There were multiple hurdles and gender stereotypes Kisa Christensen had to overcome to navigate her career to where she envisioned.
While her dream to become an astronaut was not fulfilled, she successfully paved her way into one of the most male-dominated industries - defence.
She is now Director - Operational Excellence at BAE Systems Australia. Kisa shares her journey into engineering that started in her parent’s living room and a passion she always had for aerospace.
What propelled you into the aerospace field?
Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be an astronaut. As a kid, I spent hours and hours building spaceships and planes out of LEGO. I would devour science fiction books and movies as well as encyclopedias about planes and space. I was quite obsessed with all things science and space! It was pretty much me going to the library and borrowing as many books as I could on space and astronomy, astronauts, and science.
Where did you find support for your endeavours to become an astronaut?
My father was very supportive, he paid for my flying lessons, and when I was 17, I got my Private Pilot’s License (PPL), even before I got my driver’s license. He sent me to the Space Academy in Huntsville Alabama, which is like a space camp for older kids where we got to meet astronauts and train like them. Mum was very supportive too, she bought me all that LEGO”. (Laughs)
Kisa was a Canadian citizen who dreamt about becoming an astronaut. Her chosen path to an astronaut career was via the US Air Force Academy and at the time it was required for her to be a US citizen. In the end, this dream wasn’t meant to happen.
Having to change your goal must be mentally challenging. How did you approach this?
When I didn’t get into the US Air Force Academy, I was quite devastated. I had a very clear plan of what I wanted and for me, my world was like, ‘oh no, what do I do!’ However, I’m also a firm believer in the statement that everything happens for a reason. I made a very determined decision at this point: if I couldn’t fly the fighter jets – maybe I could design them! I ended up working for NASA and got a chance to do so many amazing things. The moment you think that your plans have been derailed, you need to see it as an opportunity to refocus and perhaps set out on a different path.
"if I couldn’t fly the fighter jets – maybe I could design them!"
Working in the male-dominated industry, have you experienced ‘inequality’ and how did you feel?
Over my career, there have definitely been many times when I experienced unfair or unequal treatment because I am a woman and I have also had some pretty nasty comments made to me. There is one comment that really stands out in my memory, and I still think of it from time to time even all these years later. I was a young engineer and a senior manager (male), who I considered to be a mentor of sorts, told me that it was unfortunate I was a woman because at some point I would have to choose between having a family and having a career – and that it was impossible for a woman to have both.
So many things went through my mind at that point: “Did this mean he won’t consider me for a promotion and that he won’t take me seriously, especially if I start a family? Do men really have such a huge upper hand in their careers, since they never have to make that choice? What am I going to choose?” It took me years to realise that his statement was utter nonsense. Sure, I’ve had to make sacrifices along the way to support both my career and to support my family, but these sacrifices were always carefully considered. I like to think that I’m balancing my career and my family as well as I can – but that’s not to say I didn’t wish there were 10 days in the week instead of only 7! (Laughs)
“An equal world is an enabled world” – How do you think your career pathway echoes this statement?
I made the decisions and if things were in the way, I actively looked to work around them and make new decisions. That is the enabling part – your career is what YOU make of it. Not everything will be in your control, but it is up to you to decide how you react to any challenge that gets in the way of your goal. An equal world would mean that we would all face similar challenges – or rather that none of the challenges are based purely on gender, race etc. And we would all feel equally enabled to make our own decisions.
What did your experience teach you?
I think perseverance is the key trait women need to have in a male-dominated industry. There are going to be roadblocks, there are going to be comments that people make, and it will feel very unfair sometimes – just persevere. My message to any senior manager or leader, or anyone in a position of influence, is to be careful with such direct and conclusive statements like the one my mentor gave me all those years back. While I’m sure that he meant well, I’m equally sure that he had no idea of the impact his comments had on me.
Now, a parent herself, she is watching her kids play in the living room, noticing the engineering streaks in her son and a creative artist in her daughter.
While unconscious bias is a part of human nature, being self-aware enough to reflect on decisions or judgements you’ve made seems to be increasingly taught and appreciated. Equality is in everyone’s vocabulary now and is considered increasingly important – this is a really positive step. All of these are signs that we are heading in the right direction – but there is definitely still a way to go.