Only 3% of engineering degree applicants in the UK are girls and 6% of the UK engineering workforce are female. That’s right, it’s in the single digits!
Having carried out physics and engineering degrees in the UK, this statistic pains me. Relatedly, physics is the 3rd most popular A-level for boys but only the 19th for girls. Half of all state schools in the UK don’t have any girls studying physicsA-levels at all. With a similar trend seen globally obviously something needs to change.
The United Nations (UN) has declared 11th February the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating their scientific achievements and taking place for the first time this year. So it’s apt today to look at how we can encourage girls to study science, including physics, ensuring that they have access to STEM jobs in the future.
Although girls are more likely to want to work on something meaningful they are reluctant to translate that desire to science
The Impact of Technology
When speaking to young girls, one thing that has always helped me to portray the wonder of science, is rather than always thinking about the technology itself, think about the impact that technology will make on people. Humanize the technology itself. Take satellite technology for example: initiatives are now being undertaken to provide affordable internet access worldwide through a constellation of microsatellites, a project with the potential to have an unprecedented impact on those around the world without access to basic communication. Rural communities will have high-speed internet access where once there was none, providing education and knowledge to those currently without. The impact of the project is from where, I believe, you can inspire an increasing number of girls to study science.
Rather than thinking about the technology itself, think about the impact that technology will make on people. Humanize the technology itself.
NASA Astronaut Karen Nyberg in the cupola module on the International Space Station (ISS). She has a degree in mechanical engineering and her studies centered on human thermoregulation and experimental metabolic testing and control, and focusing on the control of thermal neutrality in space suits. [Image copyright: NASA]
Allowing girls access to women in STEM is key. As the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, said, “If you can’t see, you can’t be.” With movies and media portraying mainly male scientists, meeting one female scientist can change the life of a young girl as many don’t realize that a career in STEM is an option. Their future options can be influenced by a decision they make at a very young age. Positive female role models are essential to provide women with examples to look up to when they’re making the most critical decisions in their educations or career. Girls can be inspired by independent, fearless, female main characters in books or on TV as well as in real life. Knowing that there is somebody that looks like them and is a scientist can be pivotal in their educational journey.
Take a look at the Inspirational Women section of Rocket Women to read interviews with accomplished women in the space industry.
Six-Year-Old Abigail Enthralled By Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s Sokol spacesuit [Copyright: Lottie.com]
Encourage Girls When Young
To encourage more women into engineering you need to inspire them when they’re young. Girls at the age of 11 decide to leave STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), when they’re in an education system where the choice of subjects at school severely limits their options for working in other fields later. Girls need to be allowed to be creative and inquisitive from a young age, rather than being told to play with toys that are seen by many as more appropriate for young girls is key. At 8, I was learning to programme the VCR and encouraged to read voraciously about science. The key is to initially spark an interest in STEM and then to allow that to grow over years, overcoming gender bias, especially in the early years and secondary school. There are an increasing number of companies helping parents to encourage girls when younger and avoid toys that are infused with gender stereotypes, including Goldieblox which allows girls to build and become engineers and Lottie Dolls who recently launched a Stargazing Lottie doll, designed by a six-year-old girl called Abigail, to the International Space Station (ISS).
Girls need to know that it’s fine to be nerdy
Changing The Stereotype
The typical stereotype of a physicist or engineer is usually male and nerdy, which needs to change. Many men and women that work in STEM don’t consider themselves a stereotypical ‘nerd’. Girls also need to know that it’s fine to be nerdy, or simply smart, in fact as an increasing number of jobs incorporate at least a moderate level of technical skills, it’s going to be necessary for girls to learn to code and feel comfortable in a technical environment in order to succeed and thrive in any chosen career. According to US CTO Megan Smith, tech jobs pay 50% more than the average American salary.
96% of the world’s software engineers are men. The average salary for a software engineer in the US was close to $100,000, one of the top paying jobs in the country, with a similar trend worldwide.
On this inaugral International Day of Women and Girls in Science, lets share this advice with young girls around the world to help them reach their potential in the future.
A stunning new animated video highlightsSally Ride‘s interview with icon Gloria Steinem in 1983, mere months after Sally became the first American Woman in Space. Her flight invigorated the imagination of thousands of young girls, showing them that it was possible to be an astronaut, or in Sally Ride’s own words and one of my favourite quotes, “If you can’t see, you can’t be.”
But although NASA were looking to the future, some were still lagging behind. Prior to her flight, rather than focusing on her technical acumen and performance, the press asked Sally whether she cried when there were malfunctions in the shuttle simulator, about the bathroom facilities or what kind of make up she was bringing up with her.
“I wish that there had been another woman on my flight, I wish that two of us had gone up together. I think it would’ve been a lot easier” – Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space
A recording of the interview was found by PBS Digital Studios in the archives of Smith College, who transformed the interview into an animated video (above) for its “Blank on Blank” series, posted this week.
“I wish that there had been another woman on my flight,” Ride says in the video “I think it would have been a lot easier.” She also overcame early education barriers, “I took all the science classes that I could in junior high school and into high school.”
“I went to a girls’ school that really didn’t have a strong science programme at all when I was there. At the time it was a classic school for girls, with a good tennis team and a good English teacher. Essentially no math[s] past eleventh grade, no physics and no chemistry.”
NASA has come a long way since Sally Ride’s flight in 1983, with four female astronauts chosen out of the eight candidates in the recent NASA Astronaut Class. Their selection in 2013 means that women now represent 26% of NASA’s astronaut corps, thirty years after the flight of America’s first woman in space.
Although a greater number of women now than ever have the opportunity to become an astronaut and fly, implicit (and explicit) gender bias still remains, notably seen in the questions asked of the crew pre-flight.Six accomplished Russian women underwent an 8-day analogue mission to the Moon last year. Prior to their mission they were asked by the press how they would cope without men, shampoo or makeup for the next week.
This is similar to the line of questioning faced by cosmonaut Yelena Serova, Russia’s 4th female cosmonaut and the female cosmonaut on the International Space Station (ISS). Yelena, an engineer with significant experience, was asked prior to her mission in 2014howshe would style her hair in the microgravity conditions on the ISS and how she would continue to bond with her daughter during her 6-month mission. Remarks about Yelena’s mission by the the editor of Russian magazine Space News including, “We are doing this flight for Russia’s image. She will manage it, but the next woman won’t fly out soon,” do little to inspire hope in the numbers of Russian women in space increasing in the near future.
However, by being honest about these viewpoints, both historical and recent, and exposing the gender bias that still remains globally, there is hope for change.
Watch the interview above or read it here:
Sally Ride (SR): I wish that there had been another woman on my flight, I wish that two of us had gone up together.
Gloria Steinem (GS): It’s tough to be the first but you’ve done it with incredible grace. You also have the only job in the world that everybody understands.
SR: [Laughs] My father I think was so grateful when I became an astronaut because he couldn’t understand astrophysicist. He couldn’t relate to that at all. But astronaut was something that he felt he could [relate to].
GS: And you could see people all over the world connecting with what you were doing.
SR: Roughly half of the people in the world would love to be astronauts, would give anything to trade places with you. The other half just can’t understand why in the world you would do anything that stupid.
GS: If you don’t have 20:20 vision can you become an astronaut candidate or is it disabling?
SR: I think it used to be. Now as long as it’s correctable to 20:20 it’s ok. So you’d probably qualify!
SR: I didn’t have any dreams of being an astronaut at all. And I don’t understand that, because as soon as the opportunity was open to me, I jumped at it. I instantly realised that it was what I really wanted to do. I took all the science classes that I could in junior high school and into high school. I went to a girls’ school that really didn’t have a strong science programme at all when I was there. At the time it was a classic school for girls, with a good tennis team and a good English teacher. Essentially no math[s] past eleventh grade, no physics and no chemistry.
GS: I’m curious about the reception that you got inside NASA. What kind of thing happened to you?
