Mars Exchange
Why gender matters in space exploration

Why gender matters in space exploration

by Vince on Thursday, 5th March 2015 in Expert Opinions, People, Rebecca Spyke Keiser

Recently on Mars One Exchange we've been discussing the role of women in space exploration. But should gender even matter? Rebecca Spyke Keiser, PhD, is Special Assistant to the NASA Administrator for Innovation and Public-Private Partnership. One of Keiser's initiatives at NASA has been to lead the agency's efforts to involve more girls and women in the study of science, technology, engineering, and math. In other installments of Mars One Exchange, she discusses why women have been underrepresented in space exploration and how Mars One can make a difference. In this installment, she answers the question, Does gender really matter in space exploration?

“Gender matters today because we are still at a point where women are underrepresented. But here's an amazing fact: In NASA's mission operations for Mars Curiosity, there are 102 people working at mission ops. Of those, 76 are women. They are involved in looking at the rover’s movements, adjusting it, analyzing the data, and making tweaks to its path so that it can survive. Interestingly, the Curiosity team didn't even realize that it consisted of a majority of women until it took a mission ops group photograph. There was no special effort. It just happened."

“This tells us two things. First, there is something intriguing about Mars, so women sought to be involved in the Mars Curiosity mission. Second, gender still gets noticed, because it is so rare. If we had 76 out of 102 males, we'd be complimenting ourselves on how many women were involved because it is still so rare."

“I wish that we didn't have to pay attention to gender when we’re talking about being a scientist, engineer, planner, or observer. But when we talk about the people who will actually go into space, there are differences in women's and men's biochemistry. We want to encourage women as much as men, so we have to understand the impact of space on the physiology of women and of men. That's not a gender bias, it's just an acknowledgment of physiology."

“We’re just starting to understand this. At NASA, Bette Sigel at NASA and Saralyn Mark, an MD, are analyzing the data on 25 female astronauts who have significant flight records, and they are comparing their biological data to male data. There seem to be differences, but they don’t have a large enough sample to understand. For example, bone loss in space seems to be more rapid in women than in men, perhaps because women start with a lower bone density. But there's more to learn. On Earth women and men process food and medicine differently. We need to explore this in space, as well."

“Gender matters in terms of people's opinions. In 2013, a guy came up to me after I gave a talk about women in science. He said, 'You know, Rebecca, women's brains are just different from men's brains. Men are more open to technical things, and that's why more men become engineers than women.' Well, nobody makes this argument for fields like history. But people still think that. You’ll see 'woman astronaut,' not just 'astronaut,' because it is still rare for a woman to be an astronaut."

“Fortunately, we have some inspiring examples of women in space. My personal inspiration, and the inspiration for many, is Sally Ride. To think that she flew in 1983 is to realize it's not that long ago. At NASA, both the first and second female deputy administrators—the number two person at NASA—are recent occurrences. In 2005, we had Shana Dale as the first deputy administrator, and the second was Lori Garver in 2009. The space world is still very male-dominated, and what those women did is not easy. They did a great job. And they were not traditionally technical. They came from legal and policy backgrounds. My mantra is space for everyone, and they exemplify that by showing a passion for space without being a scientist or an engineer."

“The pressure on these women was hard, and it shows that we have more to do be inclusive in the world of space exploration. That's something Mars One can really help with. Mars One can show that space exploration is not just for the elite. Space is an extension of the Earth's environment, and we should all be part of it.”

Tell us what you think. Does gender matter? How will gender issues affect the Mars One mission?

Story contributed by Vincent Hyman, a writer and Mars One volunteer living in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. 

Photo credits header image:

Left: NASA / Bill Ingalls
Right: NASA

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