NASA Pluto Mission Member Talks about How to Get More Women into STEM
“No one expected any of this,” says AAUW American Fellow and NASA astrophysicist Kimberly Ennico Smith. “It’s been electric working on a mission to a new world.” She’s talking about her role as deputy project scientist for NASA’s New Horizons mission, the historic project responsible for capturing unprecedented photos of Pluto. “The last time we had a flyby of a new world was in August 1989 — I was a junior in high school!” says Smith, who shared with AAUW how she went from clipping NASA-related newspaper articles in high school to becoming a part of a historic mission.
The New Horizons mission marks a monumental step forward in gender diversity in the sciences, with women composing 25 percent of the team. “I just never appreciated the amazing diversity when you have a lot more women around,” says Smith. Diversity, including gender diversity, contributes to creativity, productivity, and innovation — all critical factors in STEM fields. “Being cognizant about the group you’re with and whether it’s diverse or not is important,” she says. “There’s so much power when you bring in people from different backgrounds, genders, parts of the world, points in their lives. You get the most innovative and creative solutions.”
Smith explains that her pathway to success as a woman in a field historically dominated by men wasn’t without setbacks. She recalls that she was often the only woman in her college physics courses. The trend continued when she entered the workforce and found few female colleagues by her side. Like many women in STEM fields, she faced pervasive gender stereotypes and bias, finding that her age and gender made people question her work. “Things will be tough,” she says, but “[you can] become empowered to change those things.”
Smith says there’s one easy thing that STEM businesses and employers can do to bring in more women: make efforts to thwart unconscious gender bias. That means thinking twice about gendered phrases like “unmanned mission,” “manned space flight,” and “mankind,” which she and her fellow New Horizons women colleagues felt edged towards exclusion.
Another way to help shift implicit gender biases is by diversifying the images commonly associated with words like “science,” “NASA,” or “physicists.” Coverage and photos of the women-led New Horizons mission team will certainly do this. Smith also recently changed the backdrop of her Twitter page to show photos of her at work, “building cool things.” These visualizations of women role models can help chip away at gender stereotypes and encourage girls and women to consider STEM fields.
Mentors are also invaluable to women studying and working in STEM fields, she says, especially when it comes to “[making] big decisions about where you want to go next — which job to take, which area you want to go into. The mentorship approach can get you more insight that you would normally not have.” Now, she has mentees of her own.
Smith looks forward to the coming months of discovery as her New Horizons team receives more data from the Pluto flyby. “The exploration is never done,” she says. “We just have to look, and ask questions, and solve problems, and put our passion into this.”
AAUW’s report asks why there are still so few women in the critical fields of engineering and computing.
AAUW has supported many women astronomers over the years — read their amazing stories.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first person to attain a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard.