What the slow feminization of the astronaut profession hides

Will French astronaut Sophie Adenot be the lucky one? While the European Space Agency (ESA) is due to unveil, on Wednesday May 22, the first two astronauts of its 2022 class who will leave on a mission, franceinfo returns to the place of women among space travelers.

In France, as elsewhere in the world, the astronauts, overwhelmingly, are men. All nationalities combined, women only represent a little more than 10% of people who have been to space, recalls Alice Gorman, archaeologist specializing in the space sector at Flinders University in Adelaide (Australia). The first of them was the Soviet Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963, two years after Yuri Gagarin. In the midst of the Cold War, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev even congratulated her live on the radio. But after this media stunt, the blow subsided. It was not until 1982 that Svetlana Savitskaya flew into space. In the meantime, around thirty men from the Soviet bloc experienced weightlessness.

For their part, the United States only flew its first astronaut, Sally Ride, in 1983. According to the person concerned, interviewed in 2022 at Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (PDF), male influence was such, at the time, that NASA engineers found it wise to design a makeup kit, without forgetting their questions about the number of tampons she would need in flight, wondering if a hundred were the right amount for a week.

Women have long been excluded from the recruitment process at NASA, since only fighter pilots, therefore military personnel, and therefore men, could hope to go into space. “The astronaut profession has been structured by a form of masculinism”summarizes sociologist Arnaud Saint-Martin, co-author of the book A history of the conquest of space, from Nazi rockets to New Space astrocapitalists.

In fact, the first class of astronauts including women dates from 1978, twenty years after the creation of the American Space Agency. Although clear progress was made subsequently, the first 100% female extra-vehicular outing only took place in 2019, with the Americans Christina Koch and Jessica Meir.

When NASA presented, in 2020, the astronauts of the Artemis program, which plans a lasting return to the Moon, the parity was perfect: 18 people in total, with nine women and nine men. But the crew of the Artemis 2 mission, which will send humans around the satellite, cannot say the same. It has one woman and three men.

The four members of the Artemis 2 mission with, from left to right, the Canadian Jeremy Hansen, the Americans Victor J. Glover, Christina Koch and Reid Wiseman, at the San Diego naval base (California, United States), on 28 February 2024. (PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP)

The British Helen Sharman was for her part the first non-American and non-Soviet to fly in space, in 1991. She became at the same time the first British national placed in orbit and the first woman to stay on board from Mir station.

The figures for the recruitment campaigns for European astronauts, which began in 1978, demonstrate the same delay in starting up as at NASA, before a gradual feminization, going from 10% of candidates in 1985 to 15% in 2008. then 24% in 2021, according to figures from the European Space Agency (ESA). It is “very comforting”estimated in 2022 in an interview with Aviation Journal Claudie Haigneré, who set out to discover space in 1996.

The 2009 ESA class, that of Thomas Pesquet, included six astronauts including only one woman, the Italian Samantha Cristoforetti. His arrival made it possible to feminize the corps of European astronauts which, before his selection, only included men. The ESA class of 2022 includes two women and three men.

The astronauts of the 2022 class of the European Space Agency receive their diploma in Cologne (Germany), April 22, 2024. From left to right: the British Rosemary Coogan, the French Sophie Adenot, the Belgian Raphaël Liégeois, the Spaniard Pablo Alvarez Fernandez and Swiss Marco Sieber.  (ESA / P. SEBIROT)

Beyond astronauts, women are underrepresented in all sectors and professions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem). According to UNESCO, in 2018, they represented 28% of researchers in France, and 33% worldwide. “I have been on the stands for thirty years, in colleges, in high schools, in universities, and things have not changed much”explained Claudie Haigneré in 2023 in the show “Entreprendre sa vie”.

“There are not enough women in all aeronautics and space professions.”

Claudie Haigneré, former astronaut

in an interview with the “Journal de l’aviation”

Faced with this situation, the UN deployed the Space4Women program to encourage women to engage in careers related to science and technology. NASA has launched the Equity program. “We work to recognize and address the visible and invisible systemic barriers that hinder equitable and inclusive access to the government programs, resources and opportunities that make all of NASA’s work possible.”writes the administrator of the agency, Bill Nelson, in the action plan published in 2022 (PDF).

“Cultural norms and female role models in the representation of Stem subjects play a fundamental role in children’s learning and development”, declares the ESA to franceinfo. The agency says it has launched actions aimed at “to challenge gender stereotypes by showing young girls that their potential is not limited”.

In fact, it is a whole imagination that must be modified. Alice Gorman denounces widespread and long-standing sexism. Australian archaeologist highlights that women remain “the main people who run the household do more unpaid work”and that’“They risk their careers by having children”.

“It’s the result of generations of discrimination, where women aren’t expected to be smart enough to succeed in sciences like physics, math and engineering.”

Alice Gorman, archaeologist specializing in the space sector

at franceinfo

She welcomes the various programs which aim to change mentalities and encourage young women to turn to science and technology. However, the researcher believes that “Men’s expectations have not changed as quickly”.

States which have invested more recently in human space flight have quickly put women forward. The United Arab Emirates, which founded its space center in 2014, announced in 2021 the selection of engineer Nora AlMatrooshi as an astronaut. She went to train in the United States, at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, for two years, with her compatriot Mohammad AlMulla. They received their diplomas in March.

Emirati astronaut Nora AlMatrooshi speaks during the graduation ceremony at NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas (United States), March 5, 2024. (MARK FELIX / AFP)

For its part, Saudi Arabia sent two astronauts aboard the International Space Station in 2023, including a woman, Rayyanah Barnawi, as part of a private mission. This biologist, the first Arab woman to go into space, was the pride of the entire Middle East region, explained France 2 in June 2023.

Thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its leaders, King Salman, and the visionary Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, for their support.”, notably launched the thirty-year-old from space. A sign that this decision is part of a great communications operation for Saudi Arabia, a country where human rights, particularly those of women, are severely restricted. That “allows Mohammed bin Salman to improve his image and appear as the ultimate modernizer”explained to franceinfo Umer Karim, specialist in the country and researcher at the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom).

We sell an image through these consensual and sympathetic figures, who aim to ‘inspire'”, also criticizes the sociologist Arnaud Saint-Martin. However, the specialist recalls that “cosmonauts [soviétiques] were the envoys of a regime which was not particularly democratic”while, “In some ways, the United States has been a democratic regime in crisis for a very long time”. According to him, there still exists “an instrumentalization of the figure of the astronaut for soft power purposesthe promotion of cultural models that are intended to be virtuous.

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