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by Leslie Bradshaw


How Do We Inspire and Recruit More Female Astronauts and Scientists?

Originally posted on Forbes.


This Saturday marks the one year anniversary of the first foursquare check-in from space. Not only did it knock Antarctica out of the running for the coolest check-in ever made, but it also made my personal list for the ‘coolest project I’ve worked on in my entire career… ever.’ The woman behind getting the Space Act Agreement inked with partner foursquare, as well as the team lead behind NASA’s social media engagement programs is Stephanie Schierholz.

Not only has Stephanie been an incredible co-conspirator and mentor, but she has also been an advocate for and living proof of getting more women in the aerospace field. Talk about an incredible place to get more women, more seats. Let’s blast off.

Background Information:

Name: Stephanie L. Schierholz

Hometown: Colorado native, born in Ft. Collins and raised in Colorado Springs.

Current City: Washington, D.C.

Employer & Job Title: Social Media Manager and Public Affairs Specialist at NASA Headquarters

Educational Background: MBA from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business; undergraduate degrees in English and Business Administration (with a concentration in Public Relations)

Previous Work Experience: Before coming to NASA, I was the director of communications for the Space Foundation

LB: What kind of impact has Women in Aerospace had on the advancement, mentorship and recruitment of women? Any qualitative or quantitative insights you can share?

SLS: I’ve asked WIA if they have any sort of report or data to answer your first question. Broadly, I can tell you that for 25 years, Women in Aerospace has been dedicated to expanding women’s opportunities for leadership and increasing their visibility in the aerospace community. They incorporated the WIA Foundation in 2009 to provide financial assistance in the form of scholarships to eligible college seniors or rising juniors and have now given two scholarships. The membership consists of 600+ individuals and more than 50 corporate members. WIA provides its members with professional development opportunities, networking events, high-profile speakers and events, annual awards to recognize outstanding women leaders, and career resources.

LB: The White House released a STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) fact sheet about women and girls on Friday. In it, there were major opportunities begging to be acted on by women. You also mentioned that if you had to do it again, you would go after being an engineer (for the record, I’ve had that thought too). What do we need to do for the next generation of Stephanies and Leslies so this gap in women having more seats in STEM educational fields and jobs is eliminated?

SLS: Girls need to see women in those roles. I believe it’s getting better, as we have more role models than our mothers did, but I also believe that we must take personal responsibility for making it better. My sister is a fifth grade school teacher. Whenever I’m home, I visit her class and talk to her students about working at NASA. It’s why I’m involved with WIA, trying to encourage those who are in the field to stay and to increase the opportunities for them. It is our responsibility to make these fields accessible and realistic places for girls to want to work. We need to be recruiters. From the fact sheet, the thing that jumped out to me was the note about income parity. Maybe we just need to tell girls they’ll make more money. There’s an article I read that really stuck with me about how it is our responsibility to monitor how we *talk* to young girls, e.g. instead of telling them they’re pretty, ask them which book they’re reading and talk about it. Make the conversations we have with girls about their minds and their intellects, not about their clothes and appearances.

LB: NASA is highly active in social media and in fact has been touted as having on of — if not the — highest “digital IQ.” Are women driving this in any significant way (strategically, through participation, etc.), is it more driven by men, or is it egalitarian?

SLS: NASA is honored to be recognized as a leader in its digital IQ. I’m the social media manager at NASA Headquarters, responsible for overseeing our social media activities across all ten NASA centers. We have a social media lead at each center, with whom I coordinate on a regular basis. At eight of the ten NASA centers plus one additional facility, women are the social media leads (that doesn’t count me, so 10 of 12 with me). So it is accurate to say that women are driving NASA’s leadership in social media.When we look more broadly at participation and contribution to any particular social media account, it is much more egalitarian. Additionally, when you look more broadly at web, mobile, apps, etc., then it definitely is more balanced.

LB: When you think of female role models and mentors, who comes to mind?

SLS: The strongest female role model I had growing up was my mother. My mom was a single parent raising four children. She accomplished everything from baking gorgeous, delicious cakes to installing ceiling fans. She modeled independence and perseverance. I still believe there’s nothing my mom can’t do or isn’t willing to try. Because she modeled those characteristics, I grew up with a strong sense that I could do anything – or at least try.

I have had many fabulous mentors and role models, both male and female. I feel very lucky to be an active member of Women in Aerospace, where I have the opportunity to forge closer relationships with amazing women in leadership roles as well as learn from their lifetimes of experience.

