Women in STEM: Dr Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space

Close up of Valentine Tereshkova's face in a space helmet

This past week we’ve celebrated the 50 year anniversary of Dr Valentina Tereshkova’s historic flight as the first woman in space. This is a good time to remember how far the sciences in general have come in terms of gender equality, and how far we still have to go. A few news sites have been celebrating the fact that women now make up around half of all American astronauts. A great article by +National Geographic (NG) gives some insight into the gender disparity that persisted in space missions well into the 1980s. Up until that time, the media largely focused on women astronauts’ looks, making disparaging jokes about their femininity getting in the way of their missions. Thus they ignored the mental and physical stamina required to go into this field, not to mention the high level of education demanded of astronauts! The general public continues to be fascinated with the novelty of space travel, not always recognising that these space voyagers are qualified scientists. Tereshkova has a PhD in engineering.

The NG article is a reminder that only 50 years a go, astronaut John Glenn dismissed the scientific qualifications of women astronauts using biological determinism. He told a USA Subcommittee: “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.” Women scientists have forged new paths in space exploration and in other scientific fields, but inequality persists.

Women scientists are more likely to be passed over for a promotion even when they have the same qualifications, experience and work the same hours as men. Scientific organisations tend to have have few women in top Executive positions. Women researchers are more likely than men to be harassed while they do field work – by their fellow senior researchers, no less!

NASA has worked to address gender inequality. What can other scientific organisations and disciplines learn from them?

Well for starters, make a stronger public effort to highlight gender issues, rather than pretending gender is not a concern.

Let’s take this opportunity to remember that scientific innovation requires social change.


This post was first published on Science on Google+