Space Week and challenging stereotypes

It’s Space Week and a good launchpad for challenging stereotypes in education, career choices and the media. This tweeted picture shows Indian scientists who have just launched a successful mission to Mars. It’s a simple reality check to show what some scientists look like outside films and television dramas.

WomenmarsThe Indian women in the photograph follow in the footsteps of Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889), the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer. She discovered Comet C/1847_T1 on 1 October, 1847.

Maria Mitchell set an example as the first woman elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and as a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. She was also one of the first women elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1869.

Mitchell’s other achievements included becoming the first professor of astronomy at Vassar College in 1865, teaching there until 1888 and becoming Director of the Vassar College Observatory. She was a pioneer in many ways and insisted on a pay rise when she found out that her salary was lower than less experienced male professors – and she got it.

Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell

What gave Maria Mitchell the self-assurance to be a trail blazer and what does her experience teach us?

She grew up in the Quaker religion which embraces principles of equality. Her parents believed that boys and girls were intellectual equals and should benefit from educational opportunities regardless of their gender. She was not held back by limited aspirations. This shaped her life and achievements. As an educator, she also challenged the segregation of students on the grounds of race or ethnicity even though that was the accepted practice at the time.

Maria Mitchell and the Indian scientists show that women can have careers that are out of this world – but sexism remains, as illustrated by last month’s media interviews with Russian cosmonaut Yelena Serova. This extract from the Guardian on 25 September shows the level of questioning that she faced:

Serova has been barraged with questions focusing on her gender and how she will manage to bond with her 11-year-old daughter while she is away. She even offered to give a demonstration of washing her hair in space.

But her patience appeared to run out at a pre-launch press conference in Baikonur on Wednesday when a journalist asked her to comment again on how she would look after her hair aboard the International Space Station and whether she would keep her current style.

“Can I ask a question, too: aren’t you interested in the hair styles of my colleagues?” she said at the televised news conference, flanked by the male astronauts who will accompany her.

She stressed: “My flight is my job. I feel a huge responsibility towards the people who taught and trained us and I want to tell them: we won’t let you down!”

Education, equality and career expectations should not be limited by gender or other outdated stereotypes. This is an issue recognised by the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee. You can read their latest report on Women in Scientific Careers here.