SR: Really, the only bad moments in our training happened with the press. The press was an added pressure on the flight for me and whereas NASA appeared to be very enlightened about flying astronaut, the press didn’t appear to be. The things that they were concerned with, were not the same things that I was concerned with.
GS: For instance the bathroom facilities. How often did you get asked that?
SR: Just about every interview I got asked that. Everybody wanted to know what kind of make up I was taking up. They didn’t care about how well prepared I was to operate the arm, or deploy communications satellites.
GS: Did NASA try to prepare you for the press or pressure?
SR: Unfortunately no they don’t. In my case they took a graduate student in physics, who spent her life in the basement of a physics department with oscilloscopes and suddenly put me in front of the press.
GS: What do you suppose are the dumbest kinds of questions that you’ve been asked to date?
SR: Without a doubt, I think the worst question I have got was whether I cried when we got malfunctions in the simulator.
GS: That surpassed the one about whether you were going to wear a bra or not. Did somebody really ask you that?
SR: No, the press I think decided that was a good question for someone to have asked me and for me to have answered. But I never got asked that.
GS: But they made you up a good response. Something about in a state of weightlessness it doesn’t matter.
SR: Yeah I was never asked that question.
GS: What about your feelings during the launch? Was there any time that the enormity of what was going on came over you?
SR: The moment of the launch, when the engines actually ignited and the solid rockets, that everyone on the crew was for a few seconds just overcome with what was about to happen to us. But a year of training is a long time, a year of sitting in simulators and being told exactly what’s going to happen, and you hear the sounds and feel the vibrations. It prepares you very well and it worked. We were able to overcome being overcome and do the things we were supposed to do.
GS: Just watching there at the launch, there were people with tears streaming down their faces. People I never would’ve expected and I guess they were all very moved by the human audacity of it.
SR: I think that when you see the long trail of flame and to imagine that there are really people inside that. That’s really something. Inside of course you don’t see the long trail of flame, and what you feel is more of an exhilaration.
GS: Well there are lots of people who are looking up there and feeling proud. Not just of you but of people on the ground.
SR: Thank you.
GS: What do you think it might be like in 2001 in fact? What’s possible for us?
SR: Well 2001 is a long ways in the future to speculate on. But probably the next step after the space shuttle is a space station. I would forsee a station as not just something that’s orbiting the Earth and used for experimentation but would also be used as a launching platform back to the Moon or to Mars. I’m sure that both of those are inevitable. We’ll go back to the Moon and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we go to Mars.
GS: Do you have any speculation about how long it might be before there are such a thing as ‘peopled’ space colonies?
SR: I’d guess that by the year 2000 there will be. I’d think that we’ll have a space station up by the end of this decade.
GS: On which it’ll be possible to live for long periods of time?
With 2015 almost over, it’s time to look back at the inspiring women that took a leap and broke records this year worldwide.
1. Samantha Cristoforetti
World Record Breaker For Longest Serving Female Astronaut In Space & First Italian Woman In Space
Italian European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti smiling following her Soyuz landing in Kazakhstan after spending a record-breaking 200 days in space [ESA]
When European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti landed in her Soyuz descent module on a desert steppe in Kazakhstan on 11th June 2015, she did so breaking the world record for the longest serving female astronaut in space. Samantha spent 200 days on the International Space Station, beating the previous record of 195 days held by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams (Sunita herself is on track this year to become the first female NASA astronaut to fly to space on a commercial vehicle). On her launch day to the ISS, 200 days earlier, Samantha became the first Italian woman in space. Her mission, along with that of crewmates NASA astronaut Terry Virts and Russian commander Anton Shkaplerov, was extended from an original May end-date, due to an incident with the Russian Progress 59 resupply mission. Samantha wasn’t at all disappointed by the delay tweeting, “Looks like it’s not time to get my spacesuit ready yet… what a present! #MoreTimeInSpace.” Whilst on the ISS she spoke to Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon, thanking Susan for her interest in girls in STEM and commitment to help girls find their way to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math[s], “..maybe in the future we can event work together to help sparkle that passion and interest for STEM and to show that no dream is too big”.
