I recently read an article about why the first person to step on Mars should be a woman.
“And while it wouldn’t make up for all the gender injustice in the world, it would be a damn good start. It would make a statement to the planet – not to mention possible life on other planets – that women are as deserving of stardust as men,” wrote Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett.
My inner feminist did a little fist pump when I read that, not only because I’m all about empowering women to succeed in male-dominated fields, but because my daughter wants to be an astronaut. Actually, according to her, she already is one.
“Every night I go to space in a rocket,” she tells me. Her duvet set is space-themed, covered with rockets, stars and planets. It’s very blue, very much aimed at little boys, and she loves it. It’s her “space bed,” she says. Her favourite pajamas feature a cat wearing a space suit – a catstronaut, if you will – and the words ‘You are out of this world’.
She’s a toddler, so her understanding of the vastness and complexity of space is pretty much non-existent. She knows that space is up, and pretty big, and that the moon lives there, but that’s kind of it. At two-years-old, all she needs are space sheets and space cats to convince her that that she can shoot for the stars. There’s something wonderful about that, because it takes a lot more than that to become a successful female working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
A 2014 report showed that women make up only 9% of those working in non-medical science. Nasa’s gender imbalance is minor in comparison – 30% of its staff is female – it’s still a long way from equality. Even in 2018, women still face barriers to entering STEM disciplines, thanks to stereotypes about girls not being as interested in technology or math that start in school – or even earlier.
Toys that encourage practical, hands-on play, such as building sets, are often marketed to boys, while girls are encouraged to play with toys that invite them to nurture, like dolls. If you give a girl a some K-NEX she’ll build the shit out of a rocket, but if you never give her those interlocking plastic gears, she won’t know what she’s missing.
There’s a part of me that feels a bit uncomfortable going all pro-STEM, since I’m hardly an ideal role model for my daughter. I never showed much enthusiasm for math or science when I was at school – though my grades in those subjects were good – and chose to major in English at uni. I wanted to work in a publishing house and read novels all day – pretty much as far from science as you can get.
I guess I technically work in technology now, though digital content design is kind of ‘soft’ technology, in the same way that sociology is a ‘soft’ science. That’s not to knock sociology – I minored in sociology as an undergrad and I think it’s incredibly interesting – but…well, it’s not rocket science, is it?
My daughter’s astronaut dreams may be short lived. By the time she turns three, she may want to be an acrobat or something. Who knows? Kids are weird. I’m not going to pressure her to go down the STEM route, especially since I didn’t really choose it for myself, but I don’t want her to be limited by anyone’s expectations. I hope that by the time she’s old enough to make a choice about her career – one that’s based upon something more than what’s on her duvet cover – things may have changed. Women may have stepped foot on Mars, proving to girls all over the world that they can aim higher than many of us have ever dared imagine.