Home Support system The private space industry has a major sexism problem that is ‘too toxic’ to solve

The private space industry has a major sexism problem that is ‘too toxic’ to solve


It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in the space industry. What is less well known are the challenges faced by many women working in the industry. Like so many other male-dominated professions, women in the space sector often face a culture of sexual harassment and misogyny which can be difficult to escape.

“I think space travel is about adventure and the possibility and the daring to go where no one has gone before,” said Mindy Howard, astronaut trainer and founding director of ‘Inner Space Training. Newsweek. “Nature and nurture work against women to go out and be explorers like that.”

Today, only one in five aerospace workers is a woman, a figure that hasn’t changed much in three decades. And while organizations like Nasa recognized and acted on the need for more female representationprogress in most of the industry has been slow.

Image of a female astronaut. The space industry is still largely dominated by men.
Evgeniy Shkolenko/Getty

“Visible diversity really helps…some people just want permission to dream,” Howard said. “More and more women are gradually reaching higher positions [in the space industry]but once they are there, they still have to deal with this harassment, this bullying and not feeling that they can give their all to the job.

“It’s like there are hurdles along the way: you have hurdles as kids to get there, and then once you’re an adult, you often face these kinds of things as well. “

In 2021, employees of two of the largest aerospace companies, Blue Origin and SpaceX, have come forward to share their experiences of sexual harassment and misconduct within these organizations. But very little has been done since these allegations came to light.

“We were all sick of seeing our friends being harassed,” said Caleigh MacPherson, co-founder of Astro Advocates and Allies. Newsweek. In 2021, she and two colleagues, Heather Morehouse and Victoria Varone, created a Facebook group to support victims of sexual harassment and bullying within the space industry and provide resources to help people combat these issues in the workplace.

“A big part of the group is made up of people who see this happening and want to be informed so that if they recognize something is happening, they can intervene,” MacPherson said.

Sexual harassment is everywhere in all industries, she said. Aerospace is no exception.

“We’ve seen it in small private companies, we’ve seen it in big monster companies like SpaceX, and we’ve seen it in places like NASA itself… We’ve had people in the group who no longer work in the space industry who left because it was too toxic for them.”

Heather Morehouse, another of the band’s co-founders, explained why it’s so devastating. “Think of the time, money, education and energy these people have put into pursuing, often multiple degrees, internships, making connections, to get to a point where they have to throw it all away” , she said. Newsweek.

“Many choose to push [the incident] aside and stay at their jobs, but often quit within a year of being reported due to overwhelming anxiety, stress and continued harassment…Often the victim ends up leaving because the information has been “ leak’…Many of these women do not report it because they are afraid of retaliation.”

creepy coworker puts hand on shoulder
Image of a man putting his hand on a co-worker. The space industry is not immune to sexual harassment.
Stock Photos and Footage/Getty

By working with victims of harassment and misconduct, the group has been able to provide support and a solution to many of its members. “Over 250 people have asked for help, to tell their stories or to help rewrite policies and expectations,” MacPherson said. “We’re 16 months into this whole endeavor – in that time, 16 cases have been fully resolved, 6 set in motion and 12 are being reconsidered after being completely ignored for years.

“We are not licensed therapists, but we are women and we are friends and we have all been victims of harassment in one form or another.

“There are different levels of closure. For the majority of people who came forward, it was more of a mental closure…but in a few cases they went to court and won.”

This type of legal closure is a great achievement, Morehouse said. “The average time from when an incident is reported to when the incident is considered closed is over three years,” she said. “And most reported incidents never go beyond the initial report.”

In addition to supporting victims, the group actively encourages industry leaders to put in place and implement clear sexual harassment policies to make it easier for future victims to report and resolve concerns they may have. could be faced.

“We’ve had more success with smaller companies because they’re not so rigid,” MacPherson said. “They can be flexible enough to change their policies. With big companies, introducing new policies is more difficult. There’s so much bureaucracy and you have to go through all the paperwork. You can’t just say ‘hey, this policy really bothers me, can we change it?’”

“We’re seeing small positive things that are great motivation to keep going, but it’s going to be a while before we see a big positive change,” MacPherson said.

blue origin rocket
Archive image of the New Shephard Blue Origin launch. Some said Bezos’ rocket looked like a symbol of “manly power”.
Joe Raedle/Staff/Getty

Morehouse said even companies with established sexual harassment policies are often reluctant to implement them. “These companies look pretty, with their policies and procedures in place, but they fall short when it comes to execution and meaningful results,” she said.

From industry brief #Me too moment in 2021, there is more awareness around the issue. But has anything really changed? “Things haven’t improved,” MacPherson said. “They did it on a small scale, but it’s not much different… It’s partly bureaucracy, partly people standing in the way. If you look at the metrics of the turnover of women in the manpower in the space industry, it’s still a lot faster than humans.”

To see real positive change, Morehouse believes these policies will need to be consistent across all organizations. “We have found the solution to have an overarching group, an industry watchdog here in the United States…that specifically monitors and deals with aerospace, as a whole, that will not be biased.. .and who can handle these cases in a discrete and timely manner,” she said,

“It’s a huge task to take on, but we’re starting…it’s about finding the right people and people who are willing to take the risk.”

MacPherson said she doesn’t want to discourage potential female space workers by sharing these stories. On the contrary, she wants to see these support systems put in place to empower women workers in the industry.

“You have the power to change things,” she said. “If you see something you don’t like, you can change it. The most important thing is to have a support system.”