Putting women at the controls at NASA

Astronaut

Credit: NASA/Flickr

For many women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, being the only person of their gender in a room full of colleagues is not a rare experience. But for Dan Hammer, a Presidential Innovation Fellow at NASA, the tables were turned when a visit to a meeting “to discuss the value of the Agency’s data holdings” provided his first-ever chance to see what it feels like to be “the only man in the room of powerful technologists,” he reports at open.NASA.

“[T]he self-awareness associated with being the only man in the room changed the way I interacted with my colleagues in the room,” Hammer notes. “I never think about this. I never have to think about it. I just sort of say what I want, when I want.” So for Hammer, the learning went way beyond the specifics of NASA’s use of its data and into the gender politics of professions that employ more men than women.

The women-only datanauts class is just one way that NASA is 'put[ting] women at the helm.'

The meeting was the launch of NASA’s “datanaut” program, “a user community that will feature leaders from across the data/maker/tech communities with diverse skill sets who use data in innovative ways. This corps of creative thinkers are interested in engaging with NASA and pioneering the future of space-inspired data science,” according to open.NASA. At the agency that famously used to think that having “the right stuff” also meant having a Y chromosome, the inaugural class of 18 high-powered datanauts is entirely female; men will join the program in later classes.

The women-only datanauts class is just one way that NASA is “put[ting] women at the helm, [and] continually giv[ing] them a platform to drive the larger conversation around the need for more women in the sciences,” writes Melissa Jun Rowley at Fast Company. Women make up half of the current astronaut class, another first for the space program. NASA’s chief scientist, chief technology officer for information technology, and other leadership figures are women, she adds, including the associate program scientist for the International Space Station and the agency’s deputy administrator.

Making women major players in NASA’s data community, as the datanaut program intends to do, will broaden the agency’s approach to data, according to Beth Beck, who manages the Open Innovation program at NASA’s Office of the Chief Information Officer. “If you think about it, the small niche community of developers, mostly male, is the filter for NASA’s open data as they develop tools to interpret NASA data according to their interests and priorities,” she says, as quoted at Fast Company. “Citizens consume what the developer community produces with our data. If the developer community had more women, I would imagine the tools created to interpret NASA’s data would reflect different issues and priorities.”

If NASA can employ women in some of the most stereotypically masculine and geekiest of the STEM fields, then other institutions that hire and train STEM workers can, and should, be able to do the same.

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