In our Woman Who Innovate podcast series, we conduct thought-provoking and inspiring interviews with bold and passionate women who are shaping the workplace of tomorrow.
On this episode of our ''Woman Who Innovate'' podcast series, Marie-Noëlle Morency, who heads the Women transforming the workplace program from Randstad Canada, has a conversation with shining star Farah Alibay, an aerospace engineer at NASA in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and who has worked on the InSight, Mars Cube One, and Mars 2020 missions. Read the conversation here.
In conversation with farah alibay
farah, you have quite a rich cultural background. Your parents come from Madagascar. You were born in Joliet and grew up in England. How did all these experiences shape up who you are today?
I am a little bit international in that sense. It was a blessing to have had the opportunity to live sort of across the world and also to have different cultures as part of my family.
It's something that serves me well today because engineering is a lot of teamwork. And teamwork is about understanding others. It's about listening to other people's opinions from people who have come from different walks of life.
So I think it makes me a more open-minded person and more willing to challenge my assumptions.
when did you discover your interest in science and engineering? At the time, was it an unusual choice for a girl to choose science as a field of study?
I started with a love of space and exploration. In the 90s, most kids grew up with Star Wars and Star Trek loved space. And for me, the film Apollo 13 was one of the ones that marked me.
Most kids my age at the time would say they wanted to be astronauts. I think I'm just like, the one that kind of like, never gave up on that dream. I was like, “Yeah, astronaut, that sounds like a thing I could do.”
I was always kind of tinkering and trying to understand the world around me as a kid. I put two and two together and realized that that could be a career path for me.
But it certainly took me a while to even figure out that it could be a career path. When I was watching those movies or seeing who I thought were like famous astronauts or engineers.
There weren't very many women, let alone women of colour, let alone, French-Canadian women of colour who come from a small town called Joliet! So it took me a while to figure out my place.
Even in high school when I talked to my career advisor and was like, “Hey, I am interested in going into engineering,” she said, “Do you think that's the right path for you? It's a male-dominated field. I don't know if you're going to find your place in that world.”
I was pretty angry at the time, and I was like, I'll show you. Looking back on it with a more mature eye now, I realized that she didn't mean badly. She was kind of warning me of the challenges that were going to come.
It was not common. Society didn't and still doesn't always look at a young girl who's good in school and say, “Oh, you should be an engineer, or you should be an astronaut or you should work in tech.”
I heard a lot of things like, “You should be a teacher or a doctor.” All great roles, but very social or people-facing roles. We tend to bin women who have high abilities in those roles rather than offering them all the opportunities that are out there.
girls and boys have the same average scores on tests. And yet, boys are twice as likely as girls to pursue STEM…
It's crazy! But things are changing. When I was a kid, there was the boy's aisle, and there's the girl's aisle. And you are only supposed to pick from there.
Because of that, a lot of girls lost interest in science fairly young. And they still do. And often it was because you were told, oh, that's not a girly thing to do or you were teased because you liked nerdier things.
I've seen that people are more aware of that and it changed a lot in the past few years. So I'm hopeful that those statistics might change in the next generation. But we'll see.
well, we do need models like yourself to show the possibilities there. And especially at NASA. So tell us about how you get there?
It comes with a lot of perseverance. I often say that when you have a big dream, it's a little bit easier sometimes to not lose sight of it. So I always had this dream of working at NASA and specifically working in robotic exploration. And so I kind of went for it. I know it sounds weird, but how else are you going to get there?
So I ended up pursuing studies in aerospace engineering in England. At the end of my master's degree, I had a job offer to go work at Rolls-Royce. Great company to work on jet engines. It was going to be cool, the forefront of technology, in line with the work that I was doing. I'd even accepted the job, and then I got a Ph.D. offer from MIT, and that was completely in line with that dream of mine.
That was one of those big turning points in my life of like, “Oh, which path do I go down?” And I ended up investing myself and saying, “OK, well, I'm going to take this leap of faith and go to MIT.” I ended up with internships. Internships are a great way to figure out not only where you might want to work, what the right cultural fit might be. But it's also where you can think of it as a ten-week interview.
For employers, it's a great way to get to know you, a great way to build a relationship. It's a great foot in the door at a lot of companies. And for me, that's how I ended up finding my place and ended up getting a job offer.
how is it, and did you ever have to face bias or obstacles? And how did you overcome some of the challenges?
Absolutely. As a woman, a woman of colour, an immigrant, a young person. Of course, I've encountered biases. We have to be realistic about that. Nowhere is perfect. A lot of places are improving. I've had individuals or situations where I've been treated differently.
I can't tell you the number of times that people just assumed I was the secretary because I was the woman in the room. But also more egregious things of not being given proper credit for the work I've done or not being asked questions about the work that I've done and other people being asked those questions!
One, the environment has improved. When I started as a working professional, if I brought up the word “sexism” or “bias,” or if I brought up the fact that I felt like I was treated differently. I was often just told like, “Oh no, Farah, it's in your head. Like, sexism didn't exist in 2010,” and it's like, “Well, what do you mean? Like, I'm feeling it right now.”
