poppy with two other women and a man standing at a podium with a cruise ship in the backdrop

Poppy Northcutt on making room for women in aerospace and beyond

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Frances “Poppy” Northcutt’s natural curiosity and determination to solve problems led her to hold a position as the first woman in Mission Control at NASA, to become a leader in the women’s rights movement, and even launched her into a second career in law. Her story may have earned her a permanent place on the moon – with a crater named in her honor – but her views on the advancement of women in society are grounded in harsh realities and practical actions that lead to results.

What is most remarkable about Northcutt is not that she helped men get to the moon and back safely, but that she recognizes women have an imperative to help each other and continue to push the limits of power until the glass ceiling vanishes.

Of her time at NASA, Northcutt tells Runway Girl Network: “I stumbled into into it. I had a math degree, which was not that unusual for women at the time, though the general expectation was that you would go into teaching. There were a higher percentage of women in that time who worked on the emerging computer.

“I ended up as a ‘computress’ at a contractor for NASA and they were working on the trajectories for the Apollo program. I just became very interested in the problem. I thought it was interesting and as a result, being engrossed in the problem, I started doing something that wasn’t my job. I started taking the programs home and reverse engineering them so I could see how they worked and what exactly they were doing.”

Northcutt’s boldness was rewarded and she was ultimately promoted to work as a member of the technical staff who functioned as engineers for the Apollo program.

Candid camera

Being the first woman in Mission Control came at a price. Northcutt experienced what would be described today as hostile working conditions while in NASA, but she made the best of the circumstances.

She explains:

One thing when I went into Mission Control in an operational role during the Apollo 8 simulations, before the flight, throughout that building they had a lot of cameras. Every one of the rooms in Mission Control had cameras in. We all had these headphones that you had channels on, and you kept listening. I kept hearing chatter about a particular channel. I had no clue what it was, but it was me on that channel. They had positioned a camera in the room just on me. My first reaction to that was being very self-conscious and feeling invaded. There’s different ways that you can take things. The words for sexual harassment and hostile workplace didn’t really exist.

I could have gotten mad and complained, but my reaction was to look around and say, ‘I’m here, so get used to it.’ If you are going to be the first, you have to expect that there will be some of that. You have to rise to that occasion. It’s not going to be easy, but you are setting the mark for other people and there is a benefit in doing that. The most important thing that you can try to do is to get other women working in there. That will end that situation, if  you have more women.

Sometimes it seems as if female representation in STEM takes two steps forward only to take one step back or vice versa. For example, some advances have been made in engineering. “The numbers were maybe 1% or less for women. That number is now higher – to 8% – which is still terribly small, but it’s a big rise,” notes Northcutt. “In terms of computer science, it was around 35%-36% of programers were women, and it has dropped to around 18% in computer science. I suspect that the heavy emphasis on gaming has had an effect on it, because a lot of the industry is involved in gaming.”

The financial divide

While the Gamergate controversy shows there is a certain hostility to women in the tech sector, and the environment in computer science appears less welcoming to women today than when Northcutt started, there may be another answer for this shift: money. Northcutt grants that this may be the case.

“If you look historically, when there’s big money involved, the numbers drop in terms of women,” she says. “A couple of hundred years ago, when almost all the teachers were men, teachers were better paid. I think you can see some of that in medicine as well with surgeons, who are higher paid and mainly men.”

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Northcutt had to contend with pay discrimination while working for NASA, despite the best efforts of her ally supervisor. “In my particular situation, when I was working as a computress, it was an hourly job. At that time we had wage hour laws that were very discriminatory of women. They were considered to be protective of us, but [that wasn’t the case]. Women could not be required to work more than eight hours a day or a total of 54 hours a week. They didn’t prohibit a woman from having two jobs, or three. It was just the individual employer. What happened with me was that I didn’t pay any attention to the law. I would just ignore it. I wasn’t paid. To me, the biggest thing that [the law] did is that you weren’t earning all of the money and the bigger effect of those laws was that you would never be viewed by an employer of being part of the team. You were not working the same way the team is. Part of the reason I got promoted was because I didn’t pay attention to that,” says Northcutt.

She continues, “I was very fortunate that I got promoted, but I had a very progressive operations manager in Houston. He went to bat for me and was really upset when the promotion went through [but not the corresponding rise in pay] because he said it would have been easier to fire me and re-hire me. The differential in salary was such a large amount that he couldn’t get it approved. I was promoted at the bottom of the pay scale for a technical staff. I was being underpaid, but it was the best he could do. He tried to remedy it. We would get pay increases twice a year, but there were these barriers about the percentage of raises that you could get.

