabled.

Religion

There is no real variation in religious beliefs between men and women.

Location

There is no real variation in the distribution of women and men by location across the UK.


Education and work choices

What inspires women into the sector?

In general, the same things influence men and women to join the space sector (these will be covered in more detail in a future report, but briefly, the key influences are events like air shows, historic events like the moon landings, books, and TV). The principal differences are that women are more likely to be inspired at school or by a teacher (30% of women vs 21% of men) and at a space camp such as Space School UK (7% vs 3%) while men are more likely to be inspired by the internet (13% vs 19%).

This tallies with previous findings that girls are more prosocial 8 – they care more about the welfare of others – and feel out of place in STEM 9, meaning the influence of teachers and peers can be particularly strong. Space School UK found that when asked which aspects of the school they found most useful, girls were more likely to choose mentoring and the opportunity to socialise and network with others, while boys were more likely to choose workshops and lectures 10.

Given that girls are often in the minority in STEM classrooms at A level (aged 16-18 when science subjects are no-longer compulsory), camps such as Space School may be the first opportunity for them to meet other like-minded girls and see that they are not alone in being interested in space.

What educational pathways do women take?

Routes into the space sector are many and varied. Women are more likely than men to have been privately educated, particularly on a bursary. This may be because girls are more likely to study physics at an independent school than at a state school 11, and physics is a common path into the sector. There is no noticeable regional variation in the distribution of men’s and women’s schooling.

Women are more likely to have completed work experience or an internship (21% vs 14%), even controlling for age (31% vs 26% for under 35s), but are equally likely to have done a graduate scheme or sandwich year. This may be because women are more studious (as demonstrated by the differences in grades above) or a result of programmes that are only open to women, such as Code First Girls and Insight into Engineering, and matches findings by the Women’s Engineering Society seen for the wider engineering sector 12.

Schooling splits for men and women. Women are more likely than men to have studied at an independent (private) school, and this is driven primarily by those receiving financial assistance.

What subjects do women study and at what levels?

There are well documented differences in the subjects that girls and boys choose (and are encouraged) to study at school and in further and higher education. The general trend is that boys are more likely to study STEM subjects, whilst girls are more likely to choose arts and humanities. However, girls do outnumber boys in some STEM subjects. At AS level (ages 16-17) psychology (2.5:1) and biology (1.5:1) are more popular with girls, whilst computing (10:1), physics (3:1), and maths (1.5:1) are more popular among boys. Chemistry and geography are roughly balanced 13.

Women are more likely to study a degree (91% of women vs 89% of men), and less likely to complete an apprenticeship (2% of women vs 7% of men). Among those with a degree, the distribution of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees is almost exactly the same.

Overall, women are less likely to drop out of a degree course 14, and tend to get higher grades. The rate of first class degrees among female engineering graduates is 5 percentage points higher than it is for men 15, consistent with a trend across all subjects 16.

The subject trends continue into higher education, where the ratio of men to women is 5:1 in computing and engineering and 1.3:1 in physical sciences (a grouping that includes physics (3:1), chemistry (1.2:1), and physical geography (1:1)) 17. About 70% of people in the space sector have a degree in one of these three subject areas.

Within the sector, women are slightly more likely to have studied non-STEM subjects (fig. 7) because they are more likely to be in non-technical roles (admin, education, management, policy, or sales, see roles section).

Among those who are in technical roles (science, engineering, or computing), virtually everyone (>97%) of both genders has a STEM qualification, but women are more likely to have studied science while men are likely to have studied engineering or computer science. In particular, women are more likely to have studied physics (42% of women vs 31% of men) or geography/geophysics (12% vs 5%) and much less likely to have studied electronic engineering (4% vs 14%) or computer science (3% vs 9%).

Female physics, aerospace engineering, and geography graduates seem to be more common in the space sector than would be expected based on university statistics alone. This may be due to statistical artefacts, different career preferences between men and women (for example male physics graduates may prefer to work in the finance sector), hiring practices which favour women over men.

