The Underrecognized Women of Science & Space
Thank you so much to the Ivy Space Coalition organizing committee for inviting me to speak with you today. If you'd like to follow along, the text of this talk is on my website at the URL shown here.
Although the topic is women in STEM, I invite you to consider diversity more broadly. The themes I will discuss today extend to people of color, people in the LGBT community, non-binary individuals, and other minorities. I invite you to keep a broader definition of diversity in mind throughout this talk.
Much attention is given to introducing girls to STEM fields and encouraging them to pursue STEM careers. This is a valuable goal and I applaud these initiatives. Many girls are unaware that they have the opportunity to pursue science and engineering careers if they choose to. Thanks to outdated marketing and societal pressures, many girls still believe science and engineering are for boys. Some are unaware that women have risen to become astronauts and they too can pursue their dreams of soaring among the stars.
But sometimes the problem isn’t supporting girls’ interested in STEM from childhood. Too often, the problem is a leaky pipeline that discourages women from staying in their chosen field.
I was privileged to attend an all girls college prep high school not far from here down the road from Villanova University. My parents and teachers encouraged me to pursue my dreams of studying astrophysics and to someday become an astronaut. Astronomy is generally more gender diverse than other space-related fields, so I did not feel out of place being a woman pursuing a STEM career in undergrad. Even so, I couldn’t not notice none of my professors were women in all four years except for one math class.
As I worked my way through graduate school and became more involved in the space industry, I began to notice how I stuck out. I was mistaken for a journalist and for a colleague's wife at space events. I was asked if I was getting my MRS degree (that’s Mrs. for those unfamiliar that sexist joke).
Some individuals used their power to act inappropriately. I was physically dragged onto a dance floor and forced to dance with the leader of a space organization despite my clear verbal rejections. He whispered inappropriate comments while others watched and did nothing. The chair of a conference tried to kiss me in my hotel room under the pretext of continuing a conversation. A lauded space communicator called me honey and implied he wanted to become physically intimate with me while his wife stood just behind him. The CEO of a company I was applying to work for requested my salary preferences and a date. Needless to say, I chose not to continue pursuing that job opportunity. None of these interactions would have happened if I was a man.
These experiences don’t compare to the experiences of others who dealt with severe sexual harassment. Some women choose to leave the space sector entirely, feeling unsupported and unwelcomed. Others switch universities, fields, or jobs to the detriment of their careers. The loss of these individuals is a loss to the entire scientific and space community.
Throughout history, women who work in the field remain anonymous or do not gain the recognition they deserve. If any of you have not seen the 2016 film Hidden Figures, I highly recommend it. Historically, women who contribute significantly to scientific progress are often seen as assistants, not professionals in their own right. They are recognized in acknowledgments and footnotes or sometimes forgotten to history altogether while the legacies of their male colleagues live on in the names of equations, theories, buildings, and institutions.
The name Albert Einstein is synonymous with genius, but how many recognize the contribution of his first wife Mileva Marić, a mathematician who contributed significantly to her husband’s early work on relativity. To this day, recognizing her contribution is controversial because proof is scattered among personal letters and her name was removed as a co-author of a paper before publication. When her husband won the Nobel Prize in Physics, she received money from him but no shared credit.
Caroline Herschel was the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist. She worked with her brother William, who gave her credibility by the very fact he was a man. She discovered of several comets. But she remains widely unknown.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell built a radio telescope, the Interplanetary Scintillation Array. With this tool, she found a pulsing signal, the first pulsar ever discovered. She was omitted from the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics when two of her male colleagues were recognized for this work but she was not. She has since been awarded several honors to attempt to make up for the oversight, but she will never be a Nobel Prize laureate.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt was a human computer who studied stellar photographic plates. She discovered the relation between the luminosity and the period of certain stars, giving astronomers a "standard candle" with which to measure the distance to galaxies. Edwin Hubble used her work to calculate the expansion of the Universe which we now call Hubble's Law. To his credit, he often said that Leavitt deserved the Nobel Prize for her work.
Jerrie Cobb was an aviator who set world records for flying speed, distance, and absolute altitude. She was selected as one of 13 women in the unofficial Mercury 13 program to select NASA's first female astronauts and she was the front-runner to be the first woman in space. The program was canceled and no one from the Mercury 13 ever flew in space.
