Breaking the Gendered Stereotypes

The contribution of women in the field of astronomy is something that is to be marveled about. From being a part of the Hubble Project to being a part of space exploration, times have changed. There used to be a time when women were not integrated into space science, and now they play pivotal roles across various projects related to astronomy. Shahana Pagen is an addition to that collection of stars, and she speaks about breaking the gendered glass ceiling.

By Rehnuma Karim PhD

“Achieving gender equality requires the engagement of women and men, girls and boys. It is everyone’s responsibility” – Ban Ki-Moon

In front of the NASA logo in 2015 at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Situation for women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has come a long way. But despite the progress that has been made, globally less than 30% of scientific and technological researchers are women and the number has been stagnant for quite a while. According to a World Economic Forum (WEF) report, it was found that as countries become wealthier and achieve more gender equality, women seem less likely to go into STEM careers. Shahan Pagen, who is a Senior Digital Design Engineer with Genesis Engineering Inc with a career as a hardware design engineer at NASA’s reputable Goddard Space Flight Center since 2002, also echoed this finding as she mentioned how she sometimes felt lonely as an undergraduate student in the male-dominated engineering courses while studying at the University of Maryland.

Although Shahana was born in the USA, her parents brought her back to Bangladesh as a child to be enculturated with her own Bangladeshi roots. Leaving the familiar environment in which she was born and then being uprooted into another environment was no doubt a big adjustment process for her. But she did all that with an open mind and kept on her trajectory of success, excelling in her Secondary School Certification (SSC) and Higher Secondary Certification (HSC) exams. After completing her HSC, she left for the USA from where she got her undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland and her Masters in the same field from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University. After her graduation, she worked with Hughes Network Systems being involved with designing hardware for Telecommunication systems. Afterward, she joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and went on to become the recipient of NASA’s Individual Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal, and multiple Exceptional Achievement Team medals.

Since childhood, Shahana possessed a strong critical thinking ability that made her a natural problem solver, especially when it came to math and science. She found Math to be more straightforward and enjoyed the subject more than other opinion-based subjects at school. Being a pragmatic individual and also being a daughter of an engineer—she naturally was drawn to choose the path of engineering as a career. She is currently designing control electronics hardware for the Roman Space Telescope (RST), Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE), and On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1 (OSAM-1) Satellites.

When Colors asked her how she became interested specifically in the design aspect, Shahana mentioned how she took several courses in the university which piqued her initial interest in digital electrical engineering. One of which was hands-on actual hardware design experience. This one course changed her entire mindset. Her interest grew when she took a class with a professor whose teaching style was quite different than the other faculties. He started to bring real-life applications into the class, which stimulated Shahana’s focus from software to hardware engineering.

Shahana Pagen with scientist Michelle Thaller

When NASA began in 1958, the employees were mainly male (and white), it was, in one word, known as the male-oriented society. Since that day till today, the industry is still largely male-dominated. Even in this progressive decade, women are not so much encouraged to join engineering or NASA and are often pushed to follow a career path less challenging. However, on the positive side, the number of women working at NASA have grown since the agency’s founding. And many women scientists are making significant strides in the nation’s space program. Shahana fondly talked about her experience back in Hughes which was quite different than in NASA. In Hughes she had more female colleagues. She came across many East Asian women in Hughes, who held extreme passion in the world of tech. Often due to visa restrictions, the demographic of female engineers (for example from Asian countries) is more limited at NASA, though it has increased over the years. It is also worth noting that in more recent times female engineers and scientists, while not as common, still hold a decent percentage of leadership roles at NASA and their salaries are on par with the male equivalent. However, there is still work to do to close the gap and increase the numbers to match their male counterparts.

When asked about her thoughts on why this gap exists between men and women choosing a profession in the field of STEM, Shahana believes that it is often the upbringing of daughters which is determined by the patriarchal societies all around the world and not the intellectual capacity of girls that creates misconceptions and causes these gaps. To bring real changes in this mindset, the daughters have to be encouraged and challenged more by their families and society as a whole. The thought processes need to be molded through family, schools, and the community showing them that they can achieve anything that they want and are not constrained through their gender. The French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in her The Second Sex (1949), critiqued the bedrock of Enlightenment philosophy, which is ‘Man is not a natural species: he is a historical idea,’ where Beauvoir claimed that the idea of Human is showcased or written in a biased form and is certainly not universal, it merely is a byproduct of how society tended to mold the thought process of women and systematically degrade them. Shahana’s thought process conjoined with Beauvoir’s theory. As she put forward how society tends to put limitations upon young girls. As discussion took place regarding work-life balance, Shahana mentioned that her husband, who is a strong secured man in his own identity and is also an engineer working at NASA, has no problem with her salary sometimes being higher than his own as these things naturally fluctuate over the years. He has always been extremely supportive of her work, with no issues on gender stereotypes. Being a mother of two sons, Shahana also consciously aspires to shape the mindset of her children, instilling the values of treating and respecting everyone equally with no discrimination. When it comes to gender roles, Shahana agrees that there might be some limitations physically to some extent (for example if the need of physical strength was required in a career), however, intellect is not a gendered domain as it is all about effort and energy. She added, “Everything that we do is effort-based and not gender-based.”

During the 1960s the missions which were widely based on the moon mission encouraged technicians to make better helmets and backyard bottle rockets. As for today, hands-on research inspires the next generation to watch, learn and participate in space-based research. According to ISS National Lab, Astronaut Sunita Williams herself answered several students’ questions and queries during a session of Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS). This program was covered worldwide, and young learners around the world experienced the excitement of talking directly to the crew members on the space station. The students not only enjoyed the session but it also encouraged them to pursue careers in science, technology, math, and engineering. Shahana hopes that Bangladeshi schools and colleges too, will organize and make use of these events. Apart from this, the schools need to start small and organize science fairs and make the children interested in the wonders of science. She believes that opportunities need to be created for both genders as early as the kindergarten level because children have the ability to absorb information at that age. Then with each passing year, these opportunities can be increased with new exposure opportunities, long before the age when the student must choose a college career. These exposures should never be gender-based. Educators need to find a way to excite and educate families and seek the same opportunities for both their sons and daughters equally. Additionally, when it comes to STEM, hands-on experimentation experiences will excite the young learners. If Shahana was given the chance, she would encourage the schools to have design and coding labs. Coding should be introduced at an early age, for the children to learn and acquire computer skills at a very young age.

Shahana takes her inspiration from the women of the 19th century. In an era of heavy constrictions, the women scientists were ahead of their time. She loves to read their journeys and how they developed their projects. She particularly loved what Marie Curie researched. She believed her work was phenomenal, it deserves all the credits that it has received. Shahana considers these women to be extremely strong and unassailable paving the way for women like her in the field of science and technology. Shahana herself being a strong female in technology has managed to put a mark in the world with her tremendous work on projects like being the technical lead for the Instrument Command and Data Handling subsystem for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and a lead FPGA designer for the Micro shutter Control Electronics and Focal Plane Array Electronics for JWST’s science instruments (estimated launch date 2021). In addition, her designs have flown in NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) Mission (launch date 2015), Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite 2 (ICESAT-2) mission (launch date 2018), and others.

No doubt that she is making Bangladesh proud, showing how a South Asian woman can be emboldened with the power to make a difference through science when she is given the right environment to thrive being armed with her own self-discipline and determination.

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