This year, NASA named six new flight directors to lead mission control at the Johnson Space Center. Pooja Jesrani is among them, breaking glass ceilings as the first South Asian woman to take on this opportunity. “We're in a really exciting time for the space program in the United States," Jesrani exclaimed. “I feel very honored and humbled."
Jesrani has always been interested in space. In fact, it was her father who inspired her. “I grew up with a dad who had an affinity for space and I think it sort of rubbed off on me," she shared. Her parents who are from India originally, moved to England and then the United States when she was 10 years old. Houston not only became her new home but was also home of the Johnson Space Center. Her father motivated her to pursue a career in aerospace engineering at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) after she finished high school.
Offiicial NASA portrait of Flight Director Pooja Jesrani. Photo Date: July 9, 2018. Location: Building 8, Room 183 - Photo Studio. Photographer: Robert Markowitz
Like Jesrani, her father also aspired to be an engineer. Although a test, similar to the SAT's, determined his fate. “In India when you [get] a perfect score you can become a doctor [or] engineer," she said. “He scored really well and his family said 'now [you'll] become a doctor.'" Years after entering the medical field he is now a successful orthopedic surgeon who continues to share a passion for space with his daughter. “He's probably read more space books than me; he talks about space better than me," she admitted. “He's the one that keeps me on my toes." Her father is her avid supporter and he was the first person she called when she got the job.
Her journey began at UT Austin, “I got my first internship with a contractor at NASA," she mentioned. “I worked as an intern for a few years and once I graduated from UT Austin I came back full-time," she said. The internship opportunity opened many doors for her career and future. Jesrani worked her way up to flight director, a position that is very sought after and competitive at NASA. “There were over 500 applicants this time and this was my first time applying," she shared.
There have been less than 100 appointed flight directors since the beginning of human space flight. Out of 90 flight directors, including her class, there have only been 14 women. South Asians are still a minority, but Jesrani makes it clear she was not the only one. “There have been only two South Asians ever in the history of human spaceflight in the United States of America," she said. “Jesrani finds her role an honor and humbling experience. “It's definitely really cool being able to set the example for other people that are just like me," she said. She hopes to inspire others to apply to programs and instills the message that they can do it too.
The Johnson Space Center is the hub of the space flight program. “It's where mission control is, beginning from the early Mercury and Apollo days all the way through the space shuttle program," she explained. At the Space Center, Jesrani leads projects, oversees spaceflight missions and looks forward to using commercial providers like Boeing or SpaceX to send astronauts to the International Space Station. “What's cool about this is that in the next handful of years, we are sending astronauts back to the moon," she said with excitement.
“The International Space Station is conglomerate of a bunch of different countries that have gotten together [like] Russia, Japan, Canada, [the] European space agency; we've created this sort of football field-sized platform that now currently houses astronauts," she said. They are there 24/7 and 365 days a year. “It is a very demanding task because [I am] the final line in case an emergency happens or something [goes] wrong," she explained.
“We're in a really exciting time for the space program in the United States," Jesrani exclaimed. “I feel very honored and humbled."
Though it can be challenging sometimes, Jesrani strives to have a balanced life with her high school sweetheart and their two and a half-year-old daughter. “One of the main things that's important to me is to have balance overall," she said. To her, there is more to life than trying to always excel at work, at home or with friends. Jesrani passionately talks about her husband or daughter. “She's awesome, she's funny and it's fun to be a mom," she gushed. “But then I have this really challenging work life that requires me to travel." She enjoys both her family and working for NASA.
What is an average day like?
“Coming home, I'm sort of like every other parent making sure there's dinner on the table, hanging out with my daughter and husband before bed, and finishing up any work I didn't get the chance to finish during the day," she explained. While she is a flight director at NASA, her husband is a lawyer. Jesrani is grateful to have her family as a support system, as she and her husband have demanding jobs. “I think because of my really supportive husband, my parents, his parents and having a pretty good kid we're almost able to do it all which is unbelievable to say," she laughed.
The morning is especially important, as Jesrani spends quality time with her daughter before she goes to school. Already, her daughter is looking at her as an example of a working mother. “It's funny to see my daughter now say things like; 'Mom can you buy me a purse and I need a car too because I want to go to work just like you,'" she shared. “Having a kid was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done."
Though there has been an abundance of accomplishments in her career, there have also been times where she felt discouraged. When she was a freshman in college, intro to aerospace engineering classes challenged her academically. “[The classes] were really, really hard," she admitted. With dedication and hard work, Jesrani passed the course and at UT Austin the intro classes determined who would go on in the program.
Even now, as an Alumna, there are times when she still faces challenges. “When you're a flight controller you go through a lot of training," she began. “They put you through a lot of simulations to see how you react under pressure, with the stress of the International Space Station, problem-solving and figuring all of that out." Going through that process was a learning experience for her. “You have your entire workforce watching you under pressure in the simulations, [but] I ended up doing pretty well." she continued. At the end of the day, Jesrani became certified and is now sitting in the real Mission Control.
Jesrani advises students, whether they are in STEM, to find a mentor. “I was lucky enough to have really good mentors from the beginning of college to my entire career now," she said. “Seek out other women or even other men that are in roles that you want to get to, roles that inspire to you, roles that you think are challenging or tough but you don't know how to get it or do it." When she started out at NASA, she met her assigned mentor on day one. That mentor has helped her grow throughout her career - and still mentors her today.
Jesrani is looking forward to seeing what happens in the future for women. “The fact that NASA [is] diversifying their selection and including a South Asian female in the Flight Director mix is just awesome," she said. “We've had multiple men on the moon, but we've had zero women that have ever walked on the moon, [landed] on the moon, [gone] around the moon."
There are a lot of things happening in the next 5-10 years at NASA. Jesrani is especially excited about working toward having a woman take a step on the moon. “A small step for man but a giant leap for mankind is what Neil Armstrong said when he was on the moon, and in the documentary (Mercury 13) they [said] a small step for women but a giant leap for womankind," she shared. “To be able to be a role model to other kids that are growing up in this generation and see a woman on the moon is going to be pretty amazing."
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.