Annie Jump Cannon was an astronomer at Harvard Observatory who created the Harvard Classification Scheme to classify stars. She manually classified 350,000 stars, more than anyone else ever had and ever will. Notice we call it the Harvard Classification Scheme and not the Jump Cannon Classification Scheme.
Until recently, the contributions of Rosalind Franklin to the study of the structure of DNA was unrecognized. She took X-ray diffraction images of DNA which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix. She had conflicts with her colleagues who left her out of papers and collaborations. Three of her male colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this and related work. The European Space Agency recently renamed its 2020 ExoMars rover in her honor.
Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated orbital mechanics trajectories for NASA's early human spaceflight missions, had to endure both the racism and sexism of the mid 20th century as an African American woman. NASA recently renamed a building in Virginia to honor her.
For every woman we now recognize, many more have been downplayed or forgotten, and many others have been prevented from advancing in their careers. NASA has never been led by a female administrator.
Let's return to one of my unfortunate experiences. I was a graduate student enthusiastically applying to full-time positions for the first time in my career, a career I'm passionate about. I had found my dream job. Or so I thought. Here was a company doing exciting work that I truly believed in. I already knew many of their employees. I already worked with one of their community projects, loving it so much that I volunteered my time to advance the cause. I was one of the few people in the world who knew the ins and outs of that project and many of their related projects. I was a natural fit.
My surprised turned to joy when I was invited to dine with the CEO of that company at a space luncheon. I thought they were reaching out to me as a courtesy, but little did I know what he had in mind. This man, one of the most powerful in the room, talked to me the whole time. His one-on-one attention was flattering and he himself was charming. By the end of the lunch, I was convinced I had just undergone my first job interview with the company and had passed with flying colors.
As the months went on and my involvement in this company's activities increased, I asked for a formal position within the company. No appropriate positions were available, so they would need to create one for me. And they were willing! With each conversation, the CEO made me feel desired. He wanted me. He was working on creating a position for me. He wanted to know what my requirements were so they could put together an offer package for me. I was thrilled.
But time went on. I received no formal offer, only an informal one. However, I had another offer in hand and I was inclined to take it. They wanted my answer. The charming CEO called me late one evening to ask me not to take the other position. He wanted me. He told me he would make sure he could get me.
One evening, at a space social function, the CEO consumed some adult beverages and chatted with me. He suggested we should go out to dinner one evening, just me and him, to get to know each other better. He knew I was single at the time. He grinned at me, looked me over, and wanted to know why I hadn't found Mr. Right. This man was married and old enough to be my grandfather.
I then had a choice to make. Would I continue to pursue an opportunity that seemed perfect for me, an opportunity that had been verbally promised to me, if it meant I would be subject to a boss who openly flirted with me? What if he wanted to arrange a meeting with me over dinner, just him and me, and I couldn't refuse because I worked for him? What if he wanted more and put my job at risk if I refused? I couldn't do it. I wouldn't do it. The dream I had of working for this company had come to an end. Because I am a woman.
Some months later, at an event, this CEO approached me and another young woman colleague of mine. He said we were two beautiful and talented young women who got away.
Getting away from that man and that job opportunity didn't cost me my career, but it's an example of the kind of environment some women are forced to endure or the choice some women are forced to make. Do they choose to risk the danger of being in close proximity to men who would prey on them? Will they be taken less seriously as professionals if they are called demeaning pet names such as honey and sweetheart, leered at by men more interested in their bodies than their intellectual contributions, or given secretarial tasks such as note-taking or coffee-fetching at meetings? Will they be given opportunities to prove themselves in challenging tasks and advance in their careers? Will they be taken seriously? Or do they choose not to take certain career paths because the burden placed upon them is too great simply because they are women?
It’s up to us to create the world we wish to live in. Everyone of us has a responsibility to support those around us. We are a community where all should be welcomed. Space is for everyone. For women who are into fashion and make-up and create works of art on their fingernails, space is for them. For women who don't care what they wear as long as it's practical, space is for them. For women who feel at home surrounded by geographical formations or in the magnificent desolation of a remote space analog location, space is for them. For women with families carrying a baby strapped to their torsos at conferences, space is for them. For people of color who have the police called on them while they study in the university library because others assume they don't belong, space is for them. For first-generation college students navigating an unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcoming path, space is for them.
