How did you find your university experience, and were you part of any societies?
When I did my first degree, I was helping to care for my mother at home whilst working part-time at Marks and Spencer as a forklift truck driver, so the degree was very much only part of what I was doing. I was the first person in my family to do a degree of any kind, so I don’t think I really knew how to make the most of it, how to make the networks and connections. In terms of societies, I did do a couple of things: I ran a magazine with a couple of friends, I did quite a lot of sport and I did general social things, like running a couple of music clubs.
About ten years later, I went to Brunel and did my masters in European Politics part-time, which I paid for myself - I was after value for money and I really enjoyed it. A couple of years ago, I went to Warwick Business School and I felt I was much more experienced at understanding how to use the network, how to use the alumni and meeting people through the alumni programme, so I felt much more part of that than any of the previous universities because I now understand how you make those things work for you in your career.
It sounds like you were very aware of the financial cost of university when you went - how do you feel about the raise in fees and would you have gone to university now if you were our age?
Personally, I still would have gone, as I worked a reasonably well paid part-time job all the way through my first degree so I’m confident that I could have supported myself. I don’t come from a wealthy family and I can understand the burden, but I think I would have gone for it anyway. I don’t think a money-driven approach to education is right - I did a degree in something I was interested in but didn’t exactly lead to anything, and I might have done something more vocational which is not always the right thing. I’m reminded of people I knew when I was growing up, like grandparents and friends of parents, people that you still meet now who you’d describe as good old-fashioned polymaths - they might be scientists, but they know about opera, Orwell, the geography of the Greek Peninsulas... There isn’t a space for people who would like to be widely read when the obsession with uni is with vocation and looking to earn money to pay back a debt. I think there is a place for curiosity and learning for its own sake, and Ithink that is difficult when people feel that they are weighed down with debt. It’s very difficult now for people starting off - I worry about my son when just at the time you’re trying to pay back a lot of student debt, you are also thinking ‘how on earth am I ever going to afford a family home?’ I think there’s a real storm of issues for young people now and how they finance their lives.
Do you think the travelling is a perk or is it quite tiring?
It can be quite tiring actually. I thought it was a perk a few years ago, but now I have to juggle childcare, my domestic arrangements can get quite complicated. It’s difficult to get time with my team to make sure they’ve got what they need from me and that I’ve given them the right input. Compared to somebody who's got a job that’s a real drudge, or someone with no job, I feel very lucky - it is tiring but it’s always fascinating, it’s positive but it’s not a perk
A lot of the women we’ve spoken to thus far have mentioned the issue of childcare - have you found juggling such a complex job and caring for a young child quite difficult or have you had quite a lot of support?
No, I’ve found it extremely difficult. My son is two and a half and my partner is an A&E doctor. We are very collaborative at home I would say, but she had to delay her return to work in order for me to carry on at the UK Space Agency. Although she is now back at work, I think we have come to the conclusion that one of us is going to have to stop working at some point. Pretty much her entire salary is used in paying for our full-time nanny, which is the only way that we can actually get the responsive childcare that we need. My son goes to nursery as well, but we both work nights and we have to get cover. I think it’s the biggest family expense actually, it’s bigger than our mortgage. And it’s not totally flexible - we are fortunate as we have a great nanny but she’s got her own life as well, so it’s difficult. I would say it’s the biggest issue for working women by far.
Aside from that, are there any other challenges you’ve faced throughout your professional career?
I’ve worked in areas that have been very male dominated and space is very male dominated, but actually here at the Agency, our board and our organisation is very balanced which is really refreshing. However, I would say the external space sector is less so. It’s probably more of a problem in law and order jobs that I’ve worked in, which have been much more macho and where a more collaborative style or even a women being in charge would have been more difficult. Looking at the next level up in the civil service and it’s not that balanced at all – less than 40% are women even less as you get higher up, and a lot of these women won’t have children or move up once their children are much older. This is a generalisation though - there are a few that have younger familiesand it’s getting better, but it’s very slow to change
Interestingly, we noticed that the European Space Agency’s Directors board has 10 male directors and only 1 woman on that board, we just wanted to know why the proportion of women is so small?
