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Despite high-profile missions highlighting diversity, aerospace industry still struggles with gender inequality

Inspiration4's Crew Dragon capsule stands ready for launch at Kennedy Space Center. Photo: Derek Demeter / WMFE
Inspiration4's Crew Dragon capsule stands ready for launch at Kennedy Space Center. Photo: Derek Demeter / WMFE

The first all-civilian space mission back in September had people who’ve never even dreamed of leaving the planet looking toward space. The goal of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 was to show space travel is available to all.

The crew of the all-civilian mission was half male and half female -- a perfect representation of gender equality. But is it really available for all? Based on reports, gender equality is still an issue in the aerospace industry.

Women often face discrimination in the space industry. “Unfortunately, I don’t know of a woman who hasn’t experienced discrimination for being a woman or gender minority in the space sector,” said Laura Forczyk, a space policy analyst and consultant.

She said it was a rude awakening, finishing school and joining the workforce because in school there were more women in her classes. While working in a male dominated field, she’s gotten a lot of negative comments that have to do with her being a woman. The discrimination was most prevalent when she decided to expand her family.

“That specially changed when I became a mother, and went out more in business settings with a belly bump, or with a brand new baby, and did not care what other people thought of that, despite the fact that I did receive, discrimination for having a baby,” Forczyk said. “It's one of those things where we still have a long way to go.”

Even though a lot of people who major in STEM fields join the space industry, there are still some concerns. According to Census.gov, women made up 8 percent of STEM workers in 1970. By 2019, that percentage had increased to 27 percent. However, that growth has mainly been in the social sciences, which makes up only 3 percent of STEM occupations.

The problem seems to also be reflected in the private space sector. Recently, current and former employees from Blue Origin, a private space company owned by Jeff Bezos, published an article talking about the company’s lack of diversity. Staff noted that the company employs 3,600 people and the majority are “male and white”. Employees also spoke of women being paid less and women being sexually harassed by a senior executive who got a promotion instead of being reprimanded.

Lately, other women in the space industry have also been speaking out about sexual harrasment in the space industry. Emily Carney is founder of Space Hipsters-- an online space exploration community. She said her opportunities became even more limited after speaking out about the sexual harassment she experienced.

“I applied for a few events, and I was turned down,” Carney said. “I was qualified.”

She said if she could offer advice to any girl interested in space or woman entering the field, it would be to not let sexism bring them down. “Don't listen to idiots, basically.”

To fix the gender equality issue in the space industry, there are organizations working to get more women and non-binary people into careers in space.The Brooke Owens Fellowship was started in 2017. It helps undergraduate students by pairing them with a mentor and offering students summer internships.

Consultant Laura Forczyk is a mentor for the program. “It's a real Community for a lot of the students that I've spoken with who are Brookies or were applying to become Brookies,” said Forczyk, who is also a mentor for the program. “They are the only women or you know, very few women in their programs, and they feel like the odd person out.”

Lifelong connections are built through the fellowship. Forczyk said not being afraid of speaking up and calling out inequities also serves her well as a woman in the space industry.

“This is a group that's meant to show them that they belong and there's a community of supporters behind them.”
Maria Briceno was an intern with WMFE during the Fall 2021 semester. She is a journalism student at the University of Central Florida. 

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