Men and women's subject of highest qualification. Overall women are slightly less likely to study a STEM subject, but when they do they more likely then men to study science and less likely to study engineering.
Men and women's subject of highest qualification. Overall women are slightly less likely to study a STEM subject, but when they do they more likely then men to study science and less likely to study engineering.
The 'pipeline' for several STEM subjects from school through to university and work. The space sector seems to have more Physics and Aerospace Engineering graduates than might be expected based on university statistics alone. Note that only about half of schools offer computer science at GCSE or A level 18.
Subject School University Space sector Space sector (under 35s) Space sector (over 35s)
Physics 23% 24% 33% 41% 27%
Aerospace Engineering - 14% 26% 24% 29%
Electronics Engineering - 15% 7% 15% 5%
Computer Science 9% 18% 14% 17% 13%
Geography & Geophysics 50% 45% 43% 60% 33%

What kind of roles do women apply for?

There is very little accessible data on who applies for roles in the space sector and how successful they are. This makes it difficult to understand why there is a gap between the proportion of women studying particular subjects at university and the proportion of graduates of those subjects working in the sector, and why there are more women in certain roles and segments of the industry.

A small number of space companies have shared some of their application data with us for both internships and full-time roles. In this dataset, 17% of applicants for technical roles were female, while for marketing and office management roles the rate was about two times higher.

One factor in this is likely to be the recruitment process itself. The wording of job adverts and the way candidates are assessed can have a significant impact on the chances of a woman being recruited.

Recruitment processes

We conducted research last year reviewing 50 job adverts from 50 space companies against best practice known to improve the diversity of applicants. We found that gendered wording in adverts was not much of a problem within the sector, but some adverts had very long or unclear lists of requirements in their person specifications, which deter women because they are more likely to follow these guidelines and not apply if they think they might fail 19. There was also a lack of information about benefits such as flexible working, which is valued much more by women than men 20.

We did not assess the application and assessment process, but many adverts asked candidates to apply by submitting a CV by email rather than by filling in an application form that would allow for an anonymised assessment that minimises bias.

What kind of roles do women work in?

Men and women hold different roles within the space sector: women dominate administrative roles and are more likely to be in educational ones, while men are twice as likely to have an engineering role and slightly more likely to be in management. In other areas the differences are much smaller and should be treated with caution (the 95% confidence interval is roughly ± 2.5%).

The education result is not surprising, the teaching workforce is known to be dominated by women 21, reflecting historic global trends in education 22 often driven by gender stereotypes. The science communication community is also female-dominated 2324. Much of this work is focused on getting girls into STEM, so women are often chosen for these jobs in order to act as role models for those they are teaching. This in turn reinforces stereotypes about the role of women as educators.

Stereotypically, administration is seen as a woman’s job and while management is a man’s 25. It is possible that internalisation of these sexist stereotypes has influenced how respondents have described their roles (i.e. men doing administration might describe their work as management and vice versa).

There is some evidence to suggest that the gap in management roles is a result of young men being more likely to be in management. The gap for the over 35s is just 2 percentage points (25% for women vs 27% for men), compared to 4 percentage points among the under 35s.

Within technical roles, men lead in engineering and computing, while women lead in science. This reflects trends in higher education, described earlier (see section on subject choices). For engineering, a 15 percentage point difference exists for men and women for under 35s compared to a 20 percentage point difference for over 35s. In contrast, in science, women lead by 12 percentage points for under 35s and 2 percentage points for over 35s.

Influence of qualification subject

The subject someone studied strongly influences their role. For both genders, over half (54%) of those who studied physics work in a science role and 58% of those who studied aerospace engineering work in an engineering role. Women are more likely to say that their qualification is not very relevant to their work (24% of women vs 18% of men).

Among those with physics degrees, the only notable disparity between men and women is that women are much more likely to work in education (10% vs 4%).

For those with aerospace engineering degrees however, there are some significant disparities: while men with aerospace engineering degrees sometimes work in computing (5%) or science (12%), this is not true for any women (0% for both). Instead, they are slightly more likely than men to work in some other area (education, management, policy, or sales). It is not clear why this is the case, especially given that women are much more likely overall to work in science roles.

The proportion of men and women working in different roles. Women are more likely to work in science and non-technical roles, while men are more likely to work in engineering, management, and computing.

Role & segment

As well as asking what role they do, we also asked census respondents ‘which part of the space sector do you work in?’ and offered a list of 35 possible areas across 4 segments (upstream, midstream downstream, ancillary), from which they could choose more than one area across multiple segments.

