Does the first spacewalk matter for women

Equal opportunities: why ESA has so few female astronauts

The problem: women are still a minority in most of these professional fields. Hardly a twentieth of all flight school graduates are women. The STEM subjects of mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology had only 31 percent female graduates in Germany in 2018 - a proportion that is hardly higher at 35 percent in the USA. Among the 6300 first-time applications for the NASA astronaut class in 2013, the proportion of women, at 22 percent, was only slightly higher than in the 2009 class in Europe. But in the end, for the first time in NASA history, as many women as men were accepted.

The most capable candidates have simply been selected, says Brandi Dean, spokeswoman for the Johnson Space Center responsible for astronaut selection: "NASA does not take gender into account when making recruitment decisions." the first-time applicants - but, according to Brandi, they could simply outperform a number of male competitors.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) also selected two new astronauts at the same time as NASA in 2017. Almost 30 percent of 3772 applicants were female. In all the following selection steps, the proportion of women was 30 percent, until an astronaut and a female astronaut were selected in the end. Like NASA, the CSA also states that it does not set a quota for women and only makes decisions based on skills.

The four NASA astronauts from 2013 cannot be accused of being quota women, i.e. of having been preferred in the selection process. Anne McClain is a seasoned fighter and test pilot with degrees in mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering and international relations. In addition to her extensive experience as a fighter pilot, Nicole Mann also has a degree in mechanical engineering. Christina Koch is an electrical engineer and physicist, has already wintered on an Antarctic station and developed scientific instruments for NASA. The fourth, Jessica Meir, has degrees in marine biology and physiology, was previously a member of an underwater station at NASA and worked as an assistant professor of anesthesia. In October 2019, Koch and Meir exchanged a defective charger for the solar-powered batteries on one of the ISS modules, the first ever space walk for two women.

The reason why the proportion of women rises from one third to half in the course of the selection process could have a simple reason: "Many women only apply when they meet the expectations 100 percent, while a number of men dare to do so at 60 percent," she says Aerospace engineer Claudia Kessler, who founded the “Die Astronautin” initiative in 2015. The aim of her foundation is to let a German fly into space even without ESA. A paid ride should bring them to the ISS as early as mid-2021. “The astronaut” received 400 applications for this, but “quite a few of the most capable prospects called me beforehand to make sure that they really were eligible for an application,” says Kessler.

NASA no longer needs a quota

Under Director General Jan Wörner, ESA has been promoting diversity and gender equality for the past two years. Women are encouraged to apply to the agency, and in fact the proportion of women applicants rose from 23 to 28 percent between 2017 and 2018. Most recently, the ESA filled 40 percent of all new positions with women. But when it comes to top positions, the space agency lags behind the claims of its director general. There is only one woman among its ten directors. Out of 21 ongoing or planned ESA missions, only two are led by a mission head. And of the nine active members of the ESA astronaut corps, Cristoforetti is the only female.