Women’s History Month Q&A – March 27, 2014

Q: Who was the first American woman in space?

A: Dr. Sally Ride, who joined NASA in 1978 after answering a newspaper ad seeking applicants for the space program. At 32, Ride became the first American woman in space and the youngest person to go into space at that time. She was preceded in space by two Soviet women. In 2013, Sally Ride was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Recently, the current NASA Administrator, Maj. Gen. Charles Frank Bolden, Jr., (USMC-Ret.), wrote a blog post for The Women’s Foundation remarking on the accomplishments and contribution of Sally Ride and the other female astronauts that came after her and how they inspire women and girls to dream big.

NASA Administrator Bolden: Women of NASA Inspire Girls to Dream

Charles_F._Bolden,_JrMaj. Gen. Charles Frank Bolden, Jr., (USMC-Ret.) is the 12th Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

It’s appropriate for NASA that the theme of this year’s Women’s History Month celebration is “Women of Character.”  The women of our nation’s space program have made countless sacrifices to advance our nation, and their expertise and dedication have been crucial to our many successes in exploration.

I was fortunate to fly to space twice – STS-31 and STS-45 – with the distinguished Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, now the NOAA Administrator, and on my final Shuttle mission – STS-60, the historic first joint U.S.-Russian Shuttle mission – I had Mission Specialist Dr. Jan Davis on my crew.  From these flights, we formed strong bonds that we will share all our lives. The addition of women to our astronaut corps has only enhanced and strengthened what we can accomplish.

Our latest group of Astronaut Candidates is 50% women, the highest percentage ever, and we hope to maintain that level of representation well into the future.  It is no secret that the requirement that our earliest astronauts be military test pilots essentially precluded applications from women.  It was not until 1983 that Sally Ride became the first American woman in space as part of a Space Shuttle Challenger mission, STS-7, to deploy communications satellites.

Since then, there have been 43 NASA women astronauts who have taken that leap and proven, as Amelia Earhart once said, that men and women were equal “in jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness and willpower.”

NASA is a major employer of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, and one of our priorities is inspiring young women to pursue an education and career in the STEM pipeline.  The women of NASA to me represent character of the highest order.  From those who lost their lives in the cause of exploration, to those who are working on tomorrow’s missions and training to travel to new destinations where we’ve never been, our future in space depends on them.

There were a lot of female pioneers before the space age, and I like to think that the great aviator, Amelia Earhart, whom I quoted earlier, was alive today, there is a good chance she would be a NASA astronaut.  She was the first person to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean, in 1935, and disappeared in 1937 attempting to fly around the world.

I say that she would have been an astronaut, not only because of her passion for breaking barriers of possibility in flight, but also for her determination to break barriers of exclusion here on Earth.  At a time when women and minorities were rarely seen in the cockpit of an airplane, Amelia Earhart’s pioneering achievements broke the silence barrier, inspired a nation and paved the way for so many others who have followed in her path.

The spirit and curiosity of Amelia Earhart lives on through the women aeronautics researchers who continue to break new ground.  These are women, for instance, working to find solutions to lowering the level of sonic booms so that someday, commercial planes can fly at supersonic speeds over land.  They’re also working on technologies to improve air traffic flow and reduce delays and designing more aerodynamic aircraft to reduce fuel use and emissions.  These women of NASA are not only making valuable contributions to our aeronautics program, they are an inspiration to others and are helping close the gender gap in the STEM professions.

You can read about many more NASA women at women.nasa.gov.

I’m grateful that if you look through the biographies of all the astronauts who have ever been, you’ll find not only Sally Ride, but also Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space; Peggy Whitson, who has logged 377 days in space, the most of any woman, and became the first woman to become the Chief of the Astronaut Office; and Suni Williams, holding the record for spacewalks by a woman and most accumulated spacewalk time by a woman.  There you’ll also find Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnick, who lost their lives on space missions.  Among the newest entrants in those biographies, you’ll find our newest astronauts Serena Aunon, Jeanette Epps and Kate Rubins, who, along with the 4 women among the Astronaut Candidates of 2013, represent our future.  There are many others.

I hope that girls reading this – particularly my three beautiful and talented granddaughters, Mikaley, Kyra and Talia – will feel that they can join the conversation about space and science and technology just as much as the boys; that they can take the classes and dream about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics if that’s where their passion lies and that they know they too can fly in space.  If their dream is not fixed on flying, they can work on the design of future spacecraft; or turn the bolts on those spacecraft, or perhaps be the ones interpreting the scientific data that a spacecraft millions of miles away is sending back.

STEM, and space, are broad and inclusive.  We invite everyone with a passion to explore to follow our missions and know it is possible for them to be part of aeronautics and space exploration.