Women were more likely to define their role more narrowly. They ticked on average 2.4 boxes, while men ticked 3.1. 51% of women identified themselves as only being in one area, compared to 32% of men. This disparity is mostly driven by women in academia. If they are excluded, then the gap drops from 19 percentage points to just 5.

The table below shows the proportion of men and women in technical roles (science/engineering/computing) outside of academia working in areas that were selected by more than 10% of people.

We see some clear trends in where men and women work. Men in technical roles are more likely to work in manufacturing, engineering, and IT, while women in technical roles are more likely to be doing data processing and scientific research. Research and development sees roughly equal proportions of both genders.

Overall women in industry are more likely than men to be doing work related to the downstream (such as data processing) while men in industry are more likely to be doing work related to the upstream (such as manufacturing).

The donstream segment is the major growth area for the space sector, in particular data processing has grown extremely rapidly (34% in 2 years) 26. It is possible that because of this, its companies are newer and therefore more likely to have more progressive recruitment practices and to have recruited their workforces more recently. Many downstream companies also identify as being part of the tech sector, which has seen a major push recently to recruit people from a wider range of backgrounds, so these trends may have more heavily influenced downstream companies than upstream ones.

Downstream work also relates more closely to geography, which has a much higher proportion of women (45%) than subjects more closely aligned to the upstream segment such as physics (24%) and aerospace engineering (14%).

As a result, we are likely to see an increase in the number of women in the space sector as a whole as this segment continues to grow, improving the overall statistics even if no other action is taken.

The proportion of men and women working in each space sector segment. Data processing, scientific research, and education/outreach are the only areas where women are more likely to work than men. Note that the totals sum to more than 100% because respondents could check more than one box and most checked 2 or 3.

What kind of companies do women work for?

Women are more likely to work in non-profits, government, and academia than in industry or the military 4. There appears to be no real variation in the distribution of women by organisation size but the experiences of women in different sizes of organisations do vary (see section on experiences of discrimination).

Women in start-ups

Much of the space sector’s recent growth has been driven by start-ups 26 27, and there are significant overlaps between the space sector and the tech sector.

Most of these start-ups are founded by men. Women make up about a third of the space sector, but EVONA, a space recruitment firm, reports that just 12% of space company founders, owners, and entrepreneurs are women 28, a similar proportion to that for start-ups across all sectors 29. Female founders are less likely to get funding 29, and experience significant gender bias at all stages of a start-up’s lifecycle 30.

Male domination early on can lead to a self-perpetuating masculine culture that makes it harder to recruit women 31. A tech sector survey last year found that only 1% of female jobseekers aspire to work in start-ups compared to 8% of men, because they have a reputation for long-working hours that are often incompatible with family life 32. Women at smaller space companies report experiencing more discrimination (see section on experiences of discrimination by organisation type).


Experiences of discrimination

Our overarching finding is that women feel less welcome than men, experience more discrimination, and are underpaid and underpromoted.

Do women feel welcome in the space sector?

Women feel less welcome in the sector compared to men. 47% of women feel ‘always welcome’ compared to 79% of men. Only 38% of women of colour feel ‘always welcome’, and in almost every scenario, women and men of colour feel less welcome than their White counterparts.

The sector can appear at times to be very male dominated and as a woman this can be quite intimidating. I recall in my twenties attending an event where there were only 4 women in the room and well over 100 men. Since then I am seeing an improvement in the gender balance but there is still much work that could be done.

The space sector pays lip service to gender equality, and has many initiatives to encourage it. At the individual level, especially in male peers, respect for women is significantly more rare than one might expect.

In every type of organisation, women feel less welcome than men, and this is particularly apparent in academia. Whilst everyone feels less welcome in academia than the sector-wide average, the difference is particularly large, dropping 16 percentage points for women compared to 8 for men. The organisation type in which women feel the most welcome is industry, with 61% of women saying they feel welcome. Defence, non-profits, and self-employed people are not included in the breakdown due to small sample sizes.

There is very much a 'laddish' culture in astronomy, and it is no surprise to me whatsoever that women leave the space sector in their droves.

Technical skill still seems to be a shield for those who may make discriminatory comments.

Academia is a sector where stress levels and work pressure are high. A recent survey of almost 6,000 UK academic staff found that only 11% of academic staff are satisfied with their job 33, in stark contrast to industry, where 67% of those working in the engineering sector and 69% of those working in the tech sector saying they are satisfied with their jobs 3435.

