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“There are unique challenges faced by women in STEM.” With Tyler Gallagher & Phoebe Henson

There are unique challenges faced by women in STEM. Some of these are the inevitable consequence of being a minority in the workplace — for example many can relate to the experience of being the only woman in the room. Sometimes it can feel as though we’re representing the entire gender — that’s a lot […]

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There are unique challenges faced by women in STEM. Some of these are the inevitable consequence of being a minority in the workplace — for example many can relate to the experience of being the only woman in the room. Sometimes it can feel as though we’re representing the entire gender — that’s a lot of pressure! However other challenges result from implicit biases that could potentially have serious impacts on a woman’s career in STEM. One bias that I’ve frequently encounter is the perception that women should be project managers rather than being in technical roles because women are thought to be more organized while men are better on the technical side of engineering or research. This perception can make it much more difficult for women to climb to the highest level technical roles. We need to address and become conscious of these sort of implicit biases.


Asa part of my series about “Women Leading The Space Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewingPhoebe Henson.

Phoebe leads a Honeywell team developing technology to help astronauts breathe on Mars. Her approach uses advanced materials called ionic liquids that capture carbon dioxide directly from a closed atmosphere in a way that’s more efficient, reliable, reusable, safer and smaller than any method now in use. The project, which is funded by NASA and valued at more than $200 million, will be used for the first time on the International Space Station in 2021.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Iwas born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. Growing up I had a tight-knit group of nerdy friends, which made it okay to geek out about science when we were together.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’m a huge fan of some of the productivity books out there — Atomic Habits, Scrum and everything by Cal Newport. They’ve actually made a huge impact on my work life and I’ve learned some valuable tools to help with focus and productivity. This has been really important lately as social distancing and working from home has disrupted a lot of the usual schedules.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“The way things are is not the way they have to be” –Rutger Bregman

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.

I don’t think a single particular story inspired me to pursue a career in space, but I certainly find the Star Trek Next Generation series inspiring! Of all the paths our society could follow, nothing is more inspiring to me than the idea of developing a sort of Star Trek utopia.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m currently working on an advanced spacecraft life support technology called CDRILS — Carbon Dioxide Removal in Ionic Liquid System. It takes carbon dioxide out of the air inside a spacecraft or space station in order to prevent it from reaching levels that would be unsafe for astronauts. It’s designed to operate for extended periods of time and so will be vital if humans are to engage in extended space travel (such as a mission to Mars).

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The space industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?

This year was historic for the space industry as we witnessed the first human space launch on a commercial vehicle — the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. This is a major milestone for commercial space and part of what I hope will be a continued trend of commercial space companies joining the traditional players to innovate new and more cost-efficient ways to access space.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

The space industry saw a bit of a hiring boom in the 1990s and 2000s during the Space Shuttle and ISS programs, when a large portion of today’s space scientists and engineers began their careers. Cut forward to 2020 where commercial companies are competing to launch astronauts into space and NASA’s headed back to the Moon and on to Mars and we are once again seeing large numbers of new scientists and engineers joining the industry.

Today’s America has grown more diverse, with improved opportunities for women and people of color compared to 20 or 30 years ago. I can see this reflected by the increased diversity of those who are entering the workforce today but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done before the space industry becomes representative of society as a whole.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?

There are unique challenges faced by women in STEM. Some of these are the inevitable consequence of being a minority in the workplace — for example many can relate to the experience of being the only woman in the room. Sometimes it can feel as though we’re representing the entire gender — that’s a lot of pressure!

However other challenges result from implicit biases that could potentially have serious impacts on a woman’s career in STEM. One bias that I’ve frequently encounter is the perception that women should be project managers rather than being in technical roles because women are thought to be more organized while men are better on the technical side of engineering or research. This perception can make it much more difficult for women to climb to the highest level technical roles. We need to address and become conscious of these sort of implicit biases.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I was recently very inspired by the book Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman. I think that a movement to pursue a utopia like that envisaged in his book would result in a much better society.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Greta Thunberg. I’m inspired by her boldness on important issues surrounding climate change.

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