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

New Approaches to Ending Harassment in Economics and Science

Exciting breakthroughs are happening in both policy initiatives and research findings that may lead to real changes in access to opportunity for women and minorities in the fields of economics and science. Starting with the field of economics, Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley of the New York Times report that Ben Bernanke, the current president of the American Economic Association (AEA), has acknowledged that “unfortunately, [the field of economics has] a reputation for hostility toward women and minorities.” This acknowledgment is a big deal because leaders at the highest levels will have to be the ones to make and implement real change. Janet Yellen, next year’s president of the AEA, agrees that change is needed. Casselman and Tankersley note that economics has had a diversity problem for a long time:

  • Only about a third of economics doctorates went to women, and the gender gap is wider at senior levels.
  • Racial and ethnic minorities are also underrepresented.
  • Barely 10 percent of tenured finance professors and 16 percent of tenure-track faculty are women in an AEA branch in Atlanta.

Casselman and Tankersley note in another article that a recent survey jolted Bernanke and the AEA into taking action. The authors report that a far-reaching survey conducted by the AEA involving 9,000 current and past members, both women and men, found an alarming rate of discrimination and harassment:

  • Half of the women reported being treated unfairly because of their sex compared to 3 percent of men.
  • Half of the women avoided speaking at a conference to guard against harassment or “disrespectful treatment.”
  • Hundreds of female economists say they have been stalked, touched inappropriately, or sexually assaulted. Overall, one in five reported being subjected to unwanted sexual advances.

As a result of this survey, the AEA has appointed an ombudsman empowered to investigate and establish professional consequences for those found to violate a new antiharassment code. This structural change is significant because until now, women and men in economics experiencing harassment and discrimination had nowhere to go to report it except to their own institutions, which have a vested interest in protecting those in powerful positions. Professional sanctions, including the loss of prestigious awards, will be made public if misbehavior is established—an important step in holding powerful people accountable.

The AEA survey also found high levels of alienation among black economists who have long felt their ideas are dismissed. Gay and lesbian economists were also far more likely to report discrimination and disrespect than their straight colleagues.

Other recent research by Alice Wu and, separately, Heather Sarsons found that women in economics face a toxic culture of discrimination in hiring, publications, and promotion. Sarsons’s research specifically found that women get less credit for work they do with male colleagues.

Switching now to the field of science, Amy Harmon writes that in 2018, the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), France Córdova, decided that “enough is enough” after she kept learning of yet another male scientist whose work she supported with public funds had sexually harassed a student, staff member, or colleague. Córdova, a woman who controls a $5 billion research budget, put in place a new sexual harassment policy that makes structural changes that could increase the number of female scientists in senior faculty positions. Specifically, institutions that accept an NSF grant must now go through this process:

  • They must notify the NSF of any finding related to harassment by the leading scientist working on the grant.
  • In case they do not report it, individuals may now report harassment directly to the NSF, which may conduct its own investigation; this is crucial if real accountability is to occur.

Both individuals and institutions face the possibility of losing coveted funds if sexual harassment is not reported, responded to with appropriate consequences, or stopped.

The fact that Córdova’s new policy was put in place by a woman in this #MeToo moment is not an accident. Córdova, 71, reports being sexually harassed herself as a graduate student by a professor. As Córdova and a few other senior female scientists have listened to stories from younger scientists in the context of the #MeToo movement and reviewed recent research on gender discrimination in science, they came to realize that the problem they thought would be a thing of the past is still widespread. Recent studies document that gender bias in science favors male scientists in hiring, salary, start-up funds for laboratories, credit for authorships, letters of recommendation, and invitations to speak at universities and on conference panels (a.k.a. “manels”).

Harmon says that a major report on harassment in science, published in 2018, offers a new term, “gender harassment,” defined as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status.” Carol Greider, a molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins, notes that gender harassment may explain as much or more than sexual harassment when it comes to what drives women out of the field. She states, “We’ve been talking about the ‘leaky pipeline’ for years, and this may turn out to be the big gushing hole” that drains women and minorities from the field.

In summary, new sexual harassment policies in economics and science that include multiple reporting channels, professional consequences, and transparency for bad behavior may finally result in change. New research and the #MeToo movement is increasing awareness and motivation to bring about change.


Photo courtesy of Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash.