Dr. Rebecca Keiser, Ph.D.
National Science Foundation
Dr. Rebecca Keiser was first approached by NASA in 1999 when she was completing her Ph.D. in international studies. “It was NASA, so of course I jumped at the chance,” she says. But in the male-dominated field of aerospace, Keiser felt she had to work harder to be recognized.
“I definitely felt like I had to overcome a lot of micro-threats,” she says, such as “not being acknowledged in a meeting, or people thinking that I was the assistant as I was standing in the hallway rather than the one who was going to lead the activity.”
Woman who work in male-dominated work spaces often encounter a different social scrutiny when it comes to displaying the proactivity required to move up in a business. “For everyone, whether you’re a man or a woman, to move up the ranks in an organization, you have to be really forward, proactive,” Keiser says. But there’s a “bias we put on ourselves as women, where we’re worried about what the reaction of others is going to be because we know what these stereotypes of women are. If you’re too proactive, you’re going to be considered too aggressive.”
When Keiser first arrived at NASA, she was initially impressed by the number of women working at the agency. “I created my own job at NASA, the associate deputy administrator for strategy and policy,” she says. “In the area of international relations, we had a really good balance between women and men.”
She later left NASA to work at the White House, and then returned to NASA to work on commercial space policy. “I was concerned,” she says. “I think we have a lot of work to do, because I look at commercial space companies and I’m not seeing as much representation of women as I’d like to see.”
Women in aerospace
Hoping to tip the balance, Keiser, the chair of the board of directors of Women in Aerospace (WIA), an organization dedicated to building networks and supporting women working in the field, says “My big focus for WIA is inclusion. We have to include everybody in the country. We have to make sure we are respectful of all women.”
WIA is based in the D.C. area, but the organization is beginning to broaden its reach across the country. “We’ll have an ambassador in the Southern California region, and they’re going to establish their own committees to think of programming that will be effective in those particular areas,” Keiser says. “And the more we can do this, the better.”
As an advocate for women in her field, Keiser has plenty of advice for women working in any male-dominated industry. “Going into a male-dominated field, it helps to find a support network,” she says. “It’s incredibly important. If there’s even one other woman who can go into that class with you or there’s a mentor, a faculty member, with whom you can form a connection, reach out and use that ability that so many of us as women have to make connections and use it to help yourself.”
Keiser also recognized that leadership roles may not be for everybody, but that women should still not shrink away from asserting themselves. “I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone else,” she says. “You find, through practice, your own way of communicating, your own way of negotiating that works for you. Build on those successes; learn when you start getting those positive reactions.
“We’re socialized as women not to be selfish,” Keiser says. “There’s nothing wrong with being selfish. Think about you.”