“I wonder how complicated it would be to put on nail polish while traveling on a starship,” I said thoughtfully, “and while there might be time to solve that problem, how do they do it on the International Space Station?”
“They don’t!” said my friend, frowning.
“You know, I don’t get you. You don’t wear ‘dragon nails’, you hate shopping [author’s note: it’s true. I will only go to the mall at gun-point], you don’t have lunch with girlfriends, you don’t cook, you splashed with the guys in the mud [author’s 2nd note: that’s not accurate. I just fell in the mud a couple times, mountain biking], you only go for sci-fi and action movies, and sci-fi and popular science books, and can’t stand romantic comedies or ‘chick flicks’ [3rd note: not true. I did like Kate & Leopold. Oh, wait, that movie has time-travel…], and you never make any situation about being female. You’re always up to something, and you always make us feel like you’re ‘one of the guys’. So what’s the deal with the nail polish? You can’t switch sides like that. Whose side are you on? If you want to be ‘one of the guys’, you can’t be occupied with nail polish!”
“I’m not one of the guys!” I said, “I’m not one of the gals. I’m just one. And I like nail polish! Whatever. People like you are ruining the space program.”
“What are you talking about? What do I have to do with the space program?” he said, with genuine bewilderment.
This is what I wanted to say in response, just took me some time to put it together:
Not just ‘The’ space program. Any space program. Any program. Every field needs balance. As long as people believe in such stereotypes though, such as above described, then whatever field, territory, or occupation that has traditionally been dominated by men, will stay that way, and vice versa. In some industries there’s no urgency for change. Yes, women advocates point out how bad the inequality is, in many, many areas. There was a recent article based on this study, about how despite recent rise of a few women to fame in the TV writing and producing business, the undeniably vast majority of producers, writers, and executives are men. Women advocate complain about women’s salaries, about the fact that there are not enough women in positions of power in companies, and in government, and so on. But there is no sense of urgency. People are just complaining, waiting for things to change, and talking about it. Maybe thinking that talking will affect change. Sometimes it does.
There are signs that things are changing, slowly. The ‘Cosmic Log’ posted an article about women in science, and a list of programs aimed at “raising the visibility of women scientists …might help draw more girls into research and science education.” Did you know that there was a European Gender Summit? And there are several US organizations initiating or sponsoring events and festivals to encourage girls to choose science. There’s a general movement to encourage girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), and many resources dedicated by both private foundations and government authorities.
Such programs are not enough. Women will choose what they want to choose. The point is, though, we need a global attitude change. I’ve met men who truly believe that women can achieve anything they put their minds to. It seems they are a minority, and even most women share the majority opinion, that they can’t.
Writing about this brings back some relevant memories. A fellow cadet in military training asking me with wonder, if I wouldn’t feel safer if a man was taking over what I was doing; A commanding officer asking me how I got such a high grade, and whether I had a special relationship with my superior; Yep, that was fun.
Things have definitely changed since then, but too slowly. We need some serious attitude change. Both genders should avoid making science and space seem less attractive for girls. Parents should avoid making it seem like a ‘guys only’ thing. Parents, teachers, mentors, should avoid making it seem like it is easier for guys to excel in these fields. These are challenging fields, and they are challenging for everyone. It is not true that men are born to become pilots, astronauts, astronomers, and rockets scientists, and women are not; and it is not true that women who would go into these fields, would not be feminine enough to want to put on nail polish…
The Twitter account associated with this blog is following some science bloggers, astronomers, physicists, and astronauts, and I’m happy to report that interestingly many, many are women! I also watched some of them on TED Talks, presenting brilliantly. But I faced recently the sad truth. I’ve met several women with advanced degrees in sciences that are not working in their fields, for whatever reasons, it doesn’t matter. This served to remind me that lot of the blame goes to us. Sometimes the problem is not that we don’t believe we can, we just don’t want to. We simply just don’t want to.
And sometimes this is how we bring up our girls. A couple of weeks ago it was “Airport Day” at the small Palo Alto airport in northern CA. A guy approached me and asked some questions. Finally he pointed at his 2 teenage girls and said: “They want to learn how to fly, they want a pilot’s license, but their mom said No.”
So what? Well, look at the numbers in space. How many men are or have been to space as compared to women? The numbers are unequal in the extreme. There is urgency here. This ratio urgently needs to change. It is imperative, in fact, that everyone who is involved in space exploration should look for ways to encourage more women to join. What I’m basically trying to say to them is: “If you don’t, you die.”
That is my message to NASA, ESA, Mars One Project, Mars Drive, The Mars Society, SpaceX, the 100 Year Star Ship advisory board, Orbital Sciences Corp, Sierra Nevada Corp, and United Launch Alliance. If you don’t find a way to even the numbers to 50:50, you die. What good will it do, to have capacity to send humans to Mars and beyond, when the length of time defined for such a mission is very long, or forever, and the men outnumber the women 10:1? What do you think will happen in the long term? The settlements will die out. Fewer and fewer people will want to go, and these enterprises will die. This adventure has no future if half of humanity doesn’t take part in it with a fair and equal share.
So yeah, and while you guys figure out how to motivate that other half, we need to figure out at what temperature should nail polish be kept on Mars, since if frozen you can’t apply it; And we do need to figure out how to apply it in zero gravity. Wouldn’t want to smear my fellow astronaut’s nose instead.