Sky is not the limit for Marion Allayioti | The Applications Engineer in the European Space Agency #S06
This story is yet another important story aiming to share the work and personal experience of a young, female engineer from Limassol, Cyprus.
While reading, we came across the figures released by the UN in 2021 according to which “the number of women employed in the international space industry represents just 20-22 percent of the workforce; roughly the same proportion as 30 years ago”. This makes it even more important for us to share this story.
For Marion, sky was not the limit. Instead, she aimed for the space and achieved it, by becoming an Applications Engineer in the European Space Agency since 2021. She studied Engineering at the University of Surrey (Masters of Engineering – MEng) and obtained a PhD on Radio Frequency and Antenna Engineering from the University of Surrey.
Marion’s experience includes working as a researcher on RF and Antenna Engineering for Rohde Und Schwartz (German electronics company that specialises in measurement instruments/technology) and Telefonica (Spanish telecommunications company) and as an Operations Engineer and Radio Frequency and Antenna Systems Engineer for Inmarsat, a satellite operator company which offers global mobile satellite communications for the aviation, maritime, government and enterprise industries.
What influenced your decision to become an engineer?
I am not sure I can say exactly what influenced me to become an engineer; I think it was a combination of things. As a student at school, I always enjoyed sciences and subjects related to engineering such as Mathematics and Physics. My initial interest and plan was to follow Mathematics; however, I remember teachers at school telling me (wrongfully) that mathematics as a subject can be limited whereas engineering is limitless. Therefore, I discovered engineering which is a subject where both mathematics and physics are heavily applied to; which I ended up finding interesting. I also come from a family of engineers since my father is an electrical engineer and my mother an architect engineer. As a kid I remember visiting the ground station (Makarios teleport) in Cyprus where my father works and I remember finding the huge ground station antennas fascinating. I think it was a combination of all of these that influenced my decision to follow engineering in the end.
I remember when I was thinking about engineering, a high school teacher told me it would be a bad idea because engineering is for boys.
While you were attending school in Cyprus did the school / teachers play a role in your decision to navigate a career in engineering?
In a way yes because they navigated me away from mathematics. Other than that, not really. As a student in a public school in Cyprus, I unfortunately found the overall school experience uninspiring. Of course, there were exceptions in terms of teachers, but only a few. Most of it was completely unimaginative since it was solely based on the students; ability to gather and retain information, and it was very limited in terms of providing students with the right means to choose the right career path. There were only a few career paths that students would be exposed to and the general guidance for available career paths was limited and close to non-existent. Furthermore, there was general discrimination against girls and students that would not fall below the stereotypical “good student” type (straight boys, students good at sciences or literature). Students outside of this pattern never receive the right attention or the right support to find a career path that suits them. I found and still find this system very outdated, and I hope it has changed for the younger generation for the better.
As an aspiring young scientist, I was never exposed to the full range of possibilities that are truly out there and I was never given the wings to fly. I remember when I was thinking about engineering, a high school teacher told me it would be a bad idea because engineering is for boys. I was never exposed into the fascinating world of the space and space exploration industry.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is an exciting place to be working at and it can offer you a wide range of possibilities. You get to work with many inspiring and interesting people and on many inspiring and interesting projects
You decided to apply for a job at the European Space Agency because…
The European Space Agency (ESA) is an exciting place to be working at and it can offer you a wide range of possibilities. You get to work with many inspiring and interesting people and on many inspiring and interesting projects. Before joining ESA, I was already working for the space industry but from the satellite communications perspective. Since I joined ESA I got the opportunity to work on projects related to space exploration or on projects related to using space technologies in applications that could benefit Earth. Working at ESA means working on a diverse range of things/projects which not only has helped me develop a lot as an engineer but it also means that it never gets boring.
As I mentioned earlier on, before applying for a position at ESA I was aware of roughly how ESA works which made my ambition to work for ESA even bigger. Now, after joining, I do not regret my choice; ESA is full of interesting people and scientists, with strong technical backgrounds, ready to collaborate and work closely with you. Furthermore, when joining ESA, I was positively surprised to find out that ESA has several women working in full technical and fully engineering roles and I was also positively surprised to see women having management roles and managing technical teams. It was only after joining ESA that I realized that it was the first time ever, I was working with a woman manager and with several women fellow engineers; up to now, I was usually the only woman engineer in the team I worked for.
…It is especially disheartening when you get assigned a task that you work very hard to complete successfully and in the end, someone else gets rewarded just because he is a man.
During your career have you faced any discrimination because of your gender?
