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In 1983, when Sally Ride became the first US woman in space, she was asked how her reproductive organs would fare on the months long mission. Presumably the greatest scientific minds of the 80s found women capable of fighting off a sexually-aggressive hermaphroditic alien but not of controlling their wombs in zero gravity.
Fast forward 31 years and we still have the same issue. Yelena Serova, a Russian cosmonaut and the first Russian woman to fly to the International Space Station, was asked at a recent press conference how she would look after her hair during her time on board the ISS – a floating chunk of metal kept in space by science and a middle finger to God.
Science and engineering are notoriously hostile to women and this is the latest example of women being treated as somehow less competent than their male counterparts. Despite studies showing that women achieve the same grades as men, fewer women choose to study the sciences further in higher education. Can you blame them when, after years of intense study, they are still expected to be concerned about their appearance?
This isn’t limited to scientific careers though. Actress Scarlet Johannson called out an interviewer for asking her male Avengers co-stars questions about their mental preparation for the roles whilst caring solely about how Miss Johannson fit into her catsuit. News of George Clooney’s marriage was more concerned with how notorious bachelor Clooney was ‘settling down’, instead of how Amal Alamuddin is a successful and high-profile human rights lawyer.
Initiatives to encourage more females to develop an interest or career in the sciences have proved equally as insulting and condescending. An EU campaign meant to highlight the career possibilities for women in the field of chemistry chose to focus on how the subject leant itself to the creation and development of makeup. Never mind Marie Curie – apparently the future of women in science is Maybelline.
The message is clear: women can reach the very top of their field, win coveted awards and work incredibly hard but their worth will only be measured in how attractive they are.
Have we really only come this far? Despite the advances for many women in terms of economic and social independence, we as a society still have very far to go. We need to teach young girls that their value is not related to their appearance. We need to teach them that don’t have to be interested in makeup and clothes. We need to teach them that they can be whatever they want to be: nuclear physicist, chemist or astronaut.
Serova and Ride are only a small part of a long list of women who have contributed to our understanding and exploration of space. Their names should be as familiar to us as those of Armstrong and Aldrin.
Though space exploration is very much a modern-day science, it seems the men behind it are still very much in the dark ages.