I think it’s probably a combination of things. You’re not instinctively attracted to work in a place that you don’t see many people like yourself, that must put people off. The feeder groups of the Engineers and Scientists don’t contain that many women, so the pool of candidates isn’t big enough to start with. There will be a selection process, but ultimately there’s a system that chooses people for these kind of roles. I wouldn’t say it’s a conscious bias, but organisations try and create themselves in their own image. I think a lot of the people in the European Space Agency are typically more at the late end of their career, so they reflect a situation that wasprevalent in the 80s and 90s, where places weren’t so equally mixed in regards to gender as they are now.
Which women personally inspire you, in both your professional and personal life?
The Space Agency is an executive agency of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and the department has been really good at promoting equality and putting women on their board, so there are a number of women who you can look up to. On a more personal level, I admire people like Christine Lagarde, who has a significant role internationally - she’s faced a fair amount of criticism in the past yet she’s stuck in there. Hillary Clinton I really admire, she’s another one who has been witch hunted, but she has also kept the same ideology, she’s always been extremely consistent. Then there’s a lot of younger women I really admire: people in the music industry, like the Riot Girls, standing up to serious oppression at personal risk in order to promote what they’re doing. I do look around and think there are so many fantastic women. In my job now I learn all the time about woman scientists who’ve played a great role and just don’t necessarily get recognised.
What do you like to read in your spare time?
Fiction is my first love really - I really enjoyed all of Hilary Mantel’s work. My dissertation in my first degree was on Ian McEwan, so I continue to read him and I enjoy following his career. Angela Carter was a terrible loss, I would have loved to have seen what she’d be writing now. I also love Iris Murdoch, I could go on. I’m trying to learn French so I will soon be reading some French novels.
Do you consider yourself to be a Feminist?
Yes I would.
Is there one piece of advice that you’ve picked up over your professional career that could apply to any career that you’d like to pass on?
Any disappointments from the past or feelings of guilt or any lack of confidence, just leave them behind. Life is far too short to wear yourself down with all that baggage, just be confident, you are as good as anyone else. Look in the mirror, do a power gesture and move on otherwise life will just pass you by.
Bishopshalt School, Hillingdon
Uxbridge Technical College, Unxbridge
A-Levels: Engish Literature, History, Geography, Sociology and Law
De Montfort University, Leicester
Degree: English Literature, 2:2
Brunel University. Uxbridge
Masters in European Politics
University of Warwick
Postgraduate Diploma in Leadership and Finance
Performance Champion, Home Office Performance Delivery and Strategy Unit
Prosecution Service HQ and Thames Valley
Strategic Policy Advisor, Attorney General’s Office
Various roles as part of the Public Service Leaders Scheme, Crown
Deputy Regional Director, Corporate Development, Government Office for the East of England
Director of Technology and Business Change, UK Border Agency
Director of Growth, UK Space Agency, Swindon
The Director of Growth at the UK Space Agency, Catherine Mealing -Jones tells us about her journey from literature to space.
What did we learn from Catherine?
You don't have to be a physicist to work in the Space Agency - employers don't always look to the more likely candidates. Taking a chance on your own unique skillset could pay off.
Read more than just your subject - learning one thing at school or university is great, but reading around the world about art or geography or history will make you into a more well-rounded individual
Support for working mothers can be difficult to find-unfortunaely Catherine and her partner have found caring for their son with two demanding jobs difficult.
What does a Director of Growth actually do? (In Catherine's own words)
The space sector is a high growth sector, but it needs quite a lot of government intervention in terms of investment for research and development, and also in terms of the policy support to help it to grow. My role is to lead the UK Space Agency in growing the space sector further and by making sure that we’ve got the right partnerships and interventions to make sure this happens. My day-to-day is pretty busy, I’m very rarely in the office as there’s a lot of national and international travel - lots of time in London, lots of time in Paris, which is where the European Space Agency is based. I travel to the States a bit for some of my projects, so it’s interesting but very busy.
"Look in the mirror, do a power gesture and move on otherwise life will just pass you by"
What do you like, what do you not like, what was useful, what should we have asked instead? Please give us your feedback
Catherine Mealing-Jones Director of Growth UK Space Agency
Click below for more information on...
"There isn’t a space for people who would like to be widely read when the obsession with uni is with vocation and looking to earn money to pay back a debt"