The EHL Women in Leadership (WIL) Virtual Expert Series had the privilege to welcome Deborah Müller, a young professional space engineer with over ten years' experience. Currently the Director of Innovation & Business Development at RUAG International, Deborah shared with us her passion about the space industry and the place of women who want to reach the stars in this predominantly male sector.
The space industry
Space industry concerns the manufacture of all or part of a component of a space system, space vehicles, such as artificial satellites and launchers. It is an extensive market which influences our lives daily. Without this industry, mobile communication as we know it, watching live TV broadcasts, having a mobile phone and being able to continuously connect through the 4G would not be possible, along with using a GPS or predicting the weather! People work in the space industry for a great range of reasons: telecom, security, earth & weather observations, human space flights, lunar missions, planetary explorations, test launchers and scientific research.
Inspiring women in STEM: Deborah Müller’s career path
Since she was 4 years old, Deborah Müller’s dream, like her motto “Reach for the stars and beyond”, was to become an astronaut. She was inspired by the Swiss astronaut, Claude Nicollier, who she had the chance to meet with her sister in the United States at the Johnson Space Center Houston. An event she considers as one of the highlights of her life.
Deborah also has a second passion, flying! She got her glider license at 15 (before her driving permit!). After high school, she attended a camp at the Euro Space Center and wanted to become a rescue helicopter air pilot – but this was not possible due to an eye condition. She then started thinking about alternatives. She went to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and graduated with a Bachelor and Master in Materials Science & Engineering. During her studies, she contributed to the creation of the first nano-satellite in Switzerland. After her Master’s thesis, she joined a young graduate program at the European Space Agency (ESA), where she participated in developing and testing coating materials for satellites. Her first real job at the European Spaceport in French Guyana was the second highlight of her life, which launched her career and where she learned to cope with challenges.
Since 2016 she has been working for RUAG Space Zürich, and today, she still has the same dream: becoming an astronaut! Her motivation when getting up every day is to one day be selected over a million participants, and change or create something in the world of space.
Q&As with Deborah Müller
What inspired you to step into the aerospace industry?
A fascination for analyzing and understanding the stars, sun, universe; how planet earth was born and works. To develop an idea into a realistic product that supports humans and nature, such as building satellites to analyze glacier cycles, to observe meteorological phenomenon and warn populations in advance, to support people in navigation (rescuing the injured, distributing supplies, etc.), to look for life forms on another planets, to create new opportunities for producing fuel through Marsian soil, observe solar activity, etc. Space is untouchable, immense, a big unknown. We still do not know exactly how large the cosmos (black matter) actually is… but this gives us the opportunity to still discover so much more.
Would you attribute the successful evolution of your career to your diverse passions (flying, sports, music)?
Definitely, the values and lessons learned come via your hobbies and passions, they help to form your character and how you cope with failure, stress, emotions. You get to know your limits and how to react in different situations that arise in everyday life.
Aviation has helped me cope with men having strong opinions, (most of them coming from the army), and not really accepting women in the cockpit. I learned to follow clear strategic and disciplined check lists, to repeat steps with a focused consistency in order to be able to keep calm in emergency situations (engine failure, electricity break-down, etc.) and how to make fast and clear decisions.
Sport has taught me to cope with failure, to stand up and never give up trying, to bring out my best form at specific times, to learn to work hard on a planned objective even if certain periods are difficult and frustrating. You feel proud and emotionally overwhelmed when you succeed after a long-suffering period of hard work. In team sports, you learn to listen to each other and observe the game's strategy, to work in a team and give space to everybody, accepting each other’s assets. Crazy mountain and jungle trails have helped me overcome physical and mental limits, to challenge my psychology, to get to know myself better in stressful situations and to pro-actively know how to react to undefined problems. Finally, music gives me space to express my creativity, to learn to play in front of people or with different musicians, and to cope with nerves.
Are there any interesting differences you have observed between male & female scientists in aerospace industry?
Yes, women and men think differently and attack problem-solving from different angles. Men are more direct, straight to a point (though not always), get easily upset and must have a clear structure. Women are strong at multitasking, they have adapted leadership skills and empathy, can pro-actively plan ahead and are more flexible to changes. Naturally, a woman is forced her entire life to adapt herself to life cycles (puberty, motherhood, menopause, etc.). Therefore, it is important to have a good balance between men and women in leadership and top management positions because of these differences. Per se, not depending on quotas, which is not good for the image, but women should be chosen for their competences and performance.
Have you ever felt treated differently as a woman and taken less seriously? If yes, how did you make your place in this "manly" industry?
Women are generally under-represented in engineering sectors. I had a very bad time during my studies from old-fashioned thinking professors. My family and environment were my source of energy. My dream to become an astronaut and fulfil my objectives in aeronautics have driven my motivation. Once working in the industry, I have not felt a difference at the engineering level. However when it comes to changing positions with more responsibilities, that is where the difference starts to show up again.
Women in middle and top management are under-represented. The typical male manager tends to think that women are not "hardline" enough, cannot defend their points enough, or are too emotional for such jobs. The pre-judgments of society that women between 30 and 40 leave their jobs anyway for a family life, and the lack of societal support to be able to combine family life and career, definitely do not help to overcome such barriers. (I would like to underline that not all men should be put in the same pot, women neither! It is just a general statement based on what I've experienced throughout my short career.)
What are the key skills that have made you stand out as a woman in this industry?
There is no recipe of skills, it is the whole package that makes you different. A person should not be minimized to hard skills, but also to character traits such as emotional intelligence and soft skills. The interests and knowhow gained through hobbies, volunteering, etc. give you a huge gain for the future. The key factors that have helped me to stand out are my strong will to pursue my dream, the motivation to make a change, the perseverance and discipline to work hard and not give up if things get difficult.
What have been your proudest professional moments?
On a professional level, when you see your work launching successfully from the European Spaceport and reach the technical set objectives. Having dreamt of being a rocket scientist, it is just awesome to see the original launcher in front of you and be able to work on it. Another highlight was when I got a call from ESTEC (European Space Research and Technology Center) to say that I was selected as an intern after accomplishing my Master thesis in their laboratories in Noordwijk, Netherlands. Throughout my career path, every milestone that I have wanted to achieve with hard work behind me has been a highlight. You should always take the opportunities to celebrate the achievements, even if they are small steps.
How do women in leadership roles succeed? Deborah's attitude & advice
Be yourself, stay positive, enjoy new adventures and try to get to know yourself. Curiosity, passion and discipline are what will help to dream it and do it! In order to stand out as a woman, it’s important to know how to communicate and lead effectively. Knowing how to turn things positively, to always learn something from every situation is a great force. Experiment failure even if it’s frustrating. It is actually a great way to come out stronger. If something does not work, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. On the contrary, it can give you a new direction!
According to Deborah, women and men have a very distinctive mindset and way of working. Women tend to be less aggressive in making their point, more resilient and more empathic (maybe due to the fact there are only about 9-12 women out of 180 people in her department). Men tend to pursue and push until they attain what they want. She believes women should be acting more strategically, be less resilient at putting up with certain situations and should fight more. Women have a specific way of addressing problems and finding solutions. Her advice is to connect with strategic sparring partners representing the same values, to not change yourself, and to make your point according to how your coworkers process and respond to information. Companies should not necessarily have gender quotas, but the hiring process should feature him/her competencies in order to find the right person to fit the team.