Giant leap for womankind needed to 'close gender gap' in space exploration

World Space Forum hears the industry is missing out by failing to harness their expertise

A giant leap for womankind is needed to close the gender gap in space exploration, experts say.

The World Space Forum on Wednesday heard women are accomplishing incredible feats in Earth but are missing out in space.

And the industry is also losing out by not harnessing their potential expertise.

“Women are doing amazing things here on Earth but are under represented in the space sector,” said Veronika Vashchenko, deputy representative for United Nations Children's Fund in Kazakhstan, who was speaking during the discussion. “To address it, we need to invest more in education for girls.”

Women are doing amazing things here on Earth but are under represented in the space sector

The panel, organised by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and hosted by the UAE Space Agency, said the challenge differed from country to country. The UAE was recognised for putting women at the forefront of its space exploration programme.

Just under half of the workforce at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre are women (42 per cent), while 70 per cent of those working on the country’s astronaut programme are female with women making up more than a third (34 per cent) of the team on the Mars Hope Mission. The representation extends to Cabinet level. Sarah Al Amiri is UAE Minister of State for Advanced Technology and chair of the UAE Space Agency.

Women also make up a third of the remaining 61 hopefuls who have been shortlisted for the programme to find the country’s next two astronauts, which is set to be announced next month.

However, that was not reflected elsewhere.

“One of the areas the UAE has focused on is female empowerment,” said Hamed Munther Odeh, vice president of UAE-based satellite company Yahsat, who was also speaking on the panel.

“We have been working with organisations in Zimbabwe to provide connectivity to the education sector and help empower young females.

“What you often see is if a family has a boy and girl there they will choose to send the boy to school but not the girl due to financial constraints.

“I think the focus has to come from governments to provide opportunities for women and not just in the space sector.”

Nasa astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir made history in 2019 when they completed the world's first all-female spacewalk on the International Space Station (ISS). This showed the potential but the coronavirus pandemic had made things even more difficult.

Zainab Azim, who was the youngest member of Virgin Atlantic’s Young Astronaut Programme, warned Covid-19 had worsened the problem for women.

“The education barriers in each country are different but you found, especially with the Covid-19 pandemic, that more girls were not being sent to school anymore because there was a rise in pregnancy rates."

During the Covid-19 lockdown there was a 40 per cent rise in the monthly average of unwanted teenage pregnancies in Kenya alone, according to the United Nations.

“They no longer had the protection that comes with a school environment," said Ms Azim.

Ms Azim, who is also the co-founder of the Global Initiative and Vision for Education, an organisation that promotes science-based learning, said that while the number of women training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries was encouraging there were still old problems that had to be overcame.

“Most decisions making positions are still held by men, if you look at most boards of companies they are mostly made up of men, even Nasa,” she said.

“[Lack of] education is a barrier but used properly it can be a tool to empower women.”