October 28th, 2019 was a groundbreaking day for women in STEM. If you haven’t had the chance to read about this momentous occasion for women in history, one we are happy to not have to wait any longer for, the following are answers to key questions you may have.
First, what happened? October 28th marked the first time that a space walk was led solely by women. A space walk is just a fancy way to explain the standard astronaut pursuit of physical activity taken outside of a spacecraft in space. Sally Ride was the first woman to go into space 36 years ago in 1983, but it wasn’t until now that women could encompass the entirety of a spacewalk team, even a rousing two person one.
This walk has been a long time coming. This historic pursuit was scheduled to occur in March, seven months ago. The mission fell through due to the spacesuit of one of the astronauts, Anne McClain, being an incorrect size. An SNL skit spoofed this moment, comically noting McClain’s frustration around the fact that such intelligent and accomplished women have been denied opportunities for such a long time and when their moment finally came, their pitfall was simply that the “space shirt and pants were the wrong size.” Despite the walk’s unfortunate prolongment, safety was rightly a priority. A well fitted spacesuit is crucial to a successful mission due to bodies being extremely vulnerable in space; the suit’s essential role is to maintain life.
The women were tasked with fixing a power controller by inputting new batteries. This was so that the International Space Station could continue to be solar powered.
Secondly, who were these incredible women? Their names are Christina Koch and Jessica Meir. They both have a laundry list of laudable degrees and accomplishments. Koch is actually expected to make further history for taking the longest space flight by a woman,which will be 328 days if it goes according to plan. When asked if it bothered her that her accomplishments were always discussed parallel to a discussion of her gender, she noted the importance of her work’s historic nature and the beauty of being a part of NASA at a time when “all contributions are being accepted, when everyone has a role, and that can lead in turn to an increased chance for success.”
Third, what has the involvement of women in this field been like so far? We’ve already talked about the first woman in space being Sally Ride in 1983, but this was far from the first triumph of women in the field. The first female engineer, Kitty O’Brien Joyner, was admitted to NASA in 1938. Being the badass she was, she won a lawsuit challenging NASA’s all male engineering program. And twenty years later in 1958, Mary Jackson became the first black female engineer. Like most else, the fight for the same treatment and opportunities afforded to men is an ongoing journey led by the bright and inspiring.
Women in the broader realm of STEM have faced a similar trajectory of events. Having gone to a science themed high school, one with a mostly one to one ratio of men to women, I remember sitting in my higher level math and science courses and looking around the room to find the majority of students being men. Meanwhile, my humanities classes tended towards a more even or women dominated student base. Saddened by this acknowledgement, I reflected on if there had been any obvious push for this inequity to occur, and the short answer is no. These classes were open and encouraged to anyone with the grades to be in them.
Similar to my high school, most upper level educational institutions also offer the same equity of opportunity for women to engage in STEM at this point in time. Why then is it that just three years ago in 2016, only 12.6% of bachelor degrees in science and engineering were awarded to women? Or that women, who make up half of the college educated workforce, are only 28% of the science and engineering workforce? For women of other marginalized statuses orLGBTQ+ members of society, those percentages are far lower.
The answer to this is multi-faceted and has inspired a whole subset of social science research. One of the more compelling reasons is the vicious cyclical nature of this lack of representation. This argument follows that a reduced presence of women role models in STEM contribute to reduced participation in the field from a young age. Seeing not only the boss behavior of the women close to us, like our sisters, mothers, and teachers, but also that of women in conventionally male roles and on our TV screens, is the engine that drives progress.
It is for this reason and many others that October 28th, and women like Koch and Meir, are representative of a fierce step forward in the ever progressing feminist movement. It is moments like this that serve as the beginning of a new wave of women participation in STEM, and a baseline of progress for even further inclusion of minority people.
Staff Writer, What The F Magazine