When we see a lack of representation in university departments, in leadership positions, in prize awardees, in PIs and grant awardees, in speakers and panelists, in publications, in research teams, and anywhere else, consider whether the community is welcoming of people who look different, come from different backgrounds, and have a different gender than those in positions of power. The lack of team diversity also effects the usability of equipment, the fit of protective gear and garments (such as spacesuits), and even facial recognition algorithms. Women can't do their jobs if they do not have proper tools to do so because these tools were designed by male-dominated teams with men in mind.
Women and men alike need to be aware of our own ingrained biases. We all have them. Last year, the Space Telescope Science Institute initiated a dual-anonymous proposal review system for Hubble Space Telescope time. For the first time in its 18 years, women PIs had a higher success rate than men.
Check the language you use to describe female colleagues and students. If you wouldn't use that same language to describe male colleagues and students, change your wording. Do you use titles and honorifics more with men than with women? Do you assume Dr. Colleague is a male until you meet her?
Women in science can benefit especially from those in power: male allies who commit to supporting and encouraging their female colleagues. Listen to and trust women. Believe that they are competent in their work. Believe them when they tell you about their experiences in the field. Make sure they get credit for their ideas and their achievements. Don't talk over women. Don't delegate administrative, committee, or outreach work to a women that you wouldn't delegate to a man. Speak up when you see something inappropriate. Take appropriate action against known harassers and support their victims. Treat your female colleagues with the same respect and courtesy you treat your male colleagues.
We can do much to support and encourage our female colleagues. Encourage women to apply for jobs and leadership positions. Nominate women for teams, awards, short lists, and speaker slots. Mentor female students and young professionals. Make workplaces and conferences more welcoming and accessible for working mothers and families. Provide lab equipment and attire suitable for women's sizes.
Women, be bold. Be assertive. Apply for things. Apply for things even if you don't think you're qualified. Volunteer for projects and run for leadership positions. Don't let others' opinions of you hold you back.
Yes, you will face discrimination. Yes, you will be seen and treated differently than to your male colleagues. Yes, you will likely need to work harder and achieve more than men in order to get the same recognition (and we have studies that show this). It's not fair. But despite it all, we will continue to succeed and continue to create the world we want to live in.
Women featured in this presentation:
Ada Lovelace, First computer programmer
Alice Joyce Neighbors, NASA orbital mechanics mathematician
Annie Jump Cannon, Creator of the Harvard Classification Scheme, classified 350,000 stars
Barbara Paulson, JPL human computer
Caroline Herschel, Discoverer of comets
Chien-Shiung Wu, "Queen of Nuclear Research"
Dana Ulery, Pioneer of statistical computing, first JPL woman engineer
Dorothy Vaughan, NACA & NASA human computer & manager
Eilene Galloway, "The Great Dame of Space" for space law and policy
Eleanor Helin, PI of Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking & Discoverer of Near-Earth Objects
Gwynne Shotwell, President & COO of SpaceX
Hedy Lamarr, Actress, inventor of radio spectrum technology
Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Astronomer, discoverer of Hubble's Law (Hubble got the credit)
Jacqueline Cochran, Racing aviator, sponsor of Mercury 13 program
Jerrie Cobb, Record-holding aviator, Mercury 13 astronaut candidate
Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Discoverer of radio pulsars
Katherine Johnson, NASA orbital mechanics mathematician
Margaret ‘Hap’ Brennecke, NASA pioneer of aluminum alloys for welding engineering
Margaret Hamilton, NASA Apollo software engineer
Mary Golda Ross, First woman Native American aerospace engineer, original Skunk Works team member
Mary Jackson, NACA & NASA mathematician and aerospace engineer
Mary Morgan, Inventor of the liquid rocket fuel Hydyne
Mileva Marić, Co-developer of Albert Einstein's early reletivity theories
Nancy Grace Roman, "Mother" of the Hubble Space Telescope
Patti Grace Smith, First head of the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation
Rosalind Franklin, Discoverer of the structure of DNA
Valentina Tereshkova, First woman in space