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Women’s History Month

March 25, 2011

Several people have sent me a photo of NASA’s Women’s History Month Celebration recently, expressing dismay at the images NASA and the White House chose to represent women inspiring the next generation to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and to launch the new Women@NASA website. They object to the skimpy outfits, to the emphasis on cheerleading, and they wonder how this happened. I don’t know. But I do know one thing:

Women at NASA *do* come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages.

Women at NASA are tall, short, blonde, brunette, gray, and sometimes even bald. They work in high heels and they work in wheelchairs. They are gorgeous and plain; skinny and not; black, white, Asian, and Hispanic; fresh out of school, mid-career, and at retirement age. They have babies, children, aging parents, and/or lives of adventure. They travel all over the world to speak and they launch missions to comets, to Mercury, and to the Moon. They defy stereotypes and they ignore naysayers. They are the past, the present, and the future of the agency, along with their male colleagues.

Women at and funded by NASA are strong and inspiring. They design instruments; observe galaxies; study the sun, the planets and their moons; and publish work in every issue of every science journal out there today, and their contributions deserve recognition along with their male colleagues, especially during a time designated Women’s History Month, at an event co-sponsored by the White House Council on Women and Girls. Inspiring the nation’s children to pursue STEM careers is essential — and women in space science do it every day, by their good work and by the time that they dedicate to inspire others through programs and projects such as the ones already sponsored by and funded through NASA.

As just one example, two years ago, NASA funded a supplementary outreach project to document the careers of 10-20 women in planetary science who had contributed significantly to planetary science missions. That project turned into the 51 Women in Planetary Science resource on this web site, an archive of feature articles on amazing scientists, educators, and leaders in planetary missions. These women inspire me, and the project continues past its funding dates. We now seek to distribute the list widely for use in e-mentoring current students and early career scientists, and for inspiring students in future generations.

When I think of Women at NASA, I don’t think of professional cheerleaders. I think of role models, and I think of the women who joined me at breakfast earlier this month at LPSC, early in the morning, to discuss, encourage, and celebrate Women in Planetary Science. These women: (credit: Heather Dalton, LPI)
What do you think?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    March 31, 2011 10:32 pm

    I have been told by a former advisor , who was also a woman, that to be successful in a male-dominated career, I’d need to be more “butch”. I found that distasteful and completely disagree with it. As a child, I was obsessed with barbies and wearing dresses BUT I also collected rocks and played in the mud. The truth is that there are girls of all types, EVEN cheerleaders, who are good at math, science, etc. One of the biggest problems is that all too often, folks make it seem like girls have to choose between their own ideas of femininity and doing science, and that couldn’t be more wrong. However, for the girl who grew up obsessing about Barbie, or who likes reading fashion magazines, that thought process could very well be what turns her off from being a scientist, engineer, etc. So in that light, I don’t see this as all negative. However, I too agree with some of the earlier posts in that not everyone looks like a cheerleader, etc, and women shouldn’t feel like they have to look a certain way or dress a certain way to be successful scientists, just like little girls shouldn’t feel like they HAVE to prefer barbies to climbing trees or playing in the mud. Furthermore, no woman should feel like she has to look like a model in order to be successful in STEM fields, no more than men should think they have to look like Brad Pitt or Denzel Washington to be effective scientists, engineers, etc.

  2. March 27, 2011 7:21 pm

    What bothers me about it is that in “breaking the stereotype,” I can only assume that they are inferring that the stereotypical female scientist is the opposite of what we think of as a cheerleader: fat, dowdy, awkward, ugly. I find that incorrect, offensive, but at the same time completely irrelevant to the work that female scientists are doing.

    Part of me wants to laugh this off as ridiculous, but I just can’t do that. I keep thinking about it, and it is just irritating.

    I believe that bringing more women into the fields of science can be done without marketing to the lowest common denominator of “be pretty and smart all at the same time! YAY!”

    Plus, to assume that all middle and high school age young women aspire to be cheerleaders is one of the most inane ideas I’ve heard in a long time. If I had been in that audience as a student, I would have been appalled at first and then likely kicked out and sent to detention for laughing my ass off.

    • Anne permalink
      March 28, 2011 1:52 am


      Science Cheerleaders sends the message that it’s okay to do science and math, just as long as you can look hot while doing so.

      Ugh. I have no patience for that kind of garbage message.

      • julie permalink
        March 28, 2011 2:28 pm

        You can also read it the other way: it is ok to do cheerleading as long as you also do your math and science.
        As to “breaking the stereotype,” you can also translate it into “Cheerleaders have a brain too…”

        I was listening to some of the interviews of these cheerleaders. They did not just do “math” and “science.” Some of them are excelling in very hard, male-dominated fields.

        And that comes from someone who is not exactly the cheerleading type…. I am just saying this issue is not all back and white…

        In the end, the question is: do they really contribute to science outreach?

      • March 29, 2011 7:43 am

        I think that does bring it back to a core question, Julie. I have never seen this group perform, so I can’t really judge their effectiveness with their target audience. Nor do I have a wish to do so.

        I learned an important lesson watching the “Mommy Wars” a few years ago … when we get distracted judging each other for our choices, it is easy to lose sight of the goal. Which, there and here, could be stated this way*:

        1. Equality in opportunity;
        2. Equal compensation for equal work; and
        3. The ability to choose the path right for each of us, including the flexibility to forge new paths where necessary.

        None of us do science or outreach in exactly the same way. And that’s ok. In fact, for a diverse workforce, it’s essential.

        *Disclaimer: my words, my opinion. These do not reflect the stated goals of any group.

  3. March 26, 2011 8:50 am

    I’m not anti-cheerleader at all. In fact, I’m happy that Science Cheerleader is reaching out to encourage the millions of middle school and high school cheerleaders to also study science (see the news tab on their site) — what a FANTASTIC addition to the outreach community!

