Podcast: Fostering Interest for Women and Girls in STEM and the UAS Industry

June 27, 2018

Sharing is Caring

This presentation addresses the often-asked question, “Where are the women?”

Susan Bickford is the owner of New England UAV, a drone consulting company based out Rochester, NH and works as the Stewardship Coordinator and GIS Specialist at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. She holds a Master of Science Degree in Resource Management and Conservation from Antioch University New England and developed the GIS certificate program for the Environmental Studies Program at the University of New England in Biddeford Maine. Susan’s vision is to incorporate GIS and drone technology to advance the use of critically needed remotely sensed data into the environmental decision-making process.


You can also download or listen via iTunes.


I was recently in Denver attending the AUVSI Xponential conference. It was a mind-blowing event. There were eight thousand attendees and over six hundred and fifty vendors out on the vendor floor. They had unmanned aircraft systems, unmanned ground systems, and unmanned water systems. Really, I just wanted to take home a sample of each. It was just fantastic. And I will talk about more about this later. One thing that I did love about Denver was that there was art everywhere that you looked. It was just incredible. This [photo below] was a mural that I found on my first day walking to the conference center, and it inspired me so much that I felt I needed to start out our conversation with this. If you look closely at her name tag, it says, “Hello, my name is AWSUM!!!” I thought about the questions that we're going to talk about here, about women in the drone industry. This girl portrayed on the mural is exactly the kind of young woman that I hope the future holds for the drone industry; so much so, that I resolved to write this on all my future stick on name tags. 


Photo by Sue Bickford. Art by Naomi Haverland in Denver, CO 

One of the reasons that I am speaking here today is because I was in the audience for the previous Drones Flying Free webinars, and it just happened that all the panelists were guys. So, during one of them, I texted in a question to Barbaree to simply say, “Where are the women?” And suddenly, here I am. so that was quite the adventure. I work as a stewardship coordinator and a GIS specialist at the Wells Reserve in Wells, Maine.  I’ve been there for almost twenty years, and in that time,  I’ve seen a huge change not only in the geospatial industry, but in technology in general. Just think about twenty years ago what we didn't have the technology and what we do now. The Wells Reserve is one of twenty-nine National Estuarine Research Reserves located around the United States and in Puerto Rico. These reserves a part of the NOAA state partnership and the real goal is to ensure healthy coastal habitats and thriving coastal communities. One of my main goals working at the reserve is to bring UAS technology into the natural resource management field. I’ve been making pretty good headway within the reserve system with twenty-nine of us in the past few years.  Also, during those past couple decades, I had a career as a combat weather forecaster for the Massachusetts Air National Guard, and was deployed to Tikrit, Iraq for a year in 2005. My time spent in Iraq is a whole other story in itself, being an environmentalist in the middle of a war zone, but I learned a lot about aviation support and a whole bunch of other stuff that came in really handy when I became interested in drones.

In 2012 there were rumors about civilian uses of drones, which before was really a military tool. It seemed that there was this collision of worlds happening with aviation and photography not being in software - recreational flying - it all seemed to be morphing into this new kind of industry. Since I really loved photography and I knew a few things about aviation, and I was an environmentalist, it seemed meant to be that I was going to jump on this bandwagon and start a drone company with another woman veteran, my business partner Allegra Ross. Like every other start up that's risen in past few years, New England UAV has really struggled to find our niche in this wide-open industry. I know that a lot of companies are struggling with that same thing. Where we landed as a company was helping colleges and universities integrate UAS curriculum into their already existing programs. My particular interests again are bringing UAS technology into the natural resource and environmental sciences for you. I’m fortunate enough to currently either partner with Unity College up in Unity, Maine to teach an eight week, fully online course that focuses on drone technology and environment. In the course the students will be flying training drones and learning to create policies and procedures just as if they were in a commercial operation. They'll also be studying Part 107 regulations to get them going on their path to getting the remote pilot's license, and we're also studying use cases every week where drones are being used in environmental sciences. I’m really excited about this course.

When I started to investigate the question, “Where are women in the drone industry?” I decided that we needed to take it a step back and ask a different question, “Where are women in aviation?” In 2010, David Ison from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University produced a paper, “The Future of Women in Aviation:

Trends in Participation in Post-Secondary Aviation Education,” in the Journal of Aviation Aerospace Education and Research where he investigated this very question. He began looking at college and university aviation programs as a pipeline for the aviation industry, so it would produce pilots and maintenance crews for the aviation industry. And he thought that was really similar to what community colleges and universities were trying to do now - to create students in a pipeline that would work towards workforce development. What he found in his survey was that women made up about ten percent of the student enrollment in the aviation programs, and women faculty within those programs was even smaller, less than eight percent.

But then, I decided that I needed to research a different question, and that was, “Where are the women in STEM - science, technology, engineering and math?” This is really a basic underlying question for any of the STEM jobs that people could have in the future. This discussion about STEM has been around for a long time. The need for more technical education began to appear in the 1950s, but the term STEM started first being used in the 1990s.