In total, 41% of women in the space sector have experienced discrimination or prejudice of some form, compared to 10% of men. Women who have experienced discrimination feel the least welcome, with only 27% saying they feel always welcome, compared to 62% of those who haven’t experienced discrimination. For men, the equivalent figures are 34% and 84%.

Some of the line managers expected female engineers to take notes during team meetings but never asked any of the male colleagues.

When [my boss] talked about the accomplishments of our group, he would only talk about what the men were doing.

The most common type of discrimination experienced by women was gender related, with 38% of all women saying they had experienced it compared to just 1% of men. The next most common types were age based discrimination (10% of women vs 3% of men) and sexual harassment (9% vs 0.3%). In every category (e.g. discrimination related to ethnicity, disability, etc.) women experienced more discrimination than men.

How welcome different groups feel in the space sector. White women feel slightly more welcome than both women and men of colour. All three groups feel are about half as likely as White men to always feel welcome.
How welcome men and women feel in different types of organisation. Everyone feels less welcome in academia, but this drop is particularly pronounced for women.
Men and women's experiences of discrimination. Women experience discrimination about four times as much as men.
Men and women's experiences of different types of discrimination. Women experience more across the board, but particularly gender and age discrimination, and sexual harassment.

How does discrimination vary in different types of organisation?

The discrimination women experience varies depending on the type of organisation they work for, but the trend is the same for men. People in academia and industry consistently experience more discrimination than those in government, regardless of gender, but the figures are shifted 30 percentage points higher for women.

There is however a variation depending on the size of the organisation they work for. Half of all women working at micro and small organisations (with fewer than 50 employees) experience discrimination, falling to 39% at medium and large organisations. By contrast, roughly 10% of men report experiencing discrimination in all sizes of organisations.

Smaller business are less likely to have a dedicated HR team to put in place robust processes and policies in place relating to discrimination, so this may be a contributing factor.

One interviewee said that the company she worked for that was the most welcoming to women was one founded by a woman, who was pregnant at the time.

The year the CEO founded the company she became pregnant, so she started a company and completed a round of fundraising while pregnant. This means that the company I work at now is really good for being pregnant or having a child, because having a female CEO means that she’ll get it in the way that a male CEO wouldn’t.

Women's experiences of discrimination in different types of organisation. Women experience the least discrimination in government compared to industry or academia.
Women's experiences of discrimination in different sizes of organisation. There is a slight trend towards more discrimination in smaller organisations, but the least discrimination is experienced in medium-sized organisations.

How does discrimination vary with age?

Young women aged 25-29 are the most likely to have both experienced and witnessed discrimination and harassment. This age group makes up 20% of women but experiences 27% of all discrimination against women. By contrast, this age group accounts for 15% of men, and experiences 12% of all discrimination against men.

This may be due to survivorship bias or because people are less overtly discriminatory towards women who are in a more senior role than them. It is also likely that views of what counts as discrimination are changing, and that the types of discrimination that people experience are changing.

I've worked in the industry for thirty years and some younger people may think it's poor but it's massively better than where it was. My first office was full of 'girlie' calendars and if a woman complained they had to 'toughen up'. I haven't heard a discriminatory remark at my level for over a decade.

How does discrimination differ for parents and non-parents?

Note: In this section, ‘parent’, ‘mother’, and ‘father’ refer to people with current parenting responsibilities (i.e. children under 18).

Across the sector, men and women are equally likely to be carers (6%) but women are less likely to be parents, with 22% of women having parenting responsibilities compared to 27% of men, suggesting that they are dropping out of the workforce when they have children or choosing to have a career rather than a family (men are usually more able to have both 36).

It isn't attractive to women particularly those who are becoming parents. Most of the work available in the space sector requires an individual to be onsite […] The ability to work from home is crucial, I need the flexibility in order to balance my finances and take care of parenting responsibilities.

[The] expectation of being able to travel at a moment’s notice (pre-covid) reduces [the] impact a parent of young children can make. Women asked to take minutes every time reduces their ability to participate.

When I’m looking at new jobs I’m looking at [the maternity leave] section of the employee handbook or contract.

