There are only a few of us who can point to one specific event, person or circumstance that led to our careers. For Dr. Claire Leon, a honorable mention for the Avionics Woman of the Year award, part of her attraction to aerospace came from Star Trek. Leon, vice president of national programs at Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems (S&IS), admitted boldly going where no one has gone before, as the opening credits of the television show declare, was part of the inspiration for her to pursue a career in aerospace.
“I thought it was great Leonard Nimoy was recognized by the Space Foundation as someone who ‘inspired untold numbers of viewers to learn more about the universe. Many of those people are ardent space supporters and industry leaders today.’ I am one of them,” she said. “I didn’t grow up wanting to be an engineer. When I graduated from high school, I didn’t really know what engineers did. I started college as a math and Russian major, then chose to transfer to engineering... I was attracted to the field mostly because I thought working on satellites and things launched into space would be a lot of fun and it is!”
“Today, women are working in a wide range of jobs with varying levels of responsibility, and there is an increased number of women in senior management positions.”
During her 30-year-plus career, Leon has worked in system engineering, program management and line management in space and ground systems. She was named to her current position in 2008. Prior to this assignment, Leon was vice president for Navigation and Communications Systems and was responsible for the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) system, Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) and GPS IIF satellite systems, as well as a number of classified programs. She also served as the TSAT program manager, responsible for developing new applications for satellite technology, and as program director of the WGS satellite system, responsible for profit and loss, technical, schedule and mission success.
Beyond her program duties, Leon has taken an active role in mentoring and cultivating talent in the company’s engineering pool. She has served as the executive sponsor of Boeing’s Women in Leadership (BWIL) organization. She also runs two monthly mentoring groups within Boeing.
“When I started in 1979, there were several senior-level trailblazers, but overall there were very few women engineers... During the past 30 years in our satellite business, we have grown from about 50 women, or around 2 percent of the engineers, to more than 600, which is closer to 20 percent of our engineering workforce. Today, they are working in a wide range of jobs with varying levels of responsibility, and there is an increased number of women in senior management positions. Still, it is disappointing to me there are not more women in engineering, and that there are so few in senior positions. However, I do feel women are more accepted today. I don’t get comments like ‘what is a nice girl like you doing in engineering.’”
She says it is key for women interested in this field to built a knowledge base, and gain technical expertise and credibility along the way. Additionally, she recommends volunteering for new assignments or to take on new projects that capture your interest.
“When you push yourself into trying new assignments, you are able to grow.”