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Astrofeminism
There are few companies in the space industry founded by women, just one example of the field’s gender gap.

Why Astrofeminism?


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The ancient universal practice of studying the moon, planets and stars from Earth helped to define primordial calendars and shape our earliest conception of gods, spirits, seasons, and tides. Today, space-based assets educate and connect humanity as well as revealing information that furthers efforts to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. At its best, what space offers us is the possibility to evolve the human condition. The power of space has benefited the United States on a global scale for decades, inspiring generations while expanding democratic soft power. To illustrate, in every single place around the world I’ve spent time in, from Akiruno, Tokyo to Zanzibar, Tanzania, I’ve observed local people proudly wearing NASA t-shirts! From a non-scientific perspective, images of space reveal patterns of light and color that are so beautiful it’s difficult to describe them as anything other than magical. Yet, they are in fact, very real!

Think of it this way: each percentage point demonstrating the lack of equality within the space sector is a missing story involving limitation and invisibility.

If gazing upward to the stars and imagining unlimited possibilities within the heavens occurs all around the globe, then why do so few experience their personal vision of space as a reality? Despite the recognition of a need for gender equality and practices put in place to close the gap, the sobering reality is that space remains, primarily, the domain of men. This truth led me to my primary research question: if data proves that a gender gap has existed within the aerospace sector since its inception, why hasn’t more been done to better understand the factors which inhibit women from equal participation? Simply put: why does a gender gap in aerospace still exist? And, if given the opportunity, would women approach space differently? I am stunned at how few scholars have tackled this. To be clear, I am not referring to a recognition of the need for gender equality, as that has been well-established. And I am not asserting that there are not remarkable, high-achieving women in aerospace, as that is not at all the case. What drives my research is to better understand the “why” behind what maintains the gender gap and the “what” as in, what exactly needs to be done to close it?

This is the point where I should insert data from my years of research and demonstrate the validity of my findings. While facts and data are necessary key components enabling us to better understand and address societal issues, the gender gap is about much more than data and statistics. Data merely informs us of reality. Think of it this way: each percentage point demonstrating the lack of equality within the space sector is a missing story involving limitation and invisibility. Besides delving deeply into the academic literature for a couple years (not at all mind-numbing!) I spent a lot of time talking with all kinds of people about space. That’s where I learned the most about what’s really happening and is how I have some important feedback to share.

During my interviews with women about space, issues of inadequacy, hesitation, prioritization of care-giving responsibilities, and unwanted harassment surfaced. There was the policewoman who confided that she idolized Sally Ride but didn’t feel she was smart enough to “get through the math” necessary to pursue a career in space. A young stay-at-home mom revealed how self-doubt hit her like a cartoon freight train after this interlude: when she revealed to her husband a desire to one day participate in a spacewalk, he laughed out loud and asked her what she was serving for dinner. Charming.

Then, there is Barb: the checker up the street who bravely (and humorously) ensured we stayed flush in the bounty of the Pavilions grocery store throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Barb became one of the few humans I spoke to outside of Zoom over the long stay-at-home order in Los Angeles. And, as she learned more about my research, Barb shared some of her own opinions about space: “Why are we messing with Mars when there’s so much stuff to fix here on Earth?” and “What are they going to do when they get up to Mars? Mess it up like they’ve done down here? Good riddance!” The potentate of Pavilions doesn’t play.

I offer Astrofeminism as a counterpoint to the predominantly male-focused mindset within aerospace as well as a new lens to reveal and advance understanding of the gender gap within the sector.

I listened to women who held advanced degrees but couldn’t relocate to pursue location-specific opportunities in aerospace because they were tethered by domestic care responsibilities, e.g., kids and husbands take precedence over mom’s zany space dreams. Women repeatedly sounded sexual harassment pitfalls within the scientific and academic communities and shared their unwillingness to report, and risk losing the traction they’d worked so hard to achieve. To emphasize, each data point validating the gender gap in space is, in actuality, a woman we don’t know about and never will. Would women approach space differently? Simply: yes. Has the success of few come at the price of most? Yes, again. Which changes in aerospace would create the greatest opportunities for women? These questions and the insight I’d like to share lead me to my stella polaris: Astrofeminism.

Astrofeminism is a theory of change that I developed to address the problem of the gendered environment within the space sector and provide new answers to old questions. The key theoretical framework behind Astrofeminsim combines threads of Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist existentialism (1949), Françoise d’Eaubonne’s concept of Ecofeminism (1974), and KimberlĂ© Crenshaw’s theory of Intersectional feminism (1989) with the space-based perspective of Overview Effect as the proverbial cherry on top. Astrofeminism can be applied to enhance and evolve the organizational culture within aerospace itself. But, how? One evolution would be to take my research and apply it. Throughout this inquiry, I repeatedly encountered three central gaps which exacerbate the status quo in the aerospace sector: (1) gaps in foundational power, (2) gaps in access to investment capital and (3) gendered data gaps.

As data scientist Caroline Criado Perez emphasizes: gendered data gaps exist because “the data is not collected in the first place and when it is gathered, it is not usually separated out by gender.” In terms of women of color, working-class women, and disabled women, “the data is practically non-existent.”[1] Where does one begin? To begin at the beginning. I addressed the gendered data gap in aerospace by individually analyzing publicly available data from 60 global aerospace organizations, both public and private, noting defining characteristics. The results are discouraging. Not one of the space companies I surveyed was founded by a woman.[2] Does foundational power matter? I believe so and will gleefully expand upon that if you’re game to listen. In all, I built six distinctive space-industry data sets (n=2,381) to address the gendered data gap within the aerospace sector. This article is my first step to disseminate the 20,319 words of academic rhetoric contained in my research into a more accessible format for the space industry and the general public.

Here are three key takeaways for future discussion: (1) foundational power continues to shape modern-day aerospace organizational culture and directives; (2) women would prioritize space differently, if provided the opportunity to do so; (3) acknowledgement of the gender gap within aerospace does not equate to resolution. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. Women’s historic and ongoing exclusion from founding aerospace companies and enacting female-centric priorities skews how we see and understand space today. I offer Astrofeminism as a counterpoint to the predominantly male-focused mindset within aerospace as well as a new lens to reveal and advance understanding of the gender gap within the sector. If you’re interested in learning more about my research, methodology and findings or Barb’s perspective on space, feel free to get in touch.

References

  1. Criado Perez, Caroline. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Penguin Random House, UK. 2019.
  2. Martin, L.S. Astrofeminism. Dataset #2. Harvard University. 2021.

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