On Saturday, my family marched alongside nearly three quarters of a million neighbors. Men and women of different skin colors, religions, and backgrounds found ourselves united by a single cause: the emphatic belief that women have value and deserve respect.
The struggle for equality is not limited to one city, one nation, or even one planet. As humanity begins to explore outer space, we bring our culture with us – for better or for worse. If we deny some people the opportunity to participate in space exploration based on their race, gender, sexuality, or religion, we make prejudice one of our first exports off-planet.
After all, when we explore space, we do so not as individuals but as representatives of all humanity. We explore space for our neighbors, for our children, for each other. Even when we send robots, rather than humans, to other worlds, they beam back photos and scientific results that educate and inspire us all – not just a few scientists in a lab somewhere.
Exploring space is extraordinarily difficult. Like the other challenges of our time, if we want to solve it, we need to harness the intelligence and creativity of all of our best and brightest people, not just those of one race or gender.
The number one film in the world, Hidden Figures, tells the real life story of how – in the midst of an era of segregation and open discrimination – a group of African American women were critical to the dawn of the space age. The film shows beautifully how humanity’s first steps into space were hampered by the society of the time, which often accepted contributions from only one narrow swath of humanity: white men. Inventing entirely new areas of math or technology couldn’t have happened without the contributions of people like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and others.
The film has touched off a wave of events around the world aimed not only at informing people about Katherine Johnson’s story but at inspiring people to become the Katherine Johnsons of today. At one such event, I had the honor of addressing 10,000 young women alongside cast members Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Aldis Hodge and producer Pharrell Williams. As a woman of color who works on the cutting edge of the space program of today, my message to those young women was and is: we need you! We can’t let you be hidden any more.
We don’t need you to pull us into the room if we haven’t earned it; we just need you to unlock the door – we can let ourselves in
Thankfully, most of the specific prejudices shown in Hidden Figures don’t exist today. In my office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as a woman of color, I can drink from the communal coffee pot or use the restroom without fear of punishment, and no one has forced me to wear knee length skirts or a string of pearls. But despite these important and encouraging changes, we are yet not living in a post-race or post-gender world.
Diversity numbers in the space industry are improving, but are still poor. Recent studies indicate that only 16 per cent of the aerospace workforce in the US are women; and the numbers in other nations or by other metrics of diversity can be equally off-putting. Of those who have actually flown to space, fewer than 10 per cent have been women; and some 150 nations have never seen even one of their countrymen or – women blast off into the heavens.
My white colleagues and my male colleagues are incredibly intelligent, creative and hardworking – but they do not hold the monopoly on any of those admirable traits. When a group that makes up about 32 per cent of the population of the US nation provides something like 70 per cent of the workforce in one of our most inspiring and demanding industries that means we aren’t yet doing enough to find talent everywhere it exists, nor to show minority populations that they, too, can participate and contribute.
No one wants a free pass because of the color of the skin. Don’t bend the rules for women of color. We don’t need you to pull us into the room if we haven’t earned it; we just need you to unlock the door – we can let ourselves in.
None of us should be put into pre-defined roles by the circumstances of our birth. My industry needs brains – and it doesn’t matter what color or shapes the bodies that hold those brains are. Becoming more open and inclusive as an industry helps us achieve things we couldn’t otherwise – and has other positive side effects, too. After all, if women and people of color can be astronauts, or rocket scientists, or space robotics experts, that smashes into the glass ceiling with the force of an unstoppable meteor.
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