Women make up just 15% of NASA’s planetary mission science teams. Here’s how the agency is trying to change that

May 4, 2017

By Paul Voosen

Sometimes, change starts with a single sentence.

In December 2016, NASA began accepting bids for its next New Frontiers competition, a chance to mount a $1 billion mission to solar system destinations such as the moon, Venus, or Saturn’s moon Titan. It is a careermaking opportunity, and scientists devoured the rules in the announcement. In the second paragraph, they read something new: a sentence stating that “NASA recognizes and supports the benefits of having diverse and inclusive” communities and “fully expects that such values will be reflected in the composition of all proposal teams.”

Many scientists hope the language will help NASA get out of a rut. Over the past 15 years, women have made up just 15% of planetary mission science teams, even though at least a quarter of planetary scientists are women. The disparity is even worse for ethnic minorities: Blacks and Hispanics make up 13% and 16% of the country, respectively, but each group makes up just 1% of the nation’s planetary scientists. (Firm numbers for specific missions are not available.)

The New Frontiers deadline arrived last week, and although the proposals are not public, observers say that women lead at least four of the dozen or so NASA received. “I suspect teams that come in will be significantly more diverse than previous rounds,” says Louise Prockter, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.

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14 comments on “Women make up just 15% of NASA’s planetary mission science teams. Here’s how the agency is trying to change that

  • I watched film “Hidden figures” few days ago. Treatment of those women! Sad. They had to battle two battles. One, discrimination because they were black, and second, because they were women. Today is a birthday of my good friend Karl Marx 😉 and as he putted – Proletarians of all countries unite! … I would like to say – Women of all countries unite!! hahaha

    Women please stop allowing your boyfriends and husbands to play. They have passed border of childhood years ago, and you are still allowing them to play war, to play with their shiny cars or motorcycles, to play sports games, or to play with their mates in bar, etc., leaving you at home to take responsiblility for cooking, rasing children, washing, cleaning… . Stop allowing them to play while denying yourself your right to play. 🙂 Stop treating them as children that have to be allowd to play with their little spades and little buckets in sand. What about you? You could be rockets (and many more of you in NASA) if you just stop allowing your husbands or boyfriends to play. 😉



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  • I wonder how good was your friend Karl at household chores. Seems he spent all his time in libraries ‘studying’ economics and politics. But ended up creating a religion instead.

    Hidden figures was a great movie. But that was mainly racism. Problem with sex diversity is more fundamental. Creative females tend to be more oriented towards aesthetics. Males more towards ideas. It’s basic evolutionary psychology. There’s obviously some nale/female overlap. But not so much at the extremes of creativity (and intelligence), where it really does matter. The stupidist people are usually men. And the smartest also. A very wide variance. Women tend to be more narrowly dispersed. Any institutional selection process, formal or informal, for an engineering vs artistic enterprise would tend to favour ideas rather than aesthetics. Hence mostly males.

    Interplanetary space travel doesn’t have much of an aesthetic aspect. It would be a massive job just to keep the planetary systems clean for a start, let alone redocorating the entire solar system. Combine these difficulties with with the female preference for family and child-rearing and there are inevitably fewer career opportunities for females.

    Maybe if space rockets looked a little less phallic then things might change? Perhaps spend more time of interior decoration of space ships instead of propulsion and life support technology?

    NASA might be better off focusing on G-factor diversity. Provide a more equal opportunity for diversity in various forms of intelligence. Perhaps more emphasis on emotional or political intelligence, and less of the maths and physics.

    Full diversity implies they need to add in plenty of low IQ’s to balance out the high IQs. Wisdom doesn’t correlate with IQ anyway. And NASA needs to act wisely. Obviously they are acting wisely, politically wise that is, by moving in the equality and diversity direction already. They’re already taking into account unconscious discrimination biases in evaluating mission proposals, but not yet mandatory – whatever that means.

    They also need to work on supply, not just demand. Possibly a way forwards is to identify female dominated professions and institutions and mandate a minimum acceptable male/female ratio. This would require large numbers of males to displace the prevailing excess of female employees. Allowing the hordes of displaced females to become immediately available for projects such as NASA’s New Frontiers.



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  • @OP – Women make up just 15% of NASA’s planetary mission science teams. Here’s how the agency is trying to change that

    Given the differences in male and female brain development and aptitudes, trying to apply gender quotas to aptitudes is crass stupidity!