In 2011, Marie-Lynne Germain used the aviation industry again to illustrate a study on women employed in male dominated industries. She identified several barriers including lack of acceptance within the field, high personal self judgement in women, lack of support from society and their families, and the continued stereotype that men were better in technical fields than women. And then I started to find great organizations whose mission was to promote girls and women in STEM careers. I particularly liked an organization from Australia called She Flies . Their focus in on gender equality in STEM careers. The full name of this organization is She Flies because she CAN and I think that is awesome. I particularly like this quote from the website:

She Flies generates conversations around gender equality in STEM, using the world of drones to inspire and provide a platform for change to occur.

So here we have STEM education and drones- a match made in heaven really. Now the question comes back around to “ Where are the Women in the Drone Industry?”.

We see these kinds of graphs and they sort of paint a discouraging picture, so in this particular one, women are the four little airplanes of top and then the rest of them are men. I decided that it isn't about the question in the drone industry…it’s really about the answer, and the answer is, “We are right here!” We are all over the place and we are growing. Today we even make up fifty percent of this panel! Amazingly enough, at the XPonential conference, I met women (and some men) from She Flies, DartDrones and Women and Drones. Women and Drones in particular has great research about the women demographic in the UAS industry. They provided me some hard to find statistics about women remote pilots.

First of all, there are almost 3500 of us right here in the United States! And our numbers are growing every day. And the number of rising stars in their 20’s and 30’s is significant. They make up almost half of us. They are the ones that will carry this conversation forward to who knows what the industry will be in 10 years or even 5 years for that matter. But THESE(75 to 80+) - These are six ladies I would really love to have lunch with! I would really like to know their story. So, as I said, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend this year’s conference. I went to start conversations….about all kinds of things, but I particularly sought out conversations with other women in the industry.

Generating Conversation is key to solving any issue, and there were LOTS of conversations going on at conference, particularly in this session. It was sort of like speed dating- every fifteen minutes we rotated from one table to another and engaged in different topics. The discussion at one table was on building a list of women that could speak at technical conferences, another was about advancing women and girls in STEM and Abby lead a discussion about building a list of supporting roles other than remote pilots that women could develop such as maintenance, research and development, marketing, education… the list went on and on. I think she came up with several hundred careers that are involved in one way or another in the drone industry that are not recorded like the remote pilot numbers are. All of these discussion center around important information that to date is not being identified and researched about women’s’ roles in the drone industry. I think it had hampers our ability to tell a full story. I think that is one way that we can move forward. I had a great time out on the vendor floor. I talked with all kinds of people and really wanted to bring home one of everything. It was just so interesting to see the diversity of unmanned vehicles out there, but I was what I was particularly interested in is talking with women vendors and just finding out their stories. For instance, this woman's company provides emergency parachutes for drones. Her parents immigrated to the United States when she was very young. She now lives in Israel and works in the drone industry. Conversations need to extend far and wide, and we are right here, but we have a long way to go. In some places, women are just now being allowed to drive cars, never mind fly drones.

Here are some practical ideas about health helping to grow strong, confident women in manned aviation, in STEM careers, and in the drone industry. Supporting girls in stem programs is a huge step forward. One thing that we're finding out is that above the age of eight or nine, girls in mixed gender technology classes are very self-aware in the presence of boys, and they don't want to appear geeky, and are sensitive about failing. But if you take those site same girls and to put them into an all-girl course, they are much more confident and much more adventurous. Another thing is that some girls appear to have an underdeveloped space awareness, and we think that's just because of the way they were brought up, the toys that they played with, you know, getting them started in Legos and things like that. But this is an easy fix for getting them involved in the drum courses. This really helps build their spatial awareness. Other activities that helps us is like playing in sports or getting them involved in any kind of engineering. Two more important items are having woman role models for young girls and having women mentorship programs. And finally, probably the most important is to keep the conversation going. So I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to present at this webinar, and I want to say thanks for having me here and letting me have this conversation, even though it sort of one sided. If you would like to continue this conversation with me, I’ve listed my contact information here.

This lightning talk was part of the Drones Flying Free 2018 event co-hosted by DirectionsMag and the GeoTech Center.



Sharing is Caring

Explore more: Education, UAV & Drones

Geospatial Newsletters

Keep up to date with the latest geospatial trends!

Sign up

Search DM

Get Directions Magazine delivered to you
Please enter a valid email address
Please let us know that you're not a robot by using reCAPTCHA.
Sorry, there was a problem submitting your sign up request. Please try again or email editors@directionsmag.com

Thank You! We'll email you to verify your address.

In order to complete the subscription process, simply check your inbox and click on the link in the email we have just sent you. If it is not there, please check your junk mail folder.

Thank you!

It looks like you're already subscribed.

If you still experience difficulties subscribing to our newsletters, please contact us at editors@directionsmag.com