Female Leaders Make a Difference: Putting Women in Space

Two women, Jessica Meir and Christina Koch, recently made spacewalk history when they completed the first all-woman spacewalk for the International Space Station. This breakthrough was possible thanks to the efforts of Janet Kavandi, a recently retired NASA leader. Jillian Kramer, writing for the New York Times, notes that after three missions in space, Kavandi moved into NASA administration and became a role model for women in leadership roles at NASA. Kramer explains that Kavandi is “credited with adding fairness to a process that for the first time chose an astronaut class that included as many women as men.”

In 2013, Kavandi was appointed director of flight crew operations. As chair of the astronaut selection committee, she chose diverse committee members who had demonstrated open-mindedness. She implored them to make fair and diverse choices. While she did not specifically tell them to pick as many women as men, that is exactly what they did. Out of 6,300 applicants, they chose four women and four men, “the first astronaut class balanced by gender.” One of the four women chosen was Christina Koch, part of the recent historic spacewalk described above. This instance was also likely the first time a senior woman leader was in charge of the selection process, and Kavandi clearly made a difference.

Not surprisingly, few women hold senior leadership roles at NASA. Kramer cites Lori Garver, NASA’s former deputy administrator, as stating that less than 15 percent of the agency’s top roles are filled by women. Garver notes that “when there is such an imbalance at the top, the culture tends to favor men, and women often struggle to be heard or have their views taken seriously.” Women are also often passed over for promotions when top levels still have a gender imbalance. For example, last year, the current NASA administrator recommended that Kavandi be promoted to the number two position, deputy administrator, at NASA, but President Trump instead appointed a man with no previous space technology experience. A short time later, Kavandi announced her retirement and took a position at a space technology company. (Wouldn’t you do the same?) Nonetheless, her legacy will continue as one of the four women in the gender-balanced astronaut class chosen by her hiring committee will likely be the first woman to walk on the moon when the next moon walk occurs.

Women have faced great difficulty in being allowed to become astronauts. Jessica Bennett and Mary Robinette Kowal, writing for the New York Times, note that of the 560 people who have been in space over the past five decades from all countries, only 56 have been women. Many myths and distortions abounded to justify why women could not be astronauts. For example, Bennett and Kowal cite a report from the 1960s “that raised concerns about putting ‘a temperamental psychophysiologic human’ (read: a hormonal woman) together with a ‘complicated machine’ (the spacecraft).” In fact, studies now show that

  • women are actually better suited than men for space travel. They are smaller and lighter on average and consume fewer resources.
  • women astronauts handle stress better than men do.
  • women, when they have spacesuits designed for them rather than ones designed by and for men, perform as well as men in space.

It does make a difference when women are in senior leadership positions in organizations. We need more of them.


Photo by Nicolagypsicola on Unsplash

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