Women in the space industry today still face sexism to some extent, despite the long battle for equal opportunities post the 1960s era when only men were given roles in the space field, a top author has said.
Sue Nelson, the British author who wrote the biography ‘Wally Funk’s Race for Space’, said the media still “belittles” women with questions such as: “How will you feel without make-up in space?”
Her book, which is being highlighted at the Emirates Literature Festival, is about Wally Funk, who was denied access to space even though she passed secret astronaut tests in the US between 1960 and 1961. She was one of the 13 women who passed the ‘Women in Space’ programme.
Speaking to Khaleej Times on the sidelines of the festival, she said: “When Wally and the other women passed their tests in 1960-61, in America, a woman’s role was very much defined by her relationship to a man on the whole. It was in terms of a wife, mother, sister or a daughter.
If she did have a career, it was more of the traditional ones, like secretary, nurse or teacher.
“At that time, when women passed their tests and it became known, they were ridiculed a lot in the Press. I’ve seen newspaper cuttings where they talk about ‘a pretty little miss in high heels’ or ‘would she take her lipstick with her when she goes to space’. There were TV interviews with the women where they were told: ‘Sure you passed the astronaut test, but wouldn’t you want to get married?’ They weren’t taken seriously.”
Nelson believes that sexism no longer exists at such a state today, as women are now treated equally to men during the selection process at Nasa and the European Space Agency.
However, when it comes to the media, women still face plenty of challenges, she said.
“There still remains elements of sexism in terms of how media, in particular, treat female astronauts today. There are really qualified women, particularly the European women, who speak five different languages, and they get asked ‘how do you wash your hair in space?’, ‘how does it feel like not to wear make-up?'”
Nelson added: “The women take it with good grace and give it back, but men do not get asked those questions about their appearance. And these are often asked to women who were doing the same scientific experiments as the men, are mission specialists, or have gone through military training. They’ve been colonels in the air force, and yet they are being asked about their appearance.”
Recently, the UAE selected its first astronauts, both of whom are males. Though, as the country gradually grows its astronaut corps, women could become part of it relatively soon, according to Salem Al Marri, director-general of technical and scientific affairs at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre.
He said that out of the 4,200 Emiratis who had applied to the UAE Astronaut Programme, 38 per cent were women.
Most of these women made it to the top 40, however, the space centre was looking for applicants that had at least 10 years of “proven capability”.
“A lot of the women, more than 50 per cent of them, were under 25 years old. When we look at selecting an astronaut candidate, we need to see at least 10 years of proven capability in the job for us to be able to say that this person has proven commitment and success,” Al Marri said.
“If you think about the number of women who applied this time, for our next selection round, you’re going to get a lot of women. For this programme, there was a clear direction from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, that we want the best, brightest and most suitable to represent the country, and I think that’s what we’ve selected.”