I’m very lucky to have gotten to meet and speak with some of my female heroes, including astronauts Eileen Collins, Peggy Whitson, Pam Melroy, and Sandy Magnus.

LB: Who has influenced you most?

SLS: In my professional life, one of the people who has had the greatest influence is Steve Eisenhart at the Space Foundation. Steve hired me as an intern, then hired me after I graduated, then hired me back after I left for the better part of a year to participate in an exchange program in Germany. Steve was an incredible boss who struck just the right balance between teaching and mentoring a young employee and giving me room to be autonomous, grow, try new things, and fail and learn from my mistakes.

LB: What drives you? What motivates you to get out of bed, stay late and / or work on the weekends?

SLS: My parents instilled in me a very good work ethic, created a family in which learning was valued, and had high expectations for a job well done. I grew up relatively poor and had to earn any money I wanted to spend. Nothing was ever handed to me, and that made me appreciate everything I have earned. It also gives me the drive to go out and earn the things I want in life. Both my parents are sticklers for quality, teaching me to do the job well and with pride, not just get it done. That’s what keeps me at work late and on the weekends. I do a job I love, working in the space industry. It’s a privilege to get to support human spaceflight. Six people are always orbiting Earth, 220+ miles above us on the space station. If they’re on duty, I can be too, even on nights and weekends.

LB: What key personal characteristics do you see in yourself that you’ve found especially critical in achieving success?

SLS: Persistence, passion and diligence are key to achieving success. Sticking with it and asking (and asking again) are important. Being there also is important. Some opportunities in life are only available to those who have stuck around. Pursuing your passion or finding something in your work to love (even if you don’t love all of it) will keep you going when you might otherwise want to quit. And being diligent about doing the work is critical. Your end product is a reflection of the inputs along the way.

Learning how to handle criticism also is key. It’s important really to listen to what people are saying when they criticize. Take what they have to say, examine it to see if it is true. If it is true, what adjustments need to be made? If it isn’t true, then you can set it aside. People always will criticize; let the work you do speak louder than the critics.

LB: How would you describe your approach to the world?

SLS: The world fascinates me. My desire is to experience and learn as much as I can. So, I work hard, I try to pursue things I love and in which I’m interested, but keep my mind open to new experiences and ways of doing things.

LB: What magazines, books, newspapers, and/or information sources do you study?

SLS: My favorites are the New York Times and New Yorker. I try to rotate books I read between novels, biographies/histories and science. I just finished “The Disappearing Spoon,” which is a really great book about chemistry and the world around us framed through the device of the periodic table of the elements. I also am a huge fan of Shakespeare, so I work him in where I can as well.

LB: What values are you committed to?

SLS: I’m committed to doing the job well, with commitment and passion, and treating people professionally and with respect.

LB: What, if any, distinct traits have you seen fellow female coworkers bring to the workplace? Do you yourself exhibit them? (Why or why not?)

SLS: My observation is women are more likely to be very good listeners and to consider a more holistic approach. That is, they tend to really attempt to hear what is being communicated and ask probing questions to get to the bottom of the real concerns. Of course, I was taught how to do this well by a male professor (thanks, Dr. Miller!). Coupled with that, they are more likely to look at the big picture and the whole process, rather than just an individual part of the process. Men are better at compartmentalizing, but then they don’t always step back to see the whole.

LB: What was your first job? What did it teach you that remains with you today?

SLS: My very first job was babysitting, at age 11. My next job was waiting tables at restaurants. My first intern job was as an (unpaid) reporter-in-training at our local ABC Television affiliate. My first job after earning my bachelor’s degree was as the manager of Space Awareness and Policy Initiatives at the Space Foundation. I was responsible for two programs – the Space Technology Hall of Fame and Space Certification Program – whose goal was to raise the level of awareness about how many ways our lives on Earth have been improved by technologies originally developed for the space program. As the manager of an awards program with a panel of judges who were luminaries in the aerospace industry, I learned as a very young person how to interact with senior leaders. I learned to think critically about what I was about to say before opening my mouth in front of people who had so much experience and could teach me. I learned to ask questions to gain a bigger picture perspective before just making a comment.

LB: Did you make assumptions when you first started your career that subsequently proved to be wrong? What sort of insights did you gain?