So say what you will about the book Lean In. I do think that when that book came out, for myself, I was like, “Oh, I'm not alone.” And second, he got a lot of people talking, and it was one of the catalysts for the change that we're seeing today.
The way that I've managed to get through it is by finding allies. By finding people who are not minorities who might be able to give me a seat at the table! But also people who maybe are minorities but that can still amplify my voice or at least empathize with what's going on and help rectify the situation. It's not something that anyone can do alone. It's always part of a cultural change, but also it's part of us helping each other.
That's been helpful, and that's what I try to do for others also. I try to be sensitive to that in meetings and conversations to make sure that everyone can come and feel like their work is valued and that they feel respected and that they can be themselves in the workplace.
So it helps you be a better leader from that perspective. And a better team worker as well?
It brings a lot of empathy. And a lot of this is about empathy. If you can put yourself in someone else's shoes and put yourself in, understand how they might be feeling, even though they might have a different personality, they might approach things a different way, that then your actions will come from a good place and you'll be able to help them.
do you think mentorship is one of the keys to helping women get into STEM and be comfortable in STEM?
Mentorship, in general, is an important tool, just full stop. It's particularly true in engineering and my job because what I learned in school is not what I do in my day-to-day life.
That's probably true of a lot of jobs. But it's not like I could ever learn how to build a Mars rover in school. But, some people have built Mars rovers before the one that landed on Mars recently. So you can learn from them or at least learn what they did and then adapt from there and learn and improve.
So a lot of engineering is about apprenticeship; it's about mentorship. One of the reasons why there is inequity in the workplace is not because there wasn't mentorship. It's because people tend to mentor people who look like them.
If you are a white man and you look up, and there are ten white men in your management, it is very easy to go find a mentor or someone who will see themselves in you and be willing to help you.
It is much harder for a brown woman to look above them and be like, “Well, no one looks like me. No one will relate to my experience.” That doesn't mean they can't be good mentors. It's just a lot harder as an employee to then approach someone and try to be mentored.
So formalizing the mentorship process and encouraging mentorship is something that will help with equity. It does give everyone that equal footing. It's not just an all-boys club. It's not just like, “Oh, I know you, I'm going to push you in this position.”
And hopefully, eventually, once you do hit a little bit more diversity, then it becomes more organic. People will get used to not just mentoring the people that look like them but trying to identify multiple younger engineers that they can help shepherd their careers.
what do you think we can still do to empower women and to encourage women to go into STEM, based on what all of you went through?
Target the one to 10 and 10 to 12 age range, make science fun and accessible, and show them that it can be fun and it can be a career. And not just for boys!
Show positive role models to the age 12 to 18, before you go to a university, examples of women and minorities who are successful in their field! Those are the things that we're missing for me.
That would have helped me to realize that it's not just Mae Jamison and Julie Payette that have made it. There are all of these women, in all of these places that look like me all have similar experiences that have made it in their field!
When it comes to college, it's about making sure that :
- depending on your pool of applicants, internships are equitable,
- you're providing people with opportunities,
- and that you take into account the socioeconomic effect of offering an internship.
For example, I was able to go do an internship that wasn't close to my home because they were paying me well enough to pay rent. I didn't have any responsibilities at home, but that's not necessarily true for everyone if you're from a different socioeconomic background.
So being sensitive to that and understanding if we want to increase equity, we have to offer better salaries for students to be able to come out here so they can also sustain their families.
The statistics show that the number of women entering STEM classes is generally improving. But retention is another huge problem.
The issues behind retention are huge. Then we have to look at if we are achieving parity in terms of how we are promoting women, the opportunities that we're giving them? Do we have appropriate child care? Do we have appropriate support at home?
It's a huge challenge. I've positively seen a lot of industries making progress in that. They realize that progress has to come from more than just within their companies.
So it's been beautiful to see a lot of companies invest in education. Invest in internships. Invest in young people. They're realizing that by doing this, they're investing in that future workforce. That should be part of a companies' strategic plan and where they want to go as a company.
so the future is bright for young girls to go into STEM. It's getting better and better, as you say. We can just reinforce that message and the work and make everyone accountable for it. It's the role of everybody to take part in that.
Absolutely. I think you're right; the future is bright. We are taking wonderful steps in that direction. Everyone needs to be accountable to help fix this issue, fix this sort of disparity that we have in our society.
what's next for you over the year?
I'll be looking over the next few years to continue moving from position to position within my company and looking at getting bigger leadership roles, more influential.
When it comes to learning, and so getting more and more technical responsibility and things like that, it's a never-ending field. That's what my work will look like.
In terms of my outside of work, I've been spending a lot of time in schools and companies giving conferences. Share my experience and some of the things that I've gone through brought me a lot of joy.
We hope the insights will help you better understand the role women like Farah Alibay play in changing the workplace and inspire you in your journey to find out more about our women transforming the workplace program. If you’d like more information on how Women are Transforming the workplace, check out www.randstad.ca/women
Women Who Innovate is a podcast series presented by Randstad Canada as part of our #WomenWhoInnovate program. We here at Randstad Canada are proud to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our Women Transforming the Workplace program aimed at helping women navigate the ever-evolving world of work.
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