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women in space

What the Past Decade taught us about Women in Space

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If you’re a returning reader of Advancing Women Engineers, you may remember our stories featuring US Astronaut Jessica Meir, Ph.D., and former astronaut Ellen Ochoa. These pioneers have explored the “final frontier” of space and were groundbreakers in their field all while they circled around Earth, miles from the surface.

On October 18, 2019, the first all-female space walk took place as astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir stepped outside the ISS to complete a repair. To mark the start of a new decade, Koch and Meir are scheduled to repeat this historic move twice more in the first months of 2020. If this decade is off to a resounding start of females making history, what have we learned from the past ten years that led us to this point?

First, we’ve learned from the film industry that audiences crave more women in science, engineering, and space – Hidden Figures, telling the story of three African American women who helped launch John Glenn into orbit in the middle of America’s Jim Crow era – rode a massive wave of popularity as audiences reacting to the forgotten story of these trailblazers. In addition, Hollywood blockbusters Interstellar, Gravity, and Arrival all featured women in leading roles as scientists and astronauts.

Beyond the realm of the silver screen, the real world has moved away from the idea that women are unfit for spaceflight. Among new astronaut trainees, the ratio of women has doubled from 20% in the 2000s to 47% in the 2010s. Commercial astronaut instructor Beth Moses became the first woman on a commercial spaceflight aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in February 2019, and after several hiccups Meir and Koch officially made history on their spacewalk.

The road to success isn’t always smooth. The first all-female spacewalk was originally scheduled for March 2019 with Koch joined by Anne McClain; however, the all-female walk was cancelled due to a shortage of spacewalk suits in the needed sizes onboard the ISS. Only one medium-sized upper body torso was readily available onboard and sizing up would have impacted McClain’s arm reach needed for the tasks at hand.

In the 2010s, NASA made waves as one of the best places to work in the federal government for taking steps behind the scenes towards diversity. Senior officials publicly supported the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. In 2014, NASA instituted guidelines to accommodate employees undergoing gender transition and LGBTQ individuals have been included in their nondiscrimination policy since 2016. While these measures have been taken, it’s still a relatively homogenous workplace. The majority of NASA employees (i.e. all federal STEM jobs) are white (72 percent) and male (66 percent). Women and ethnic and racial minorities, except Asian Americans, are underrepresented at NASA in comparison to the general population. For example, women make up 34% of the employees at NASA and 51% of the general population. There’s even less diversity at the top: 86% of senior employees are men, and 84% are white.

The lack of top-tier diversity leads to decisions more likely to reflect the experiences and perspectives of white men than of underrepresented populations; the spacesuit mishap is just one example of this unintentional bias.

Where will the next decade take the story of women in space? With measures already taken, each female astronaut’s work will be one giant leap for womankind.

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