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Talents of women in space vital ‘to imagine the future’

Talents of women in space vital ‘to imagine the future’

Clip from UNISPACE+50  (18-21 June 2018 / Vienna International Centre, Vienna, Austria)

Simonetta Di Pippo: 

You all are the evidence of the relationship between education and sustainable development and I have this question for Serena.  Why is science, technology, engineering and mathematics important to you and what can we do to encourage more students, including more women and girls, to study in STEM related fields?”


That was Sim tta Di Pippo, Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, UNOOSA, at the landmark UNISPACE+50 conference  in June.  Ms. Di Pippo, along with the United Nations Champion for Space, former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green, were moderating a live in-flight call to the crew of the International Space Station, which is widely known as the ISS.


I am FATIMA E MENDEZ, and this is UN News’s UN Gender Focus podcast.  In this week’s special program we will hear from four women, who participated at UNISPACE+50, Cynda Collins Arsenault, President & Co-founder of the Secure World Foundation;  Ersilia Vaudo, Chief Diversity Officer of the European Space Agency, or ESA;  UNOOSA Director  Simonetta Di Pippo; and Astronaut - Serena-Auñon-Chancellor

They’ll be telling us why it is important to encourage more girls and young women to study STEM related fields and why having more diversity, including gender diversity, is beneficial to the field of space technology.  They’ll also be passing on THEIR advice to girls and young women who are considering a career in the whole field.

We’ll also hear from Theophania Chavatzia, Programme Specialist at the Education Sector of UNESCO on the current statistics of female enrollment in STEM related fields of study.


UNISPACE+50, the fourth conference of the United Nations on the exploration and peaceful uses of outer space, was held in Geneva from the 18th to the 21st of June. 

More than 400 “government agencies, private companies, universities, research centres and civil society participants attended the Symposium portion of the conference.”  The symposium concluded with “a historic gathering of the heads of nearly 30 space agencies from around the world.

At the end of day one it was time for women to have their say, with the Space for Women forum.  Two of the key participants spoke with UN News.

Panelist Cynda Collins Arsenault is the Co-founder, Board Chair and President of the Secure World Foundation, an organization that works to promote the “secure, sustainable and peaceful uses of outer space.” She is also the founder of One Earth Future Foundation’s Our Secure Future program, whose mission is to “to strengthen the Women, Peace and Security movement to enable effective policy decision-making for a more peaceful world.”

UN News’s Muna Gasim spoke with Ms. Collins Arsenault.  She started by asking her about the landscape of opportunities for women in the space industry.


Cynda Collins Arsenault - I think space offers us a great opportunity.  The more we kind of move into space the more we benefit from space.  It’s going to require new ways of doing things.  And I think it’s critical that women have a part in that because we know from so much evidence that when women are involved everybody benefits.  So, whether that it’s economically, politically, socially, we need to have women.  So, within the field of space we have so much need for the whole skill set.  And one of the skill sets that women are often able to bring is increased relationship abilities and communication skills.  And that’s going to very important as we work across boundaries and look at this new frontier of how we are going to do it.

Q - You sort of answered this before.  But why do you believe more women should get involved in the space industry?

Cynda Collins Arsenault - Well, I think that what we’re finding is that there are differences in women’s brains.  And that there are things often attributed to the feminine values that have to do with cooperation, collaboration, relationships and that those are going to be critical skillsets that we’ll need.  Because space, you know, is going to be the universal common.  You can’t chop it up into little pieces. So how we do this is going to require new ways of thinking from things that we’ve done here on earth.  And women, I think, are able to bring that value add to it.

Q - Why are conferences such as UNISPACE important in helping the advantages of space science, technology and exploration, especially to a global community?

Cynda Collins Arsenault  - Well, this is only the fourth UNISPACE.  So, each time it’s been able to move the agenda forward.  And I know in ’99 when they came up with space generation – has been added so much, you know, to bring younger people, new ideas into it.  So, it isn’t just a bunch of old white man sitting around determining the agenda.  So, we need young people, we need women and new ideas can come out of gatherings such as this.

Q - Could you please tell us a little bit about how space can contribute towards sustainable development?

Cynda Collins Arsenault  - Well that’s what we are all here for. You know, we’ve been able to set some sustainable development goals.  And I think space has a role to play in all of those.  Not just in providing the data and information for things like land use, disaster management, but also in the technology.  One of the things is that there is currently a digital divide with women and men.  And when women are able to have access to the internet, to cell phones, the use of it is different.  It’s more applicable to how to improve their community. There’s organizations such as world post that connects women all over the world, working to have better communities and sharing their resources and ideas.  So, it’s elevating women’s voices on what’s already being done.


That was Cynda Collins Arsenault, from the Secure World Foundation.

Astrophycisict Ersilia Vaudo is Chief Diversity Officer at the European Space Agency (ESA).  Founded in 1975, ESA currently has 22 member states.  Their mission is to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to people everywhere.

ESA’s most famous achievement was the Rosetta orbiter mission, also known as Europe’s Comet Chaser.   The Rosetta orbiter was launched in March 2004 – spending 10 years in space, traveling across the whole Solar System.  The orbiter “crossed the asteroid belt and travelled into deep space, more than five time the Earth’s distance from the sun.”  It reached its target- the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August 2014 – and flew alongside the comet. The Rosetta mission spent 2 years following and studying the comet, ending its mission on 30th of September 2016 with a controlled crash-landing onto the comet surface.

Ersilia Vaudo spoke with UN News’s Muna Gasim.


Ersilia Vaudo - My key message to the forum is essentially the fact that to imagine the future, to be innovative, to really embrace the challenges that we have had we need the talents of women.  And we should increase the way we attract women to STEM careers.  In particular to careers related to space.  Also by providing all through their educational path this element of wonder, of excitement that a career in Science can provide.  I used to say, in particular to girls, but this is true for everyone, that Space and Science gives super powers because it puts you in a dimension that you will not experience otherwise.  And the ability to be able to, for instance, look at the sky, understand that each star is a moment in time - different.  It’s a moment past.  So, time and space are not the same thing but we are able to do much more than what we know through our experience. 

Q - Coming from ESA can you offer some good practices in increasing diversity in the space sector?

Ersilia Vaudo - A way to increase diversity is really through the branding, to a branding that is powerful enough to make understand the young people that space and the jobs of space, are not just the three or four jobs that you can guess.  But there is really such a richness of activities related to climate change, to energy, to exploration. We’ll also not just be explorers very soon – we will start to thinking how to – start to spend some time out in space.  So, all these challenges ahead, in a way, needs the talents of all.  And the talents of all is not gender perspective, but also people with disabilities - that already have the experience thinking out of the box. And also, an inclusive workforce because you can be diverse but if you are not inclusive you don’t get the full potential.  And I just really want to underline at ESA we know the power of diversity, cultural diversity.  We have 22 member states plus two speaking about 18 different languages.  We have had one currency since ’75 like Europe and we have been able to do together things that were not possible to do alone like landing a robot on a comet at 500 million kilometres away from here. And this is because we are able to put all these talents and competence together and make wonderful things out of that.

Q - How can space contribute to sustainable development? 

Ersilia Vaudo - Now, Space has two aspects, in my view, that contributes.  One is the infrastructure. I mean the (in)frastructure of space has provided a change in paradigm with respect to sustainable development, because it’s a perspective, it’s a numeral data and the knowledge that we need to be able to tackle all these issues in a very scientific way, and not emotional way.  So, space is an essential infrastructure to that.  On the other side this element of inspiration and I think there is no other activity where you can really get the sense of belonging to something much bigger than you and just being a little thing able to ask questions, and strive for answers – it’s something that brings us towards a part of peace. And this is one of the elements of sustainable development - feeling part of something that we share, and we have in common, and we have to preserve. And I think this is what space offers.