Men and women without parenting or caring responsibilities are equally likely to work part-time (9% of both men and women), but mothers are four times more likely to work part-time than fathers (25% of mothers vs 6% of fathers). In fact, fathers are less likely than those without children to work part-time (6% of men with parenting responsibilities, 9% of men without parenting responsibilities).

Being a parent does not affect how welcome women (and men) say they feel in the sector, despite the fact that one in five mothers (21%) has experienced pregnancy or child care related discrimination, compared to just one in a hundred fathers (1%).

Overall women in the space sector are no more likely to be changing jobs than men but this conceals a stark difference between women with children and women without. 17% of women without children are changing jobs compared to just 6% of women with children. For men the equivalent figures are 12% and 8%, a gap that is within the margin of error.

Not including academia (where short term contracts are very common), there are two peaks in women leaving their jobs. Women are most interested in changing jobs in their late 20s (60% at 25-29) and again in their late 30s (55% at 35-39), while the rate for women outside of these ages and for all men is about 55% for under 35s and 45% for over 35s.

This matches results from other sectors that have found women are more likely to change jobs after returning from maternity leave 37, which often occurs in those age brackets.

The sector needs to provide an environment that not just encourages people from minorities to join the sector, but one that actively retains them and offers them support. An obvious example of this is good paid maternity and paternity leave, to help women in the sector.

Working patterns for mothers and father. Mothers are much more likely to work part time than fathers.

Do people witness discrimination?

Half of women (50%) have witnessed an act of discrimination, compared to a quarter of men (27%). This ratio is consistent across all kinds of discrimination.

People who have experienced discrimination are about four times more likely to have witnessed it and this is true for both genders separately. This may be because those who have experienced it themselves are better at spotting it or because they have a lower threshold for what they consider discrimination to be (no definition of discrimination was provided with the question).

Whilst sexual harassment is one of the most common types of discrimination that women face, not a single person reported witnessing it, strongly suggesting that this problem is happening behind closed doors. Free text responses to questions on discrimination experience highlight the problems associated with reporting sexual harassment.

I can't talk about my own problems with bullying and harassment because of the power differential. I have complained, no visible action was taken. But I see the power dynamic played out all the time, particularly with younger women in science being reduced to tears by male supervisors. They are afraid of reporting problems.

Men and women's witnessing of discrimination. Women are about twice as likely to have witnessed discrimination.
Men and women's witnessing of different types of discrimination. Women are more likely to report witnessing discrimination across the board, but particularly gender-related discrimination. Notably no-one reported witnessing sexual harassment, despite it being commonly experienced by women.

The pay and promotion gap

Two clear examples of the discrimination experienced by women in space are the pay gap – women are paid less than men – and the promotion gap – women are promoted less quickly than men.

Is there a gender pay gap?

Note: This section also features in our previous report: Pay in the UK Space Sector

The size of this pay gap varies across sectors, roles, seniority level etc. but in virtually every case men are paid more than women. The only exception we have found is that women are paid more on average when working in administrative roles, but this is clouded by the fact that there were only three male respondents in this category.

Men are, on average, paid £11k more than women. The mean and median salaries for women are £41k and £35k respectively. For men, they are £52k and £45k. This gap widens with age and seniority.

This tallies with results from a 2019 survey of the engineering sector which found that women in engineering are paid on average £9k less than their male colleagues 4.

We know from previous research that women in the sector are generally younger than men, with about 32% under 30, compared to 23% of men 34. However, even controlling for age, the gender pay gap persists. Among 18-40 year olds, the gap is about £4k, while above age 40 it widens to more than £10k.

Among those in junior and trainee roles, there is a very slight gender gap, with men on average paid £1k more. In mid-level roles, the gap widens to £4k, and then to £9k in senior roles.

One often cited reason why women are paid less is that they are more likely to take a career break to have children. This was not supported by our data. We found that parents are paid more on average than their peers – this may be because parents go for higher paying jobs to cover the cost of having children – and the pay gap between men and women remains constant regardless of whether or not they have children.

This result is extremely robust. If we control for as many variables as we can whilst retaining a reasonable sample size, we consistently find women are paid less. If we look only at university educated White women working in mid-level roles in science and engineering, we still find an average pay gap of about £3k.

Average salary gap between men and women et each seniority level. Women in junior roles are paid slightly less than their male peers, while those in senior roles are paid substantially less.

Do women hold senior roles?