2. Susie Wolff
Williams Formula One Test Driver. Announced Her Retirement in 2015 After Becoming The First Woman in 2014 To Participate In A Formula One Weekend Since 1992
She’s an inspiration for women worldwide dreaming of becoming a Formula One (F1) driver. Susie Wolff, Williams F1 Test Driver, announced her retirement from the sport at the end of 2015. At the 2014 British Grand Prix Susie became the first woman to participate in a Formula One weekend since 1992 as a Test Driver. That’s 22 years without a woman on the Formula One track, let alone as a F1 driver. The last woman driver to actually qualify for a Formula One Grand Prix race was Italian Lella Lombardi who competed in three seasons, from 1974 to 1976. only scoring points in 1975 and finishing sixth.
When Susie was asked if she was surprised there weren’t many women in Formula 1 she replied, “Well there are lots of women in Formula 1 actually, just not many on the race track. But there are many fantastic women doing very good work in the paddock, that is just not as visible as what happens on track and sadly there aren’t as many on track. But the next generation is coming and I will definitely dedicate some time and energy to helping that next generation.”
3. Dr.Fabiola Gianotti
Selected by CERN Council in 2015 as the first female CERN Director-General
Beginning tomorrow, 1st January 2016, Dr.Fabiola Gianotti will become the first woman to hold the position of CERN Director-General since the organisation’s conception in 1974. Prior to her new role Gianotti led a 3,000-person team working on CERN’s “ATLAS Experiment” at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), leading to the ground-breaking discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. Fabiola also handled a proton beam malfunction in 2009 and as a colleague described, “showed the whole of CERN that she could really handle that kind of pressure. It doesn’t really get worse than that”. On being selected for the role, Dr.Gianotti stated, “I didn’t feel I was treated a different way because I was a woman. But I also have to tell that some of my colleagues had a more difficult life. Some others suffered a bit and had to face some hurdles and some difficulties. I am very much honored by the role, not so much because I am a woman, but because I am a scientist, and having the honor and the privilege of leading perhaps the most important laboratory in the world in our field is a big challenge. I will do my best.”
4. The NASA New Horizons Mission Team
The flight team that allowed the world to see Pluto up-close for the first time comprised of 25% women, making it the NASA mission with highest number of women staffers, including many scientists and engineers
The Women Working on the New Horizons Mission. Front from left to right: Amy Shira Teitel, Cindy Conrad, Sarah Hamilton, Allisa Earle, Leslie Young, Melissa Jones, Katie Bechtold, Becca Sepan, Kelsi Singer, Amanda Zangari, Coralie Jackman, Helen Hart. Standing, from left to right: Fran Bagenal, Ann Harch, Jillian Redfern, Tiffany Finley, Heather Elliot, Nicole Martin, Yanping Guo, Cathy Olkin, Valerie Mallder, Rayna Tedford, Silvia Protopapa, Martha Kusterer, Kim Ennico, Ann Verbiscer, Bonnie Buratti, Sarah Bucior, Veronica Bray, Emma Birath, Carly Howett, Alice Bowman. Not pictured: Priya Dharmavaram, Sarah Flanigan, Debi Rose, Sheila Zurvalec, Adriana Ocampo, Jo-Anne Kierzkowski. [Image Copyright: NASA.gov]
On July 14 2015 at 7:49 am EDT we saw Pluto, a dwarf planet, up-close for the first time. Behind this historic achievement however is a team of brilliant, hard-working women in charge of the $700 million piano-sized NASA New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizon’s historic moment took travelling through the Solar System for over 9 years, before allowing the world to learn about this icy dwarf planet during it’s 30,800 miles per hour (49,600 kilometers per hour) flyby.
The story that most people have not heard of though is of the mission team, with the flight team comprised by 25% women, potentially making it the NASA mission with highest number of women staffers, including many scientists and engineers. These women have dedicated their careers and years of their lives to this mission, to gain unique data from the seven instruments aboard New Horizons and gain an unprecedented insight into Pluto and it’s largest moon, Charon, in particular, found to have a landscape covered with mountains, canyons and landslides.
Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (MOM), on console [Image copyright: NASA.gov]
Relatedly, Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (MOM) and group supervisor of the Space Department’s Space Mission Operations Group, made history as the first female Mission Operations Manager (MOM) at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The novel scientific discoveries gained by the instruments aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft were only made possible with the dedication of the women behind the mission.
A close-up view of Pluto, taken by the NASA New Horizons spacecraft in 2015 [NASA]
ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti smiling following her Soyuz landing in Kazakhstan after spending 200 days in space
Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti landed today in her Soyuz descent module on a desert steppe in Kazakhstan having broken the world record for the longest serving female astronaut in space, spending 200 days on the ISS. The record was previously held at 195 days by NASA astronaut Suni Williams. European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut became the first Italian woman in space, launching to the ISS on 23 November 2014 . Her return, along with crewmates NASA astronaut Terry Virts and Russian commander Anton Shkaplerov, was delayed from May due to an incident with the Russian Progress 59 resupply mission. Samantha wasn’t disappointed by the delay tweeting, “Looks like it’s not time to get my spacesuit ready yet… what a present! #MoreTimeInSpace.”
Samantha also spoke to Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon whilst on the ISS, posting a video thanking her female friends for their support whilst she was on the ISS and thanking Susan discussing for her interest in girls in STEM and commitment to help girls find their way to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math[s], “..maybe in the future we can event work together to help sparkle that passion and interest for STEM and to show that no dream is too big”.
Maybe in the future we can work together to help sparkle that passion and interest for STEM and to show that no dream is too big. – Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti to Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon
I had the pleasure of working with Samantha whilst I was based at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre and DLR (German Aerospace Centre). She is a true role model with the ability to speak 5 languages fluently and was the first women to be a lieutenant and fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force, accumulating over 500 hours of flying time, prior to being selected as an ESA astronaut in 2009. Samantha has been tweeting regularly during her stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and posting some stunning images of the Earth. Hopefully her story will encourage girls to follow her footsteps and go on to beat her record during a future mission to Mars!
A very Happy Birthday to NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams! Sunita’s celebrating her birthday onboard the International Space Station (ISS), which she became Commander of last week, becoming only the second female commander in ISS history. During an EVA (spacewalk) last week, Sunita also gained the world record for the longest time spent spacewalking by a female (cumulative). Overtaking 39 hours and 46 minutes. When told of her achievement by Mission Control (MCC Houston) during the spacewalk, Suni said that it was a “matter of circumstance, time and place” and that “anybody could be in these boots”. Suni took over the record from Peggy Whitson, who sent her a message during the EVA congratulating her on this accomplishment. Peggy stated that it was an honour to handover – ending the message with You Go Girl!
Sunita also holds the world record for the most hours spent in orbit by a female. Well Done Suni!! She also completed a triathlon in space last weekend! The activity was timed to coincide with the Nautica Malibu Triathlon held in Southern California. Sunita “swam” half a mile using the strength resistance training machine onboard the ISS, cycled for 18 miles and ran for 4 miles! Creating an offworld record of 1 hour, 48 minutes and 33 seconds! Amazing! Astronauts onboard exercise for 2 hours a day using equipment including a stationary bike and treadmill. They are tethered to the machines using harnesses and straps to keep them in position. Exercise is essential for the astronauts to prevent physical deconditioning. Bone and muscle loss otherwise can occur increasingly due to the weightless environment.
Sunita is truly an inspiration to me and also to women around the world!
ISS crew celebrating the birthday of Suni’s beloved Jack Russell Terrier Gorby last week! (Image Copyright: Fragile Oasis)
P.S. Photos below are of the tool that Sunita Williams and Akihido Hoshide used to install a new electrical Main Bus Switching Unit (MBSU) to relay power on the station. A second unscheduled spacewalk was needed last week for the activity, during which the astronauts used the tools they made on the ISS themselves to fix the station.
The tool that fixed the ISS! [Copyright: NASA]
Tools used during the EVA [Copyright: NASA]
ISS Commander Sunita Williams during last week’s EVA (NASA)