    I even understand why NASA would be tempted to ask them to join the event, as one example of women at NASA (although I don’t know how many of the cheerleaders are actually NASA employees, contractors, or scientists holding NASA grants) — but I do feel that it is important to note that you don’t have to look like a cheerleader or feel comfortable with pom-poms to be a successful scientist or engineer.

    NASA welcomes women and men of all types, physical abilities, and backgrounds — and it needs to make that clear, both in words and in the imagery they choose.

  4. julie permalink
    March 25, 2011 11:47 pm


  5. March 25, 2011 7:47 pm

    rawt…if “cheerleader” didn’t signify exactly what i claimed, we wouldn’t need the term “male” cheerleader, b/c the default wouldn’t be female.

    and julie, the fact that the girls see cheerleading as their horizon and more valid than playing in the dirt (b/c i agree, you’re largely right) only reinforces the stereotype that the domain of girls and women is to be seen, to perform based on looks and body. it reinforces that stereotype amongst the girls themselves. and the picture NASA chose just slams it home. yes, you can make a contribution, girls: here’s how! get great science grades and wear some short shorts!

  6. rawt permalink
    March 25, 2011 5:02 pm

    “cheerleaders are, by definition, the girls on the sidelines whose job it is to be attractive, while the boys play the real game.”

    I guess you’ve never heard of male cheerleaders?

    • March 26, 2011 8:57 am

      Thanks for the note, Keith! Interesting discussion over there today!

      • March 26, 2011 1:15 pm

        This all baffles me – if looks are superficial (they are) and unimportant for a career in science, technology etc (they’re not) then why does their site seem to feel the need to overtly show their members in tight clothing with cleavage, etc.? I see no one pictured on that site that is not pretty. Most people don’t fit into their physical niche. Its sort of like using the very thing they claim is not important as being the most important aspect of their “cause”. I think they need to rework their approach.

  7. julie permalink
    March 25, 2011 2:53 pm

    I have mixed feelings about this. One must keep in mind that these cheerleaders did “perform at a Women’s History Month event for MIDDLE SCHOOL AND HIGH SCHOOL girls.”

    The question is whether or not it is a good thing to approach that middle and high school girl target with cheerleaders-scientists. Part of me thinks “Of course not!!” But look around you and you’ll see that whether on TV or in stores girls receive the message that they have to look nice and pretty, on top of being smart. Shows on TV: whatever the context (high school and college shows, shows about fireworkers, ghost hunters, detective agencies, you name it), we most frequently find smart girls who also have the looks and dress fancy.

    Especially in that age group, girls really want to conform to a certain image. Being a cheerleader can be a big deal, and something they want to excel to, without thinking that, well, the real stuff would be to play in the dirt with the guys. Stating that cheerleaders are just a side contributor to the real stuff is a form of stereotype, because these girls do not see it this way. And being a cheerleader does not prevent many of them from excelling in STEM.

    So that NASA event just played the card of conforming to the mainstream culture by offering a show, which was likely to appeal to that population. I am not saying this is necessarily the best approach, but the problem is deeply anchored in our culture.
    My preteen girl found the picture kind of cool. I told her that these cheerleaders did excel both at school and during their afterschool activities as well. That whatever they undertook, even if it was cheerleading, they were committed to giving the best of themselves, and that was the key message to get out of that picture.

  8. Sarah Glover permalink
    March 25, 2011 1:38 pm

    I don’t want to disparage the good intentions of these cheerleaders-turned-scientists, but it wasn’t good taste of NASA to put this as the featured photo. Maybe the women do break stereotypes in some ways when they talk to groups or something, but this one photo by itself only reinforces stereotypes.

  9. March 25, 2011 12:36 pm

    cheerleaders are, by definition, the girls on the sidelines whose job it is to be attractive, while the boys play the real game. no matter these women’s accomplishments, calling themselves cheerleaders and presenting themselves as cheerleaders minimizes everything else they are trying to convey, however laudable.

    and NASA’s choice of them? is kind of heartbreaking. because it suggests that they clearly do not get that the real barrier to women in science is the prevalent cultural notion that our job IS to be on the sidelines, looking good, not getting dirty in the real game – whatever that may be.

    • April 19, 2011 1:11 pm

      I was a cheerleader and majorette in high school. I was excited about it too – but that was when I was a child. As an adult now, I feel happy that I got past needing to “look pretty”. Self esteem is what I’d like to see us teach young women, including those who may wish to work for NASA.

      The problem for me at NASA, is that being a cheerleader for the male “method of doing things” is the ONLY role I am allowed to play. When I try, even fight hard, to participate equally in decision making, my words are dismissed or ignored. I am recognized as being present in the room only when I support what the male leadership wants. I can not use my own skills in my workplace, or my own wisdom and experience. I’m sick and tired of it.

      I think the cheerleaders were shown off for a purpose – to demonstrate the way the NASA “culture” wants to keep women on the sidelines. Their decision may have been an unconscious one, but it had to come from a deep-seated and biased place like this, nonetheless. Psychology 101. NASA absolutely treats technically proficient women as cheerleaders for male efforts.

  10. March 25, 2011 11:36 am

    While I do not object to scientists being cheerleaders, I do object to the idea that to “break stereotypes”, we need to show sexy women in skimpy outfits….
    The women I work with in the High Energy Astrophysics Division are all all shapes and sizes, colors and ages. Some have been fighting cancer and wear their hair or scarves proudly. Others can run marathons. Some of us have saddlebags on our hips and others have saddlebags on our bikes.

    Why did NASA feel that we needed to showcase the LOOKS of female scientists over their knowledge base and work????


  1. On my soapbox: Women’s History Month at NASA « Toddler Planet

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