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Women on Planetary Science Missions

July 31, 2010

We here at Women in Planetary Science have a simple question, which you’ll see just under the blog header:

Women make up half the bodies in the solar system. Why not half the scientists?

There is, unfortunately, no simple answer.  There are, of course, amazing researchers and writers looking at the issue across the spectrum of scientists, for the issue is by no means unique to planetary science.  Many of those findings will be directly applicable to our field, and we’ll report them as we see them.  For now, we’re just contributing what we can.  We look at planetary science because this is what we know.  It’s who we are.  It’s the community that we grew up in, that we know best, that we love.  And we are integrated into the field at every level.

But when you step back and look at the major activities of the field, women are not yet present at every level in the numbers that they could be. 

Sure, we see visual representations of this at plenary sessions of conferences (and even our language has reflected this, in the informal references to senior members of the field as greybeards), but now we actually have statistics to help us understand the pipeline of our own profession, and tools to help us understand whether women are really underrepresented in the field, or if the statistics of small numbers (and conference attendees) are distorting our view.

Here are a couple of graphs from a recent paper examining women selected to participate in NASA planetary science missions over the last three decades.  Regular readers have seen this one before:

Let’s look at that last set of bars on the right today.  Of the 243 participating scientists selected directly by NASA over the past three decades, only 20 have been women. 

Is this unusual?  Well, the median age for a participating scientist in the Discovery Program , for example, is 41.   Using (anonymized) membership data from the AAS’ Division of Planetary Science, we learn that 24% of the DPS members in the five-year age bracket that includes age 41 are female.   So a back-of-the-cocktail-napkin estimation shows us that we’d expect the participating scientists selected to include 24% women.

Instead, less than 9% of the participating scientists selected by NASA have been women. 

The number has been increasing over the last decade or two, as you can see in the graph below that shows of the percentage of women selected by NASA as PI, Co-I, or PSP over time.  Only 2% of PSPs selected in the late 1990’s were women (n=1).  In the early part of the ‘aughts, women were 8% of selected PSPs (n=2), and in the last half decade, the number that should correlate most exactly with the 24% number from the membership data, 18% of the PSPs selected have been women.

Percent of Women Selected=

I hope the upward trend continues.  (The target number is actually 50%, not 24%, if you assume that the most capable and well-suited planetary scientists of both genders stay in the field in equal proportions, but that’s an essay for another day.) 

This month’s Scientae carnival asked participants to talk about their goals for the next year, and how far they’ve come since last year.  Our most important goal this year is to meet a target we set at this year’s LPSC Conference:  feature short articles from 51 women working in planetary science before next year’s LPSC.  We’ve published 14 of these posts so far, featuring women in planetary science who study Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, using data from telescopes, spacecraft, and who build missions yet to come.  We have another 37 to go. 

How do we decide who to feature?  Well, because we love NASA missions, we seeded the project by inviting several women working on missions to be featured.  At the same time, we opened it up to the community, asking all women in planetary science to send us an abstract from their latest peer-reviewed paper and agree to answer a few questions about their career.  We’ve featured some amazing women already, and we’re not even halfway through the year.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. tanyaharrison permalink
    August 9, 2010 9:38 pm

    Whoops, left that previous comment without logging in.

  2. Tanya Harrison permalink
    August 9, 2010 9:26 pm

    I work at Malin Space Science Systems doing science operations for CTX and MARCI aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and I am happy to say that more than half of the targeting and operations staff are female (~64%). The operations and targeting leads are both women as well. Sure, we’re not “participating scientists” on the mission, but we are directly involved with mission operations, and some of us write papers and abstracts in addition to the operations duties.

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