SLS: I’ve learned that assumptions can be very self-limiting. I always was interested in working at NASA, but I assumed I couldn’t, so I didn’t even look into it, much less apply, until someone at the agency suggested I should. I applied four times before I was hired, but it was amazing how just having the idea that I could inspired me to pursue it.

When I came to NASA, I had built a reputation of excellence at the Space Foundation. Not all my new colleagues had worked with me before, so although I assumed people would choose to work with me or not based on my quality of work, many times politics or their personal feelings about me shaped how they worked with me. I assumed you could rise above office politics if you simply did a good job. I was wrong. Sometimes the office politics dominate, regardless of how good you are. An important realization was that I don’t like everyone, so why should I expect everyone to like me? That said, I still believe it’s important to treat everyone professionally, even if they don’t.

LB: What do you like most about what you do?

SLS: I honestly believe we all are better off because of what we achieve through exploration of the universe around us, and I feel very honored to get to play a small role in the nation’s space program.

LB: How do you give credit where credit is due?

SLS: Teams are important, and recognizing each person’s contribution is important. When recognized for my work, I strive to recognize the work of the team and those who supported me to make it possible. Sometimes just a verbal or written thank you is all someone needs. It’s important to pass along kind words and credit. When I get words of thanks or recognition for team work, I pass those along to the team. Early in my career, a few people wrote letters to my boss when I did a job well, and I think that is a great way to recognize people and give them credit. I also look for bigger ways of recognition, such as nominating deserving individuals or teams for awards.

LB: What, if anything, drives you nuts about male coworkers?

SLS: The most frustrating attitude I encounter from male coworkers is the persistent idea that if you are a strong, independent, rational, driven woman, you also are unfeeling. The same characteristics admired in male colleagues turn me into a cold-hearted, uncompassionate person in their minds. Yet, if you are a woman who shows emotion, you quickly can be dismissed as not fit for leadership.

It drives me crazy that if I want to be taken seriously, it is more important for me to pay close attention to my appearance than it is for my male colleagues to do so.

LB: Have you ever encountered the “Glass Ceiling”? Was it possible to overcome it? How?

SLS: I work in a very male-dominated industry. While I haven’t yet encountered a position I cannot have because I am a woman, I definitely have encountered sexism and demeaning comments related to being a woman. I’ve also been the recipient of off-color humor and innuendo. Depending on the situation, I’ve found it most effective either to call it out and state that I find such “jokes” inappropriate or to ignore it.

LB: How do you deal with uncertainty? How do you approach the unknown?

SLS: The first step in dealing with uncertainty is to identify what parts (if any), you can learn about to gain some certainty and which parts will remain uncertain and why. Then I try to analyze what the consequences of the uncertainty are and what, if anything, I can do to mitigate them. Recognizing that you’ve done what you can do, and the rest is out of your hands is a really important place to get to with uncertainty. Being a DC metro rider has helped me achieve some level of zen I didn’t have before. If a train is delayed or breaks down unexpectedly, there’s not much I can do about it if I am stuck somewhere. So just accept it and focus on what I can do in the meantime.

LB: What has been the main challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career at NASA?

SLS: When I came to NASA, many of my new colleagues assumed I was a political appointee of the Bush administration (I am a civil servant) or that I just got the job because I knew the hiring official, not because I was qualified. Neither was true. However, as a result, many of my colleagues were quite icy toward me. The best way to overcome it was just to do the best job I could and be patient and honest with them.

LB: What would you do differently if you had to do it all over again?

SLS: If I could do things differently, I would get a science or engineering degree. I wanted to be an astronaut but knew my poor eyesight would prevent me from becoming a pilot, a common career path for astronauts. As a result, I pursued a different path, but the more I am around scientists and engineers, the more I respect and admire them and wish I had gotten a science or engineering degree.

LB: What three pieces of advice would you offer young women looking to create a career similar to yours?

  1. Don’t let anyone – yourself included – tell you that you can’t. Believe in yourself.
  2. Cultivate relationships with a diverse group of people who inspire you. One of the most valuable things about my MBA program was the relationships I formed with my classmates who are from many walks of life and professions. They are a valuable resource for me, not only as friends, but in subject areas in which I am not an expert.
  3. It’s okay to not know. There is no world in which I could have told you three years ago that I would be, or even want to be, a social media manager. Be willing to try and learn new things.

To keep in touch with Stephanie, follow her @schierholz

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

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