What Can the Women Who’ve Conquered Space Teach Silicon Valley?

A Future Tense event recap.

Four women sit in front of a teal wall and a screen with a Future Tense logo.
Liza Mundy, Catherine “Cady” Coleman, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, and Ellen Stofan at New America
Narmasa Vaiyam/New America

The tech industry has long struggled to shed its bro-y culture. But women have attained impressive leadership roles across one of the more traditionally macho STEM fields: space. More than one-third of NASA’s active astronaut roster are women, and women run four of the five largest aerospace and defense companies. At a Dec. 11 event called Not So Hidden Figures: What the Women Who’ve Conquered Space Can Teach Silicon Valley, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—convened a panel of female leaders in space exploration and aerospace to discuss the advances women have made in the industry, the challenges that remain, and the lessons that Silicon Valley can learn.

The event started off with a video depicting former astronaut and retired U.S. Air Force Col.
Cady Coleman’s astronaut training, her tour of the International Space Station and some of her mission and life in the station. Moderator Liza Mundy, senior fellow at New America and author of Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Codebreakers of World War II, noted that the video, which showed Coleman’s hair floating in zero gravity as she interacted with other astronauts and equipment, made space exploration look fun. However, Coleman said that her road into space was not easy and required a strong support of friends and family.
She went on to state that it was often necessary for her to make herself “more visible in many ways in such a male-dominated field,” and to show up to places where she might not have been wanted in order to establish herself.

Coleman pointed out that while we may be seeing female executives at the top of aerospace corporations and agencies, many women in mid- and low-level positions still face discrimination. But the speakers agreed that we are seeing a younger generation of women stand up in their workplaces and becoming forces of change. Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum, said that she sees them “speaking out and stepping up in such a way that my generation just felt like we couldn’t.” In hiring and employment, Coleman emphasized the importance of “pushing yourself to make a less comfortable choice, to choose someone that is different from you.” Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator for NASA’s Psyche mission and director of ASU’s School for Earth and Space Exploration, pointed out that women of color in particularly encounter significant barriers. “We need to always be reminding ourselves of that and addressing that problem head on,” she said.

Stofan pointed out that women dominated much of computing’s early days. But men slowly took over as the work became more prestigious, and the number of women in computer science declined. Mundy asked the panelists whether they thought federal hiring initiatives and other regulations on public sector employment might have to do with the strides women have made in aerospace. In response, Stofan stressed the importance of policy, such as Title IX, in providing a path toward greater gender equity in the academic world. Also, she said, “Things like small disadvantaged business legislation have helped in the defense sector to bring women forward.” That’s a preferential status that lets companies run people from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds to bid on certain government contracts. Helping to level the playing field, SDB status, as well as the women-owned small business program, supports disadvantaged and women-owned businesses to break into the competitive fields of government contracting and procurement.

Although gender representation in Silicon Valley and the traditional tech field seems to have stagnated compared to representation in space exploration and aerospace, many of the cultural and social barriers that women faced at the beginning of the space race in the 1950s and 1960s remain. Elkins-Tanton described the “worship of toughness,” (something familiar to those who have watched movies like Apollo 13 and read books like The Right Stuff) in her own family and used it as an ethos to as she worked past issues of inequity and discrimination in academia and the workplace. Stofan described the importance of supporting the next generation and give them encouragement in every part of their lives. “I want to reach out to that 12-year-old girl,” Stofan said, “and say that you’re going to be the first person to walk on Mars.”

Watch the full event here.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.