As well as being paid less, women are less likely to be in senior roles (20% of women vs 43% of men). This is true even if we control for age (we know that women in the sector are, on average, younger than men, and junior roles are often held by younger people).

Among 35-39 year olds, for example, 35% of men are in senior roles compared to just 15% of women. For respondents over 50, only 51% of women have reached a senior role compared to 73% of men. This tallies with figures from the European Space Agency where currently only 1 out of 6 managers at ESA are women 38. The only area where this appears not to be the case is in academia, where the proportions of men and women over 50 in senior roles is almost equal.

This result mirrors the management gap (see roles section), and is in line with a much broader trend of women in all sectors being stuck in mid-level roles faced with a lack of career progression, barriers to senior roles, and challenges associated with having both a family and a career 39 40 41.

Despite regulation, as a mother I found myself held back from promotion compared to peers (male and female) due to maternity leave, despite having a more senior role because I was part-time.

Even though I received recognition from the experts [for my work], to this day, the delivery team (project managers, engineers, safety etc.) credit that work to my male engineer - who was out of the office when I produced it.

Women may be less likely to progress because they have on average been in their current role and in the sector for less time than men. Only a quarter of women (24%) have spent more than 5 years in their current role, compared to a third of men (36%). 43% of women have spent more than 5 years in the space sector, compared to 57% of men.

However, even controlling for age and experience in the sector, women are less likely to reach senior roles. Among 35-39 year olds who have been in the sector for 5 years or fewer, 35% of men are in senior roles, compared to 11% of women.

Many of the women who are in the most senior positions appear to be there because they helped found the organisation they work for. EVONA, a space recruitment company, estimates that female founders account for 70% of women in C-level and senior positions in the space sector 28.

Seniority distribution for men and women. Men are much more likely to be in senior roles.

Looking ahead

Are women leaving their jobs?

Overall women in the space sector are no more likely to be changing jobs than men. Though women experience much more discrimination than men (see section on discrimination), this doesn’t appear to drive them to change jobs any more than it does men. The only statistically significant difference between the reasons men and women leave jobs is pay, cited by 27% of men compared to 17% of women, even though women are paid less on average.

We will explore the reasons why people leave their jobs in more detail in a future report.

There was one case where a customer was a bully towards me and it was very clear that this was a gender issue. However I was more disappointed in the reaction of my peers and the senior management because I needed them to say “I believe in her” and I didn’t get that. But it was an isolated incident, and I like to think I wouldn’t jump ship because of an isolated incident. If things don’t change and I don’t see the changes to that kind of attitude then that’s the kind of thing that would push me towards leaving.

What does the future look like for women in the UK space sector?

In the absence of any new initiatives, it is likely that the proportion of women in the space workforce will continue to increase, because of ongoing efforts to promote STEM subjects and careers to girls in school and because the downstream sector (which has more women than the upstream) continues to drive the growth of the sector.

However, it is promising to see the sector responding to the lack of women in the sector. The European Space Agency has set the target of employing women in at least 40% of all STEM roles by 2025 38 and Thales is aiming for at least 30% of all management positions to be held by women 42 - targets which the UK space sector could also aim for.

To retain women in space, work needs to be done to ensure that they are being fairly paid and promoted, that there is suitable support for mothers returning to work, and that every effort is being made to tackle the discrimination that women face on a daily basis.



Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Satellite Applications Catapult and UK Space Agency for funding this report on women in space, the University of Leicester for funding the 2020 Space Census, and the Space Growth Partnership, UK Space Agency, and UK Space for providing resources and support for this research.

We would like to thank the women who gave up their time to be interviewed for this report, and to NORSS, Space Forge, UK Launch Services Ltd, Lumi Space, and other companies who wished to remain anonymous, for sharing their recruitment data with us.

A huge thank you goes out to Craig Brown and Kathie Bowden for their continued support on the 2020 Space Census, and to our friends and colleagues, Rob Garner and Áine O’Brien for their advice, ideas, and typo-spotting eyes. Thank you to our advisors Ed Chester, Julia Hunter-Anderson, and Sheila Kanani for their continued support of our work.


Licence

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You can copy, redistribute, and adapt what we’ve presented for any non-commercial purpose. However, you must give us credit and link back to this page. If you want to use it in a commercial context, get in touch with us at [email protected].


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