Dr. Christyl Johnson: Empowering Women In STEM

Jane Lu

Michelle King, a leader in the UN’s work on gender in the workplace, recently interviewed Dr. Christyl Johnson, NASA’s deputy director for technology and research investments. In this SHE Innovates episode, Dr. Johnson shares lessons she has learned throughout her career at NASA and discusses how each of us can support the advancement of women in STEM careers.

NASA has a long history of enabling women in technical fields. The 2016 film “Hidden Figures” tells the true story of three talented African-American female mathematicians who played a key role in NASA’s early space program, tackling issues like institutionalized racism and sexism. Describing Dr. Johnson as a “modern figure,” NASA [hopes she and the others] continue to inspire our young girls to see themselves in that movie, and in STEM careers.”

Dr. Johnson began her career at NASA with an internship that was part of the Lincoln University Aerospace Engineering Recruitment Program. A computer engineering major, she was assigned to the physics lab at the Langley Research Center. She has been working at NASA ever since, supporting young women in STEM since 1985.

Challenges women face in STEM

Historically, technical fields have been dominated by white men. To help ensure that women have a seat at the table, Dr. Johnson stresses the importance of “high-visibility assignments.” Even at organizations that encourage diversity, women need to take on high-profile tasks to showcase their leadership abilities.

Throughout her career, Dr. Johnson says, she has witnessed a trend toward positive change for women in STEM. In a “Sustaining Women in STEM” roundtable, she noted that many women in key positions, including Fortune 500 CEOs, are actively networking and mentoring other women.

Creating the ideal workplace for innovation

When you have an “impossible” goal, Dr. Johnson says, innovation comes from uniting the best and most diverse minds. Unique ideas come from those who see the world from widely different vantage points. Many capable women lack opportunities to contribute creative solutions in technical fields. To advance your organization, you must bring diversity to the table.

When employees are happy, their performance at work is enhanced. NASA understands this and works hard to keep employee satisfaction high, even hosting advisory committees to help leaders tackle issues that affect underrepresented groups in the workplace. In a survey, 73% of NASA employees reported that they were satisfied with their work-life balance.

Dr. Johnson advises women in STEM to avoid “going through life as an island” and suffering in silence. She recommends networking and engaging with others who have a track record of supporting women: “You go so much further, so much faster in life if you don’t try to do it on your own.”

Listen to Dr. Christyl Johnson’s interview on the SHE Innovates podcast.

SHE Innovates is a podcast that shares the stories, challenges, and triumphs of women across innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. Listen to all our podcasts on PodBean.


Jane Lu

About Jane Lu

Jane is a writer and marketing intern at SAP. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in English at the University of Waterloo. While Jane is currently studying in Waterloo, she is originally from Toronto.