Yes. It is often off-putting and upsetting to see colleagues with fewer qualifications or even abilities move forward with relative ease, while a woman must prove multiple times and on multiple levels that she deserves to be in the position she is or that she even deserves to move forward. It is especially disheartening when you get assigned a task that you work very hard to complete successfully and in the end, someone else gets rewarded just because he is a man. And by ‘rewarded’, I do not necessarily mean financially. However, even financially it has been proven several times that there is a pay gap between women and men in most of the engineering companies out there. Being constantly discriminated against or being underestimated by colleagues just because of your gender also influences your psychology. Even after many years after the completion of my PhD and after many technical discussions I have been involved in, there are still times that I remain a silent observer of a discussion, although I do have an opinion as well as suggestions to make, just because I want to avoid being underestimated or doubted.
Did you have a mentor during your 5 years career, and if so, how did they inspire you?
I don’t think I had a specific mentor during my (approximately) 5 years career in the industry and (approximately) 4 years working as a researcher and towards my PhD. However, there have been stories of people and especially women in STEM, who inspired me along the way. For example, all the women that are part of different Women in Engineering or Women in STEM groups (either at Universities, organizations, or the industry) that aim to offer inspiration, encouragement, and support to women, to achieve as engineers, scientists, leaders and aim to promote and support gender diversity and inclusivity in STEM.
What do you feel most proud of?
I am proud that I never gave up despite the not-so-pleasant environment for women that engineering has to offer. I think that there are so many skillful and powerful women out there that have given up, just because they got tired of the sexism which exists in the engineering world. I am proud that I kept going.
…although Cyprus is a member state of the European Union it is not a member of many space-related European organisation thus making it hard if not impossible for a Cypriot citizen to work in European organisations like the European Space Agency
Are you aware if Cyprus government promotes young people in the space industry?
Unfortunately, the Cypriot government does not help young people become part of the space industry. Specifically speaking about ESA, although Cyprus is a member state of the European Union it is not a member of many space-related European organizations thus making it hard if not impossible for a Cypriot citizen to work in European organizations like the European Space Agency. One step that has been taken is that Cyprus became a corporate member state of the European Space Agency in 2016 and is under review to become a full or even an associate member state, however even with this membership Cypriots cannot work at the European Space Agency except as external staff with great difficulty.
It is a true shame because the space industry is very exciting and there is clear value to any country being involved in it. The opportunities that the space industry offers are limitless.
Cyprus is one of the few European countries that do not have a national space agency. I am aware of a few changes and reformations that the Cypriot Ministry of Research, Innovation and Digital Policy is currently trying to propose to the Cypriot government in relation to space technologies that will hopefully increase awareness of the space industry among the young generation of future scientists and engineers and also help Cyprus become a full member or at least an associate member of an organization like the European Space Agency. I do believe though that there is still a lot of work to be done.
Despite the obstacles described above what was the driving force behind your decision and ultimately your achievement to obtain a position within ESA?
My general interest in space and my ambition to become more specialised about it. Which engineer in my field wouldn’t be interested in it? A position at ESA became an ambition of mine from the moment I became aware of the agency, and I am glad I managed to become part of such an interesting working environment.
The internet is filled with images from the James Webb Telescope of the sharpest view of galaxies 4.6 billion light years away. What were your feelings when these images were published? Could you explain in simple terms what this means for the science behind astrophysics?
When I saw the images, I was blown away not only because the pictures are like art pieces, but also by the thought that a team of people (NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency worked together on the development of the telescope) managed to develop this unbelievable instrument to help us explore the universe; this thought alone makes me feel so powerful. Apart from that, and from the science perspectives these pictures are a huge achievement and the result of decades of planning, development, research and engineering. James Webb Telescope can “see” over 13 billion light-years away and it will basically allow scientists and astronomers to explore origins – of the universe, of galaxies, of stars and potentially of life. It will allow scientists and astronomers to zoom in on the early Universe while yielding insights about objects in space that their existence was known but there was no information available on how and when they formed. James Webb Telescope is basically giving us light from the early universe, in it first 500 million years.
Are you aware whether religious people are reluctant in believing findings such as the above?
Not specifically about the images but generally, I am aware of religious people that are reluctant to believe scientific facts because religion says otherwise. However, especially in space exploration, considering the size of the universe and how complicated sciences can be, I can understand the need of someone to believe in God (any God); since it can be quite difficult to understand the truth about the balance and the magic that exists in the universe. Sciences that help us explore the universe can be complicated and hard to understand, for non-scientists, non-researchers, non-engineers; and maybe communicating science to the public is indeed something that the science and research community has failed to do. Maybe it is time for the science and research community to start working harder towards.
Nothing is given away in this life, so why would we, as women, give away our dreams, just because we are raised to believe that we do not fit in the stereotypical male-dominated world of engineering?
What advice would you give to young girls and women who are thinking of building a career in engineering and a career in space?
My advice would be to follow their dreams. Nothing is given away in this life, so why would we, as women, give away our dreams, just because we are raised to believe that we do not fit in the stereotypical male-dominated world of engineering?