    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/44096/title/Sex-Differences-in-the-Brain/

    Developmental masculinization of the brain leads to significant structural differences in the brains of the two sexes. (See illustration.) Some brain regions are larger in males; others are smaller. Collections of cells that constitute nuclei or subnuclei of the brain differ in overall size due to differences in cell number and/or density, as well as in the number of neurons expressing a particular neurotransmitter. The length and branching patterns of dendrites and the frequency of synapses also vary between males and females—in specific ways in specific regions—as does the number of axons that form projections between nuclei and across the cerebral hemispheres.
    Even nonneuronal cells are masculinized. Astrocytes in parts of the male brain are more “bushy,” with longer and more frequent processes than those in the same regions of the female brain. And microglia, modified macrophages that serve as the brain’s innate immune system, are more activated in parts of the male brain and contribute to the changes seen in the neurons.




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  • But ended up creating a religion instead.

    Perhaps only in your eyes. And if you are American I am not surprised you think so hahaha 😉 (welll, anyway every capitalist by default think so, hahaha…) 🙂

    Creative females tend to be more oriented towards aesthetics. Males
    more towards ideas. … > Any institutional selection process, formal or informal, for an
    engineering vs artistic enterprise would tend to favour ideas rather
    than aesthetics.

    I wouldn’t say so. I would say females are raised that way, as well as men. We are taught to behave in a certain way since childhood. Male and female roles are thought, and strengtened through years. (like in senses… when one sense is not used, other gets strenghtened). I know so many women engineers not less capable or creative than men. But we live in patriarchal society, so…

    … And yet those women in NASA discovered what no man in that institution discovered!



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  • Modesti #4
    May 6, 2017 at 3:39 am

    I would say females are raised that way, as well as men. We are taught to behave in a certain way since childhood. Male and female roles are thought, and strengtened through years. (like in senses… when one sense is not used, other gets strenghtened).

    It is true that many aspects of gender roles are learned through childhood, but there is also evidence from early embryology, and through childhood and adolescence, that genetics and hormones affect the nature and aptitudes in brain development.
    However, male/female brain types do not necessarily match phenotypical body forms. Some females can have male type brains, and males can have female brain features – even before we look at intersex issues.

    I know so many women engineers not less capable or creative than men.

    I know of many university women engineering students like the ones in the engineering exam I was supervising yesterday.
    However in reality male students far outnumber females on university science and engineering courses, while females far outnumber males on language courses!

    As I point out at #3, while there should be equality of OPPORTUNITY, ideological quotas which try to pretend that all people are equally adept at particular skills, ridiculously seek to force less able candidates into unsuitable jobs or courses in the name of fanciful political correctness!



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  • https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/uploads/wise/files/WISE_UK_Statistics_2014.pdf


    • Only 21% of Physics ‘A’ level entrants were female, a figure that has remained static over recent years but the number participating rose
    in 2014 to 7,742.
    • Almost four in ten (39%; 34,374) of Mathematics ‘A’ level entries were female in 2014, a minor increase (0.2%) since 2012 compared with a
    6% rise in the number of boys participating

    Females completed 20.7% (1,620) of ICT, 2% (130) of Construction, Planning & the Built Environment and 5.8% (1,460) of Engineering and Manufacturing apprenticeships in 2013/2014. over the same period.

    • At degree level, there are marked differences in the STEM undergraduate subjects which attract males and females:

    Males dominated undergraduate degrees achieved in Engineering & Technology (86%), Computer Science (83%) and Architecture, Building & Planning (70%) in 2014.

    Females dominated undergraduate degrees achieved in Subjects Allied to Medicine (82%), Veterinary Science (78%) and Agriculture & Related Subjects (64%) in 2014.

    In most subjects, the gender segregation is less marked at postgraduate level. In Engineering & Technology, for example, 23% of postgraduate degrees were obtained by women, compared to 14% at undergraduate level in 2014




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  • @OP – Many scientists hope the language will help NASA get out of a rut.

    . . . or – maybe social crusaders wishfully hope that scientists will swallow ideological semantic babble about imagined ruts, rather than using scientific evidence of aptitudes and capabilities!
    (We have just seen in US elections the effects of people believing that wishful “language Trumps science”!)

    Over the past 15 years, women have made up just 15% [?] of planetary mission science teams, even though at least a quarter of planetary scientists are women.

    @#6 – In most subjects, the gender segregation is less marked at postgraduate level.
    In Engineering & Technology, for example, 23% of postgraduate degrees were obtained by women, compared to 14% at undergraduate level in 2014.

