Female Astronauts Shine Spotlight on Women in STEM
The gender disparity in STEM is no secret. Many women with careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics lag behind male counterparts. The lagging inclusion of women in global space programs is evidence of this. Although Valentina Kareshkova flew very early in space exploration history (1963) and although women like Katherine Johnson were called the “human computers” who made complex mathematical calculations supporting the Apollo missions, female astronauts have been underrepresented in modern space programs. Due to societal prejudice, female engagement in space programs and pathways to careers in space contain a variety of obstacles, in a field already filled with technical and physical challenges. Over fifty years after the first woman entered space, women are still accomplishing milestones: the first all-female space walk (October 2019) and the longest continual spaceflight for a woman on the International Space Station (February 2020). As the world’s focus shifts to the Artemis space mission to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024, it’s clear that education equality, opportunities within aerospace training programs, and possibly even the understanding of the science of women’s health in space must advance to support more women in the expansion of space exploration.
Women in Space: What’s the Hold Up?
Even though the all-female spacewalk finally happened, its initial cancellation and rescheduling earlier in 2019 over a spacesuit size garnered global attention. While it was a huge step forward for women in the industry, the milestone left many people wondering why in the world did it take so long? Although NASA publicly stated that there were “physical reasons” why women do not do spacewalks, many experts disagreed. Since spacesuit design is biased towards the male physique, getting women in appropriately fitting suits might be a symptom of the actual problem: the continuing gender bias cycle in high technology workplaces. Women have to overcome not only the rigorous training, education, and technical challenges of becoming astronauts but also the additional obstacles that come from gender discrimination. Due to the lack of female role models in the industry, young women are discouraged from participation, which further feeds the lack of representation. The lack of representation is not the only blockage to women in space.
During a press conference, Jessica Meir, who participated in the all female spacewalk told The Verge, “The astronaut population did look a little bit different back then. I think that when people try to understand why we have the system we have — when you have technology that was developed and hardware that takes a long time to be proven and tested and make its way to spaceflight — sometimes the effects of those decisions made back in the ‘70s carry over for decades to come.”
Although NASA has announced changes in spacesuits to prepare for landing the first female on the moon and have increased women in leadership within the program, the gender gap in space exploration is still growing.
With years of data from male space travel, the data for how space affects the female body is severely lacking.
Collecting Data for a New Era of Female Space Travel
Christina Koch’s record 328 days in space will provide valuable scientific data and insight to the health effects of prolonged residency in space. The NASA Twins Study (https://www.nasa.gov/twins-study ) on brothers Scott Kelly (on the ISS) and Mark Kelly (here on Earth) revealed new insights on the effects of space radiation on the men’s bodies. When the Artemis program evolves into a future Mars travel, astronauts will need multi-year missions to reach the red planet. What will be the health effects of space on the astronauts? If missions are to represent the diversity of humanity back on Earth, and if half of the astronauts travelling to Mars would be women, what might be the unique effects on women’s bodies due to space travel? A trove of unknowns awaits. Possible effects include changes in bone density due to microgravity, changes in the optic nerve, even effects due to cosmic radiation impacting the body and how radiation effects may be different on women and men.
Expanding the Reach of International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day 2019 is a reminder of where society has been previously and where we want to go. It is a global celebration of women’s achievements. Tasked with gender balance advocacy, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge the deep challenges to breaking down barriers for women in society by examining the challenges women have faced in their participation in the advancement of space technology and space exploration. Removing structural barriers and social constructs that oppress women is the only way to ensure that women continue to contribute to space programs. Recognition with equal wages is one aspect of gender disparity that affects career choices and advancement for women. As continuing progress is still required for STEM in general, the field of space exploration lags significantly behind. International Day of Women and Girls in Science, started in 2016 and promotes a greater involvement of women in STEM and aims to empower future generations of young women at all levels. Promoting female role models within the space sector is extremely important. Astronauts, female engineers and programmers can inspire the next generation to pursue a career in STEM and should be celebrated accordingly. Global days such as International Women’s Day, International Day of Women and Girls in Science and World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development draw awareness and help women see themselves in the future of STEM.
Chinese propaganda posters campaigns from the early 1960’s
Support Women in Space Programs
It isn’t enough to have more women in space to serve as role models. The influence of stereotypes begins when children are quite young. Seeing female astronauts participate in Artemis is necessary but not sufficient. Contributing political and public support to female STEM programs and supporting women in science is the only way to make a significant impact. Turning something “pink” and merely having females present will not solve societal problems such as bias against and negative perceptions of women in science. Resoundingly closing the gender gap will take time, support, and financial resources from private organisations, government entities, and the general public alike.
How We’re Supporting Women in STEM
As part of the Vision 20:20 program and our March focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, The Warren Centre highlights SDG #5: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. We are re-launching the Inclusion2 videos from our Women In STEM & Entrepreneurship (WISE) program, and we invite you to share them with colleagues, friends and family.
Maybe one day, if a permanent base is established on Mars, IWD will expand from International Women’s Day to Interplanetary Women’s Day….
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