“And you still see that happening to women today. If you have experienced prior discrimination, they will base what they pay you on what you had on the previous job so you can never catch up if you are behind. Some state laws have been passed that prohibit employers from asking about your prior salary, and that is one way to approach that problem and improve. The most optimum thing is to do what has been done in some countries, where they have to make actual reports to the government about wages.”

The laws that bind 

As Northcutt points out, this legal glass ceiling – the laws that go on the books which put women at a perpetual disadvantage – is one of the reasons why it’s critical for women to be active in civil life. “I firmly believe that women need to become involved in their communities because that is what makes a difference – having laws on the books,” she tell RGN. “I became involved in the women’s rights movement because being isolated and alone you are not going to make it. Women need to see that they need to work together.”

Your author asked Northcutt whether she believes that things are moving backwards in that respect, especially with some of the laws going on the books in the US which seem designed to repress and inflict harm on women. Northcutt is not shy about tweeting about these issues.

“There has been a certain backlash,” she says, “but these things ebb and flow. We have times of greater activism. Actually, I think that this is the third wave of feminism, and there has been a lot of progress made. It’s not like the backlash takes you all of the way back. It’s just [reflective of] the representation of women in government.”

The sky should have no limits 

In terms of progress in aerospace, Northcutt believes there is still plenty of room for women to fight for top positions. “I just saw something published about the percentage of women in managerial positions in aerospace, and it was very low. The managerial positions are very low. We still have low representation of women in engineering schools. I do think part of it may be the culture of aerospace. It overlaps with the military and some of that military culture, which was totally exclusive of women [endures],” she says.

But she believes the fight to improve female representation in aerospace, STEM and beyond is a fight well worth having. “The incentive for women is clear in the sense of opportunity and the economics of these things. The jobs are better paid, with better longevity – as well as the fact that they are very interesting careers,” she says.

“The incentive for industry is that, if you are looking for the best brain power, it doesn’t make sense to leave out half of the population. If you make products that will be used by the general public, having more diversity makes their products more appealing to a general population. It makes sense, but we have these cultural stereotypes that still exist out there.”

Sisters are doing it for each other

Importantly, Northcutt is hopeful and optimistic about women’s ability to overcome today’s challenges, as long as they are willing to fight for their place. “I’m hopeful that this coming generation is going to be more forceful,” she says. “In some areas  there have been tremendous advances. More than half the people graduating with careers are women. In medical schools, a huge percentage are women. It’s the same for lawyers.”

Having women who care to fight for other women can make all the difference. She shares a recent anecdote that proves it. “I still practice law, and I was appointed to be a commissioner in a condemnation case where they are expanding a roadway. I’ve done five or six of these cases before. Each time, the civil engineer has always been male, as have been the appraisers. The attorney for the state of Texas [a woman] asked, ‘Why aren’t I seeing any women? Where are the women engineers?’ Those women are advocates for other women coming into technical roles. I bet there weren’t very many men who asked about having only male civil engineers. Even when we have women coming in that are not in a technical role, we have been asking and pressuring about that as well. I think that all of that [pressure makes a difference].”

Owning your privilege 

One of the most impressive parts of the conversation with Northcutt was that she is both a formidable fighter and a well-grounded, caring woman who always thinks of the plight of others. She recognizes that she had opportunities that other women did not and even now do not enjoy.

“The truth of the matter is that I was in a privileged position compared to other women,” she says. “I was still experiencing pay discrimination, but I had more pay than the average woman who was working. I was in a better position to speak out. Today, the women who are working a minimum wage job, those are the women who are vulnerable. They may not be able to feed their families. I was a return-to-Earth specialist, and they didn’t have that many. If you are in a better position, then you have an obligation to make things better.”

It was this realization that drove Northcutt to become an activist in the women’s movement and to fight for the rights of those who might not be able to fight for themselves. “We still have discrimination, but I am very gratified that I did that. I like having challenges. I like having difficult things. Many women have it far worse than I have. I think about those women. They can’t escape what they’re in.”

Photo at top: Poppy Northcutt, Captain Heikki Laakkonen, Captain Kay Hire and Princess Cruises President Jan Swartz celebrate the christening of Sky Princess during the naming ceremony in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Credit: Princess Cruises

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  1. Engineer Poppy Northcutt speaks with a colleague at NASA Mission Control in Houston during the Apollo 8 mission planning and analysis. She was the first female engineer to work for Mission Control.

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