    So those figures seem to be in line with the range of figures where high skills levels, aptitude, and competitive entry are qualifications at various ability levels, after less able and less competitive candidates drop out!

    The disparity is even worse for ethnic minorities:
    Blacks and Hispanics make up 13% and 16% of the country, respectively,
    but each group makes up just 1% of the nation’s planetary scientists.

    Perhaps this is a reflection of the standards of depravation and poorer education of those ethnic groups, leaving many of them less capable and less well prepared for doing high level demanding expert technical jobs where accuracy and error free work is required!

    Perhaps the selection of candidates with scientific and engineering expertise, can be better carried out by specialist scientists, rather than by ideological social crusaders, fumbling with figures and biology they don’t understand!



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  • Alan4discussion,

    Thank you for the statistics. Behind them are real life stories that you have noticed, 🙂 And I do not have doubt in my mind that women are less represented in planetary missions. (or in general) We should ask them why is that. One of the reasons could be because the way they are raised and biases of patriarchal society, and not mere learning. Perhaps if the conditions are the same for men and women, I have no doubt that women could learn the same thing. 🙂 But reality gets in the way by the fact that one gender was given better stimulus and different behavior towards them from the start. And I have no doubt that black people, hispanics, or any other “minority” (being so because politics and society have imposed them obstacles) would have scored same results as white males. 🙂

    Perhaps the selection of candidates with scientific and engineering
    expertise, can be better carried out by specialist scientists, rather
    than by ideological…

    I agree, completely.



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  • Modesti #8
    May 6, 2017 at 8:41 am

    One of the reasons could be because the way they are raised and biases of patriarchal society, and not mere learning.

    Biases, social cultures and learning can make significant differences, but the key difference in a large percentage of cases, is biological.

    Perhaps if the conditions are the same for men and women, I have no doubt that women could learn the same thing.

    Of course the biological conditions during the development of the brain (and other organs), from embryonic states and onward, are not the same.

    But reality gets in the way by the fact that one gender was given better stimulus and different behavior towards them from the start.

    I would not make “better” as a general statement.
    A typical individual from one gender has different aptitudes and abilities to the other, but there is considerable variation in both sexes, so these are proportional differences rather than absolute differences. – hence lower sex-related percentages of particular individual aptitudes occur.

    There can also be hormonal influences on foetal development, from irregular hormones in the mother during gestation, or from hormones from an opposite sex twin!

    We see clear physical differences in sports events where the sexes are separated, and occasionally women athletes have their gender questioned because of male type physical attributes giving them an advantage over other female competitors.

    You are unlikely to see a female football team capable competing in the Premier League!



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  • Hiring people on criteria other than qualifications and demonstrated competence (i.e. relevant criteria) is just recipe for a less effective organisation than you could otherwise have. I nominate the insanity that is identity politics to the list of things that “poisons everything”.



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  • Olgun #12
    May 8, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    (mainly) Female chimps playing with rock dolls – interesting!

    It does seem to suggest that the “politically correct” ideological notion of “interchangeable standardised unipeople” is a fairly recent invention!



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  • Meanwhile scientific research seeks definitive answers!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-39854654

    UK scientists have released the first batch of “groundbreaking” medical scans that reveal step-by-step how the human brain develops in babies.

    Researchers around the world can use the data to understand what healthy growth looks like, say the Developing Human Connectome Project experts.

    The detailed MRI scans could also improve understanding of conditions such as autism and cerebral palsy.

    They precisely plot how the billions of neurons form and connect together.

    The team from King’s College London, Imperial College London and the University of Oxford say their task has been incredibly challenging.

    Newborn human brains contain trillions of pathways, packed into an organ that is about the size of a small tangerine.

    So far, the scientists have released data they collected by scanning 40 babies a few days after birth.

    Lead investigator Prof David Edwards said getting permission from new parents to allow their babies to be scanned was “a big ask”.

    “It’s perfectly safe. There’s no radiation or X-rays involved. But we are incredibly grateful to the families who have taken part in this work. It’s contributing hugely to science.”

    Their plan is to scan many more newborns, as well as babies still growing in the womb.

    Then they will create a dynamic map of human brain connectivity.

    Prof Edwards said: “Having lots of data will mean we can study what is normal and abnormal in terms of brain development.

    “We can start to answer important questions, like what happens to the brain when babies are born prematurely or how does the brain develop differently in children with autism.”

    The work, which is funded with a 14.9m euro European Research Council grant, will take a few more years to complete.

    When it is finished, the researchers say theirs will be the biggest and best-quality collection of baby brain development images ever gathered.



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