At this year’s Minnesota Airports Conference, held April 18-20 in Duluth, three successful women shared their experiences breaking down barriers in the aviation industry. Despite different backgrounds and career paths, these women shared the belief that they could do whatever men could do—and had the drive to push through when they were told otherwise.
Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon was one of the first six women to enter the astronaut program in 1978. A trained surgeon, Seddon worked at NASA for 19 years, serving on three space shuttle flights and spending a total of 30 days in space. She was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2015.
Julie Clark is an aerobatic air show pilot and former commercial airline pilot. She was one of the first female pilots to work for a major airline. Clarks flies an average of 20 air shows a year and is rated in more than 66 types of aircraft. She is an enshrined member of the Living Legends of Aviation and the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.
Retired Air Force Colonel Penny Dieryck served as the support group commander overseeing the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth from 2008 to 2014. Previously, she worked at the Minnesota Joint Forces Headquarters and commanded an aircraft maintenance squadron of the 148th.
In a panel discussion at the conference, the women talked about how they got started, where they found support, and what unique challenges they faced in a male-dominated field.
On Getting Started
Dieryck said that seeing vacation photos of the families she babysat for inspired her to want to travel. “I come from a family of five girls,” she said. “Back then, you didn’t take kids on trips.” Dieryck wanted to see the world. So, not yet 16 years old, she joined the Air National Guard—without telling her parents.
Clark knew she wanted to be a pilot from a young age. Her dad was a commercial pilot who was killed by a suicidal passenger in 1964; the resulting plane crash killed everyone on board. Because her mother had died the year before, Clark was appointed guardians—and they did not support her interest in flying. She attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, and took infrequent flying lessons at the Santa Barbara Airport. Fortunately, she says, her guardians never questioned why she needed so much money for “school books.”
For Seddon, a chance conversation during a surgery piqued her interest in taking flying lessons: turns out the surgeon she was assisting was a pilot and owned a small flight school.
Dieryck’s first career in the Air Guard was in nondestructive inspection. “I wanted to do something with the airplanes and with my hands,” she said, but she had been told that as a woman, she couldn’t go into maintenance. “I said, ‘I don’t care what you tell me, I’m doing this.’” While there, she saw the potential for leadership and decided that she wanted to be an officer. After receiving a degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth, she returned to the base as the first female munitions maintenance officer for the 148th fighter wing. Despite a career in the guard for 35 years, she had someone as recently as 2001 tell her she couldn’t be the aircraft maintenance squadron commander because she was a female. “’I said, ‘Really? Well, guess what. That’s wrong, and I’m gonna do it,’” she said.
Clark shared how she would call on job openings and be hung up on when the other party learned she was a woman. To land her first job as a commercial pilot—with Golden West Airlines—she had to persist for nine months and even offered to pay to have a door installed on the men’s room when that was given as an excuse for not hiring a woman.
“All of us had to prove ourselves,” Seddon said. “And once you did that—certainly once we got to NASA, and proved that we were willing to do the work, that we were not afraid to go through water survival training…and that we would do everything we needed to do…there really wasn’t any issue at all.”
Clark added that she felt she was sometimes tested harder than her male counterparts. “They’d say things like ‘How’d the girl do?’ in front of me. You were always under the microscope.”
And all endured patronizing comments on occasion. In those instances, Clark hasn’t been afraid to remind others that she can fly a jet. Seddon once had a fellow pilot in the Edwards AFB Officer’s Club, after noticing a patch on her uniform, say to her, “Little lady, what have you flown that’s gone Mach 2?” to which she replied, “Look again, it says ‘Mach 25.’”
On Family Life
According to Dieryck, support from spouses or significant others is vital to keeping women in the Air National Guard. “You have to teach spouses and significant others to be supportive,” she said. That’s especially true since 9/11 and the subsequent increase in deployments.
Seddon said the demands of a space career are especially challenging for family life—perhaps more so when your husband is an astronaut, too. Fortunately, she and her spouse—Robert “Hoot” Gibson—were never scheduled to be on flights at the same time. The final months before a shuttle flight are ones in which an astronaut doesn’t see their family much, Seddon said. “I think everyone has to work that relationship out…[Hoot] certainly did his share of everything.” Other astronaut families looked out for each other as well. In addition, Seddon credits the family’s nanny of 25 years for allowing them to have a family with their demanding careers.
On Being Female
The all-male team of engineers at NASA had to scramble to retrofit the toilet on the space shuttle for females, Seddon says, and they had some bizarre questions about female anatomy in the process. “They were embarrassed to ask, and we were sort of incredulous,” she said. Several prototypes were tested, but it wasn’t until after astronaut Sally Ride’s first flight that the team knew the women’s bathroom would work.
Seddon says that when telling the director of the Johnson Space Center that she and her husband were expecting, the reaction was a bit surprising. “We had been married for over a year, [but] it was almost as though they had not considered that that could happen,” she said. Since the program has previously been only men, there were no rules about what an astronaut could and could not do when pregnant. “NASA was afraid that I was going to have morning sickness and take nine months off and then wasn’t going to ever come back,” Seddon said. “So again, you had to prove yourself. You had to prove that pregnancy was not career ending.”
Dieryck related that her mother had had to quit her job at the bank every time she had a child. So when Dieryck found out she was pregnant right after getting hired full-time at Loring Air Force Base, she was terrified. “I called the guy that hired me…and I thought that I’d be fired when I told him,” she said. “He said that it was fine. That’s when I knew things were changing.”
The Minnesota Airports Conference is an annual event sponsored by the Minnesota Council of Airports and the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics and facilitated by the Airport Technical Assistance Program (AirTAP), a part of CTS.