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Back story: Jenna Tiwana, ‘We need to change the pigeonholes’

Image credit: Jenna Tiwana

Dr Shini Somara talks to British aerospace engineer Jenna Tiwana, who will shortly be moving to Luxembourg to work for Japanese robotics company ispace, selling lunar lander and rover capacity to clients planning missions to the Moon.

Shini Somara: With all your studies in aerospace engineering, did you ever want to be an astronaut?

Jenna Tiwana: I’ve always been curious about it, but I’m also pulled by the desire to have a family. And this is one subject that is not talked about enough – namely, especially for women, that if you do want to become an astronaut, what are the potential trade-offs you need to think about?

I’ve always thought about being an astronaut, although engineering and pushing the space industry forward from Earth has always been at the forefront for me. But even now, I’m just not clear on what that means, in terms of what I can and cannot do that are important to me in my life. I’m 27 years old and I’ve thought about it for most of my life and it’s still not clear how I tackle this.

SS: What has it been like as a minority within aerospace engineering?

JT: I still get a lot of raised eyebrows when I say I’m coming from an engineering background and I must be honest, I’ve noticed it more as I’ve progressed in my career. My ethnicity is Indian, so sometimes I’m not sure whether it is because I’m ethnic, young, or female which has caused me to be sometimes treated differently to others in my industry.

At school, I was quite lucky in that I didn’t ever feel the pressure of doing something unconventional. I never once thought, I’m the only one here, so I should not explore this field. But as I’ve gotten older, I realise that I have to stand my ground a little bit more and that being treated differently is a reflection of other people, not of me.

There is a stereotype that unlike women, men will go for job applications even if they don’t have all the qualifications. Often, women are told to be more aggressive in their language or be more like men. But women being more like men does not solve the problem at its root.

Women shouldn’t have to change who they are to succeed, nor should ethnic candidates feel like they must forget their roots. We need to change the pigeonholes that we have been told to fit into so everyone’s innate character is accepted.

SS: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given, either from friends or family or professionals?

JT: Someone once told me that when you are assessing what the right thing for you is, when you’re judging yourself or when you’re reflecting on decisions that you have to make, think about what your advice would be to your best friend or someone that you care about.

SS: How important have role models and mentors been for you?

JT: They’ve been so important and so invaluable. When I didn’t know what to do next after university, what was so helpful was having someone to just listen to me, in a completely non-judgemental way. This mentor did not try to swoop in and save the day and be my hero, but just actually wanted to help by listening to what I was going through.

It’s been so helpful finding a mentor and keeping in touch with them throughout my career. When I was at the International Space University, I spoke to someone at Nasa and was honest about wanting their exact job. By being this open, I was able to learn how to get a job like that and it was with their help that I crafted going from the International Space University to leaving for management consultancy and then returning to a career in space. All because someone listened.

Being inquisitive and curious also helps guide you as to what you should and shouldn’t do. It’s tough, because the people that potentially need the least mentoring have exposure to the most mentoring and vice versa.

SS: What are your views on diversity and inclusion?

JT: We need as much diversity as possible. You know, men definitely have their place in the world, women also have their place. So why should STEM (or any other career) be limited to choosing from only half the population of potential pioneers? To me, this makes no sense.

I’m a firm believer that it is everyone’s fundamental right to have the same opportunity, no matter where you come from.

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