Q - What other message would you like to give?

Ersilia Vaudo - I think the general message that I pass to girls it’s for us all.   We should not have dreams, we should have goals.  And really make that where we start not just to ask but to really want things and to go for that.  I use this sentence that is: “Do I dare to disturb the universe? Yes.”  Do disturb it, because the Universe needs you.


That was ESA’s Chief Diversity Officer Ersilia Vaudo, panellist at UNISPACE+50 Space for Women forum.

As Ms. Vaudo mentioned, Space Technologies can contribute to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. For example, space applications like satellite imaging technology can help manage and monitor natural resources, like water supplies.  It can aid in tracking extreme weather events, as well as disaster response, and help identify, prosecute and curtail deforestation, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. 

But in itself, the study and practice of Space technologies and other STEM related fields, can help address at least three equity related SDGs:  SDG 4, SDG 5 and SDG 9. 

Sustainable Development Goal 4, or SDG 4, aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Sustainable Development Goal 5, aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”  

Sustainable Development Goal 9, or SDG9, aims to “enhance scientific research, upgrade the technological capabilities of industrial sectors in all countries, in particular developing countries.”

In an interview with UN News’s Vibhu Mishra UNOOSA Director Simonetta Di Pippo was asked why fewer women went into space sciences than men.


Simonetta Di Pippo - It’s not unfortunately a problem that we have only in the space sector.  However, we have been doing a lot in this field.  Myself personally last year I became part, as sort of a champion, as part of the international gender champion initiative.  But we also launched a dedicated program to mainly fulfill as the SGD 5 and as SDG 4 – which is STEM education - it’s quality education, with a project called Space for Women.

So, what we want to do is to focus on STEM education. So, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.In particular, for women and in particular for women in developing countries. So, we launched this project for a lot of reasons but one of the main reasons is to find, let’s say a path, to which we can accompany young women towards their career and trying to help them not only to get the right education in the STEM field but also then accompany them through their process towards a very good job at the end.


We’ve heard about the need to encourage and promote more women in STEM related fields, especially the Space Industry.  But what exactly are the statistics?  How many girls and young women are currently pursuing studies in STEM related fields?

For an answer to that question I spoke to Theophania Chavatzia, Programme Specialist at the Education Sector of UNESCO. She shared with us some of the findings of UNESCO’s ground breaking report ‘Cracking the code: Girls’ and Women’s Education in STEM’, which tracked the STEM studies from grade school to higher education.


Theophania Chavatzia - We have more and more girls going into education than before and their number and percentage is increasing when it comes to higher education.  However, they’re not equally represented in STEM fields.  We know now that only 1/3rd of students, around 30%, choose STEM related fields of study. We can also see differences within the STEM disciplines.  For example, even within this 30% we see differences.  And the majority go into Health and Welfare, which is more traditional feminine study, around 15%.  Which makes the percentage for the STEM topics even less. So, we’re talking about 8% in engineering, manufacturing and construction; 5% in natural science, mathematics and statistics and just 3% in ICTs, which is actually where we observe the lowest female participation.

So, from those figures then we can also make estimates about female representation in STEM careers.


Ms. Chavatzia noted that obstacles such as challenges in work and family life balance, along with the glass ceiling experienced by many women in careers dominated by men, contribute to women leaving their studies and careers in STEM fields, even as they progress from bachelors to masters and doctorate degrees. 

But with only 30% of women enrolling in STEM related fields of studies, we must ask what factors influence female students to not even consider pursuing STEM Studies?

The UNESCO report examined the participation, progression and achievements in STEM education as students progressed from grade school to secondary school, by comparing male and female students in grades 4, 8 and at the age of 15 for gender differences in science achievements and mathematics achievements.  They found that as the students progressed through the grades there was a sharp decline in female student participation in STEM education. 

