Making Space for Women in STEM

As Virgin Orbit celebrates Women’s History Month this March, we’re proud to shine a spotlight on one of our internal groups leading the charge to open space for everyone: Teammates for Women Empowerment (TWE). Helping to tell TWE’s story is Jacqueline Sotraidis Schell, a standout propulsion engineer who doubles as TWE’s Community Outreach Coordinator.

Check out our Q&A with Jacqueline below to learn more about TWE and its projects, as well as her thoughts on how we can create a more inclusive environment for women in STEM industries.

Can you explain what TWE is and what its goals are?

Teammates for Women Empowerment (TWE) is an employee resource group dedicated to women’s empowerment both within our own workplace and in the community. Our goal is to foster a more welcoming environment for everyone at the company, especially women and other marginalized groups.

It’s also a forum for us to raise issues up to our leadership team — so if we identify any issues, it’s a direct channel for us to communicate that feedback.

Can you share any examples of how TWE works alongside the local community?

Our partnership with Cabrillo High School’s Girls in Engineering, Math and Science (GEMS) organization is definitely one to highlight. After supporting a few one-time events for the GEMS, the teachers asked if there was more we could do to support the girls. We brainstormed ideas and decided that a mentorship program would have the biggest impact.

While TWE supports outreach events to all kinds of schools and organizations, we were excited to choose Cabrillo for a long-term program because we wanted to focus our efforts somewhere where they would be the most impactful. At Cabrillo, you have a lot of students who are going to be first-generation college students, and so for them, I think a program that offers a continuing relationship with industry professionals is incredibly worthwhile.

We started in 2019 with a group of about 20 girls, and worked on skills like resume building, interviewing, and other things they might need for their college applications and early college careers. We got really great feedback from both the mentors and mentees and plan to continue this program in the future.

Photo: Cabrillo High School GEMS visit the Virgin Orbit factory in late 2019.

What about you? I’m curious to know what drives you personally to support this kind of work.

It’s definitely a labor of love. I really, really enjoy it. It’s kind of reinvigorating, honestly. When you talk to students about your job, it reminds you of why you’re doing it in the first place.

I really want to help transform what it looks like to be an engineer. It’s certainly not as bad for women as it used to be, but the microaggressions that are still pretty rampant are really unfortunate. Pretty much anytime I’ve ever achieved something in my career or in school, someone has attributed that success to the fact that I’m a woman — basically implying that if I wasn’t a woman, I wouldn’t be this successful because I’m being advantaged in some way.

A turning point for me was when I received a scholarship award one year in undergrad. One of my male classmates who didn’t get the award said to me, “Oh, well, they probably wanted to give one to a girl.” That comment stung, and for a moment I forgot that the award was completely objective, something he obviously wasn’t aware of.

That stuff really gets to you, honestly. It’s why imposter syndrome is so rampant for women, especially women in STEM, because people say things like that both to your face and behind your back.

A lot of the women I know in STEM are very strong-willed, because you kind of have to be to get through all of that, and that’s not really fair. You shouldn’t have to be that kind of person to survive in this industry — that’s not what makes you a good engineer.

What do you think needs to change about the way women are perceived in STEM?

For me, “Women in STEM” outreach is about more than just encouraging young women and girls to pursue STEM careers, it’s about normalizing the image of women working in STEM fields. When I lead tour groups of young students through our rocket factory, the kids never point out my gender as “surprising” or “unusual,” because to them it isn’t. It’s always the parents who draw attention to my gender, and with no ill intent these parents are sending the message to their kids that my presence is a novelty or a rarity.

Normalizing the concept of women in STEM is a necessary step in eliminating the gender bias still present in our society. I hope that TWE and other similar groups will continue to show people that STEM is a place where everyone can belong.

Any words of advice to young women interested in pursuing careers in STEM or space specifically?

Absolutely go for it! In fact, please go for it because we need you and your unique talents and perspectives to continue pushing human innovation forward. You may encounter some naysayers or negativity on your journey but know your worth and don’t let people like that hold you back — you have me and millions of others cheering you on.

Photo: TWE members pose for a group shot during Women’s History Month 2021.