Ilaria Sale, from maths to technology: humanity in numbers

23 June 2021

Since July 2018, Ilaria Sale has been Leonardo’s Avionic Systems Engineering Manager, with responsibility for designing the basic avionics of all Leonardo aircraft. This involves leading a team of engineers and specialists that manages the entire process, before and after each aircraft’s first flight. Like other Leonardo women we have spoken to during this series of interviews, Ilaria is a passionate advocate and example of STEM excellence. This is combined with her strong character and an iron will, as well as great sensitivity, demonstrated by her ability to listen to those she works with. To mark International Women in Engineering Day 2021 today, we speak to Ilaria about her career, what motivates her, her fascination with numbers – believing they are the building blocks of technology, and not of abstract concepts – and why she is determined to increase opportunities for women in all areas of working life.

Ilaria, what are your most distinctive characteristics?

The name my parents chose for me, Ilaria (derived from the Latin hilari meaning "cheerful"), has always made me aware of my warm nature. I feel that I am always able to put on a smile and be positive, even when facing challenges. I also have great determination and willpower, which have helped me achieve my goals in both my personal and professional lives.

What is your biggest weakness?

I think it’s my inflexibility, with myself more than anything, but also with others. I always demand the best from myself and those I work with, and this can sometimes appear excessive. But I have 16-year-old and a 12-year-old at home, so I’ll have to start letting go; I can’t control everything.


Who are your heroes?

Without a doubt, my parents are my number one heroes. My mother is a history and philosophy teacher. It is from her that I inherited a deep love for studying, for culture in general and for logical thinking. My father, on the other hand, is a surveyor with a degree in Economics and Commerce, who is passionate about technology, design and astronomy. They’ve always encouraged me and supported me in my career, even when I left Sardinia at the age of 18 to study Aerospace Engineering in Turin.

Also important to me are other distinguished women in aerospace who’ve inspired me, like Amalia Ercoli Finza, the first Italian women to earn a degree in Aerospace Engineering, who also had five children and had to balance these two parts of her life. I also recently saw a film about Catherine Johnson, a person I’ve always admired greatly. She was an African American mathematician and physicist who made a name for herself at NASA for her ability to do calculations in her head for Shuttle flights.

I’d also like to mention Samantha Cristoforetti, the astronaut, pilot and engineer who was the first Italian woman to be part of an ESA crew, and now is the first woman to lead a space mission.


What are your favourite hobbies?

Travelling, definitely, with my husband and children. During the pandemic, it was hard to even visit my parents in Sardinia. Beforehand, I’d also booked a trip to Ireland, a country I’ve never visited before, but I couldn’t go. I love the sea, especially in Sardinia, but living in Turin taught me to love the mountains too, especially in the summer. So, on weekends, I like organising hikes with my family. I am also really interested in architecture and art in general. I love wandering around Turin with my nose in the air, admiring the city’s Art Nouveau style.



Is there anything you can’t stand?

Definitely discrimination, in any form, not just gender.


What motto do you live by?

I have two. The first one regards my perception of others: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I like this quote because the concept of empathy is very important to me, especially in my work. Then, the other is: “Walk what you talk,” or, be totally coherent in what you say and what you actually do.


Why did you choose to study STEM disciplines and why would you recommend them?

I’ve always been fascinated by maths and science. I was particularly interested in maths during high school; not so much in abstract concepts, but in their application to technology and helping humans. Aeronautics embodies this attitude. And the airplane, which is particularly complex because of the many fields involved, is also a symbol of man’s technological progress, making the dream of flight a reality. In addition to making you think in a logical and consequential way that I believe is useful in everyday life, I feel that STEM subjects also offer people great career opportunities thanks to the strong technological component. I recently heard about STEAM, where Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are joined by A for Art. I think it’s important that humanities are integrated in scientific studies.


What project are you most proud of?

When I first started working at Leonardo, I was in charge of designing a human-machine interface for the cockpit of our C-27Js. This allowed me to combine technical and human aspects because the pilots who interface with the machine are the focus of the cockpit design, meaning we had to take psychological and human aspects into consideration. This way, I quickly came into contact with different parts of the company and, even today, when I step into the cockpit of a C-27J, I feel at home. I stayed on with the Engineering Department and in the field of avionics, working mostly on uncrewed aircraft, developing our Sky-X and Sky-Y demonstrator models. This time I worked on the ground station – command and control – where, once again, a human aspect was crucial. It was exciting work. Then, in July 2018, I became responsible for the team that designs the basic avionics of all our aircrafts. I am really proud of this achievement, and of working with a team of nearly 80 people on a daily basis. We’ve achieved so much, such as the first flight of the new fighter version of the M-345 and developing new electronic components for the C-27J and the M-345. Coming up on our horizon are technological developments and innovation behind the next-generation fighter, the Tempest.


What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a leading woman in STEM?

Being a woman has never prevented me from achieving the results I set out to accomplish, even if I work in the design sector, which is still predominantly male. I’ve often been the only woman in meetings. I consider being a woman a plus, because in addition to knowing how to multitask, which is something that seems to characterise us, it's especially beneficial in terms of sensitivity and attention to employees and colleagues in general. It’s useful in my management as well, as I try to get in touch with people, and go beyond a purely working relationship and to value diversity.


How have you balanced your professional life and your private life?

Our workplace has always been welcoming. Our job is based on teamwork and collaboration, which has never been an issue at Leonardo. I sincerely think that working together around the technology of an advanced product – which requires cooperation and teamwork – helps break down the barriers between people and fields, while greatly reducing competition between colleagues. Experiencing the first flight of one of our airplanes, after so many sacrifices and so much hard work, is so magical and truly satisfying.

I’ve always managed to reconcile work and family life thanks to the support of my family and husband, whom I’ve always had an equal relationship with. It’s not always easy, and workloads sometimes make you run around quite a bit. You have to plan things out. But I’m lucky that I’ve always managed to balance it out. However, I do see women who continue to put their dreams aside because the responsibility of running the family rests entirely on their shoulders.



Thinking about inclusion and diversity, culture and welfare, what needs to improve?

I think we need to work on the socio-cultural aspect. The team I manage is only 10% women. In some cases, women limit themselves due to family life or because they feel they can't compete or assert themselves. So, they decide to take a step back from their male colleagues. I think it's important to work on women, on their motivation, as in to develop their self-esteem and recognise their abilities. Then there's the family, where responsibility must be shared. I hope that smart working can be a key to balancing the family-work relationship, since it's essential for true gender equality.


In conclusion, what message would you like to share from your personal or professional life to young people in particular, as well as to Leonardo’s global workforce?

Don’t ever give up on your dreams. As my story has proven – the story of a woman who has always worked with passion and has always moved forward, one step at a time, without ever looking back.


This narrative journey through the world of Leonardo allows us to learn more about the experiences of the Group's women with a STEM profile, with the aim of opening up new perspectives, in an open dialogue with the new generations, without gender stereotypes and valuing diversity.

Read also the interviews with Rita Fontanella, Pasqua Pezzolla, Ani Panoti, Marina Gioia, Zaira Burlo, Susanna Fortunato and Laura Imbriglio.