Defying gravity women in space

As we celebrate International Girls in ICT Day (28 April), we look at how access to STEM education empowers the next generation of women. 

Few minutes to read
By Roxanne Oclarino
Published on

Scientific careers of any kind are becoming ever more accessible in the 21st century and the future looks promising and bright for aspiring girls and young women of the world. As we observe International Girls in ICT Day, hosted by the International Telecommunication Union, we take a closer look at education and its role in empowering the future generation of girls everywhere to reach for the sky. 

Advocating for women to be equal players is crucial if we are to achieve gender equality. Without gender equality today, a sustainable future for all will remain beyond reach. History has shown how women have already made their mark in exploring what the universe has to offer. One of these trailblazers in the space industry is the distinguished former NASA astronaut Dr Sandra Magnus whose achievements continue to inspire the younger generation to create a brighter future for women. 

Woman on a mission 

Just like the rest of us when we were young, Dr Magnus had a dream: “I wanted to fly in space, I wanted to explore, and I wanted to see the Earth from orbit. I wanted to be on the edge of what we can do as human beings.” Fuelled by her desire to go to space, she knew access to education was key. The former astronaut earned degrees in physics and electrical engineering and later obtained a PhD in materials science and engineering, which was supported by a fellowship from the NASA Lewis Research Center. From then on, the sky’s the limit. 

At age 31, Dr Magnus joined the NASA Astronaut Corps and flew a total of three shuttle missions, spending more than 150 days – nearly half a year of her life – living in space. She also served at the NASA headquarters in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. Acting as the deputy chief of the Astronaut Office was her last duty at NASA. 

Dr Magnus left the agency after being appointed as Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the world’s largest aerospace technical society. Awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal in 2002, 2009 and 2011, she also earned the highest distinction that may be bestowed by the agency, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, in 2009. She was then awarded the NASA Exceptional Service Medal in 2012, recognizing her sustained contributions to its programmes and initiatives. 

To date, women make up just over 10 % of human space travellers. 

Thai women picking rice in flooded paddy field.

In retrospect, Dr Magnus reflects on her dream being fulfilled and her mission accomplished: “I’m a very curious person and flying in space was the way to express that part of me and engage. The idea just stuck: ‘I’m going try and be an astronaut.’ So I tried and I made it – fortunately.” 

Shooting for the stars 

Narratives from extraordinary women like Dr Magnus continue to inspire other women to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and empower them to navigate the workplace of the future. While large strides have been made, there are still barriers to women’s equal participation in the space industry where they remain a minority.  

To date, women make up just over 10 % of human space travellers. The United Nations (UN) reports that only around one in five space industry workers are women. As of 2021, the number of women employed in the international space industry represents up to 22 % of the workforce, roughly the same ratio as 30 years ago. However, recent efforts show that progress is being made and NASA has pledged that, by 2024, it will put the first woman on the Moon.  

Space4Women, a project of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, serves as the gateway to space, bringing its science and technology to women everywhere. According to the UN, to succeed in addressing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the world must ensure that the benefits of space reach women and girls and they play an active and equal role in space science, technology, innovation and exploration.  

Adventure awaits 

Promoting gender equality, not just in space but everywhere, remains one of the greatest global challenges of our time. ISO aims to encourage equal representation in standardization to strengthen the participation of women in the development of International Standards.  

Breaking professional stereotypes will be key to improving women’s participation in the STEM sector. A recent survey of ISO committees shows that progress is underway, particularly for women aged 35 and under. ISO actively promotes gender equality through its Gender Action Plan, which aims to support the UN’s SDG 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. This is just one of the prominent solutions that are helping to eliminate barriers preventing women in this sector from gaining equal participation. 

Promoting gender equality remains one of the greatest global challenges of our time. 

Although not all of us can understand the realities of space like Dr Magnus, it’s important that we remain optimistic and shape a more accessible future for women. We have the talent and capability, but only a clear path towards gender equality backed by sound policy and exceptional leadership will get us there. And as we look forward to new discoveries that will help us expand our views of the universe, we should also recognize the crucial role girls and young women can play in shaping the future. 

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