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Women on a Mission

November 1, 2009

Recently, I took a look at the demographics of the PIs, Project Scientists, Co-Is, and Participating Scientists selected by NASA to implement a mission in the Discovery Program.  The Discovery missions, if you don’t already know, are NASA’s least complex planetary science missions and can be characterized as relatively low in cost (less than $425M), straightforward in development (less than 35 months from the beginning of implementation to launch), and without constraint of a particular management structure imposed by NASA.  I knew that there had been only one woman selected as mission PI in the program’s 17 year history, but I expected to find more women in the Deputy PI, Project Scientist, Deputy Project Scientist, and Co-I roles.  I also thought that I’d find a large percentage (30%?) of women in the Participating Scientist Programs.

Boy, was I wrong!

What I found was this:  ONE female Principal Investigator, ONE female Deputy Principal Investigator, and ONE female Project Scientist in this class of low-cost planetary science missions.  That’s a grand total of three, out of 23 people to fill these positions in the last 17 years.  (Note: since the study was completed this summer, another woman has been named a Deputy Project Scientist.)

But surely there would be more in the Co-I and Participating Scientist roles, right?

Actually, not so much.  The study showed that women made up just over 10% of the Co-Is, and 12% of the Participating Scientists.


I was really surprised by this.  So I stepped back to look at the field as a whole.  Surely there would be more women on the other missions, right?  And this was a fluke?

Nope.  Over the last 30 years, only 2.6% of mission or instrument PIs (where there was no single mission PI) have been women.  10% of Deputy PIs have been women (that’s one), 7.2% of the Co-Is have been women, and 8.6% of Participating Scientists have been women.  Only in the category of Project Scientist/Deputy Project Scientist has the proportion of women exceeded 10%.

But women in our field now make up more than 10% of the population, at nearly all levels, up to age 65, and significantly more in the under-55 category.  Yes, the number varies over time, but there’s a great technique that you can use to study the progression of a given demographic group over time.  It’s called cohort analysis, and the AIP uses it in their studies of the field.

I won’t spoil the ending, or make this post into a full-fledged paper, but you can read more if you’re interested in a new journal article coming out today in Space Policy.

Here’s a look at the raw data I collected for the article.


13 Comments leave one →
  1. November 28, 2009 11:19 am

    Thanks, Ellen. I’m not considering an LPSC presentation, as that’s a “hard science” meeting and I would hate to distract. I did the work to inform the conversation, and I hope that publishing it here and in the AAS STATUS newsletter (January issue) will do that. I’d be open to other ideas, however, and very much appreciate your interest!

    There is another piece to the puzzle as well; I have some additional data, I’m just trying to figure out how to constructively add it to the conversation.

  2. Ellen permalink
    November 23, 2009 12:38 pm

    This is great stuff- are you considering presenting it at major meetings like LPSC? On the Co-I issue, it would be interesting to know how many women are asked and turn it down- I expect that men tend to ask other men to be on their missions!

  3. November 16, 2009 12:29 pm

    My concern is that a lot of people have said, just wait 25 years, and the problem will go away as women move into higher positions. They were saying this in 1980. But here we are, 30 years later, and we’re still looking at low representation, even when the proportion of women in the field is taken into account. That’s what’s new about the paper. It shows statistics.

  4. Susan K permalink
    November 9, 2009 1:07 pm

    And by the way, my 4 year old daughter told me the other day, very seriously, that she was having a hard time deciding what she wanted to be when she grew up – a ballerina or a scientist! So wait 25 years and maybe we can flip those numbers!

  5. Susan K permalink
    November 9, 2009 1:05 pm

    I don’t have time to dig around and to read your paper right now.

    You seem to have reported on selections. How do the numbers stack up with proposing? Are women seemingly under-represented because they aren’t proposing or because they aren’t being selected? I think there are different issues to be considered depending on your answer to that.

  6. GeoChem Mom permalink
    November 3, 2009 2:27 pm

    Is it likely going to get any easier for parents of young children to participate in missions? I chose not to propose to a participating scientist call 3-4 years ago because I had just had my first child. At the time, the rules included an “on-site” requirement. Is this still the case? I can’t see myself proposing to be part of a mission team that requires significant on-site duties until my kids are at least in high school. I see the value of having everyone in one physical space, but I think there is a cost in terms of who is willing to uproot themselves from their families for several weeks or months. With video conferencing and live data streams one would think it might be easier to incorporate more moms and dads in the future, especially at the participating scientist level. I want to participate, but I want to be a responsible parent and spouse as well!

    • November 7, 2009 11:42 am

      Wow, excellent question, GeoChem Mom. Maybe that’s something we should talk more about here. There was a comment over at Geek Feminism Blog this week along the same lines, but for everyday work rather than missions. In my mind, there are two questions here — 1. Why not flexibility? and 2. What (and Who) are we losing by adhering to rigid rules?

      By rigid rules, I am referring to standard if not essential rules, such as requiring employees to be in their offices or labs from 9-3:30, the exact times their young children are in school, without leeway that would allow one parent to do dropoff and one parent to do pickup. I’m sure you could come up with others!

      • GeoChem Mom permalink
        November 9, 2009 4:32 pm


        I only ask because I feel like that one decision not to propose may have had a significant impact on my career. I wonder how many other women have made a similar choice? I agree with Susan K’s observation that women choosing not to propose for whatever reason vs. women proposing and not being selected are two different problems with different solutions.

        I participated in one of JPL’s mission planning simulation summer camps a few years back. I think out of the group of 20 there were at least 6-8 women. We’ll see how many of us end up on missions in the next 20 years!

  7. November 2, 2009 11:33 am

    I second the above suggestion!

  8. November 2, 2009 10:11 am

    Would you consider making the postprint of this paper available open-access? Your publisher allows postprints to appear on your own website.

    I believe you would find many eager readers!

    Thanks for considering this.

    • November 7, 2009 11:39 am

      Dorothea & Alyssa,

      Thanks for asking. I’ve posted a preprint over at my site, Niebur Consulting. You’re welcome to download it there.

      I’d love to hear your reaction!



  1. (More) Women on a Mission « Women in Planetary Science
  2. A linkspam stole my baby! (November 6th, 2009) | Geek Feminism Blog

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