A Slice of STEM on 3.14

Pi_pie2There are a few labels I will wear proudly, and “nerd” is one of them.  Tonight I am headed to a local restaurant called Science Club for a Pi Day celebration – an activity that I would say lands pretty high on the list of “10 ways to tell you’re a nerd.” I’m going to this Pi Day celebration to meet up with my fellow high school alumni from the Texas Academy of Math and Science (TAMS) that have found themselves living in the DC region.

TAMS is a residential math and science intensive school that is publicly funded and available to any Texas high school student for their junior and senior years.  The program is housed at the University of North Texas, where students complete college coursework taught by university faculty. I hold this program near and dear to my heart, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been a part of such a great school.

I see programs like TAMS as a fantastic way to encourage girls to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) studies. In 2012, women made up just 5.5% of mechanical engineers, 8.8% of electrical engineers, and 13% of civil engineers. The picture is slightly better in chemical engineering and environmental sciences, with women making up 22.3% and 28.9% of those occupations respectively, but still nowhere near equal representation[1]. The need for more women in STEM professions is huge.  Women in STEM jobs earn 33% more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men.  Programs like TAMS have the opportunity to spark a love for STEM from a young age.

That is not to say that all girls who attend a program like TAMS will choose to pursue engineering or careers as scientists.  I am a good example of such a person who chose a different path, but the experience was still invaluable to me. TAMS allowed me and other young girls like me a safe space to proudly proclaim, “I’m a nerd!” and hear it echoed by our peers. I was able to foster a love for math that has pushed me to teach a weekly math class to adult learners pursuing their GED (at Women’s Foundation Grantee Partner Academy of Hope), and more than anything, it has made me a strong advocate for greater access to STEM programs and jobs for girls and women, something I joyfully get to do in my current role with The Women’s Foundation.

Happy Pi Day to all my fellow nerds out there!

[1] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, 2012

From Discouraged Math Student to Computer Engineer: One Doll’s Story

Today marks the the 55th anniversary of Barbie’s debut. Like many icons, she may have stirred up some controversy at times, but she has influenced generations, and today we follow her journey “From Discouraged Math Student to Computer Engineer.” This entry from  was cross-posted with permission from AAUW and originally ran on their blog on December 11, 2013.

“Math class is tough,” proclaimed the first talking Barbie in 1992.

As leaders in the area of girls’ education, AAUW members were alarmed at Barbie’s attitude. Then-president Sharon Schuster put it best in her demand for a recall: “We are pleased that Barbie has finally been given a voice. But it is a shame that Mattel didn’t give her a more confident one.”

AAUW’s demand, along with our 1992 report on how schools were shortchanging girls, pushed Mattel to remove the phrase from Barbie’s repertoire.

Since then, it seems that Mattel has come a long way in how it portrays women’s ability in science and math. In 2010, the company announced that Barbie’s 126th career would be in computer engineering. Her transformation into a leader in the still heavily male-dominated fields of computer science and engineering earned her a spot on our 2013 holiday gift guide for girls. (We published the guide, in part, because of evidence that shows how toys can affect children’s career choices.)

Barbie’s new career choice could not have been easy. To become a computer engineer, she had to fight an uphill battle, combating stereotypes about women in math and technology. Researchers have long known about stereotype threat, the fear of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or of doing something that would confirm that stereotype. This is a very real experience for girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and the effects are well documented. When a girl is exposed to a negative stereotype about girls’ general ability in math right before she takes a math test, her performance worsens.

Engineer Barbie

So how did Barbie overcome the stereotype that girls can’t excel in mathematics? Perhaps with a little help from family and mentors: Researchers have found that parents and teachers can shape math attitudes among children. Presumably, Barbie’s mother and women teachers fully conquered their own math anxieties and helped improve Barbie’s confidence.

Or maybe Barbie embraced a growth mindset and believed that her intellectual ability, regardless of any negative stereotypes, could expand with learning. Armed with an appreciation of the plasticity (pun intended!) of the brain, she could move past stereotypes about girls and math.

Barbie may have pursued a STEM career because both engineering and computer science offer relatively high wages, even for those who don’t have graduate training. The mortgage on the dream house alone means that Barbie needs a well-paying career, even if Ken helps out.

Or perhaps Barbie simply enjoyed the intellectual challenge of the field or felt strongly about being able to contribute to society, as so many computer engineers do. Whatever her motives, we are glad to see Barbie join the field of computer engineering.

No Barbie story with a gender lens would be complete without acknowledging that, despite her new tech career, Barbie is far from a perfect model for girls, particularly in terms of body image. Still, we’re glad to see her realize that math’s not so hard after all. We hope more girls follow suit.