Ms. Chavatzia explained some of the factors influencing this decline in interest in STEM topics.


Theophania Chavatzia - When we were looking at statistics we were very puzzled with the outcomes because there was a very diverse picture.  For example, girls over performing boys in countries in Asia or in the Arab states.  But in Latin America and South Saharan Africa girls were seriously underrepresented.  We figured there must be some contextual factors that affect these variations in performance.  So, we matched the statistics with qualitative studies in order to find out what is happening.  And we found that there are multiple complex and overlapping factors that affect girls’ participation and progression in STEM.  And in our Report, the UNESCO report, we have compiled those factors into an ecological model, where we’re looking at the individual level, the family and the wider societal context and the school level. 

Just to take a few examples of the strongest, if you like, factors affecting girls, we would start probably with stereotypes.  There are two types of stereotypes that affect girls’ choices when it comes to their participation in STEM.  The first is that STEM careers are not good for girls. They’re not appropriate.  They’re considered as masculine areas of study and work.  And that girls are not good at STEM, meaning that their cognitive capacity is considered to be lower than boys.  And these are stereotypes that have been engrained in a systematic manner and historically throughout, not only the learning process, but also the way girls and boys are raised.

So, by the time they go to school and they’re confronted with educational choices they already made up their minds that STEM is not a field that is good for girls and that they will not be good at them, anyway.  So, it’s kind of a self-selection bias.


Ms. Chavatzia noted that parents are the first socializing agents for girls and highlighted the special function of mothers as role models for their daughters.  She elaborated on the role and influence of parents on girls.


Theophania Chavatzia - So, we have found through studies that Parent’s attitudes and perceptions with relation to gender and with relation to academic ability do shape a girl’s early opportunities.  But also the opportunities they provide to their children.  Opportunities for care.  Opportunities for play and opportunities for learning because sometimes there is discrimination between how we treat boy and girls in the way we raise them up.

We also found out that peers play a very strong role with girl’s participation in STEM.  But, also the wider society in the wider context including social media.  For example, in Latin America we found out that stereotypical messages about girls’ ability in STEM were proliferated by girls themselves.  So, this is something that we need to look at more specifically.

In an area that concerns UNESCO directly, which is the area of education, we have found that often by the time they go to school girls have already been through this process of absorbing and assimilating stereotypes.  And, in certain cases schools manage to dismantle those stereotypes but in often cases schools only reproduce, unfortunately, those stereotypes.

According to Ms. Chavatzia, teachers are the strongest factors within schools that affect the quality of education.

Theophania Chavatzia - It is often teacher’s attitudes that determine girls’ participation in STEM or not, through teaching practices, by encouraging or not encouraging girls to participate in STEM, for example, or their expectations between girls and boys – the way they access their performance, for example, can be bias.

And I need to underline that biases can be conscious, but they can also be subconscious.  And this is mostly the case.  But whether they are conscious or subconscious stereotypes are equally damaging.  And we have found that they can actually affect educational outcomes for girls by up to one school year.  So, girls who have assimilated such stereotypes they underperform by up to one school year, sometimes, which you can see is very, very damaging.

Beyond the teacher, also there is also the issue of curricula.  Female characters are often absent from curricula or they’re misrepresented in supporting roles.  So, girls do not identify with what they see in science or mathematics textbooks.  They don’t see positive role models – other women who have achieved in science.  So carrying the stereotypes and also seeing this practice reinforced at school – it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, if I may say.  So, by the time they’re offered to choose their higher education options, they have already made up their minds too early.


That was Theophania Chavatzia, from UNESCO, sharing with us some of the findings of UNESCO’s report ‘Cracking the code: Girls’ and Women’s Education in STEM’.

On June 20, 2018, on the third day of the historic UNISPACE+50 conference, UNOOSA chief Simonetta Di Pippo, former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green moderated a live in-flight call to the crew of the International Space Station (ISS).

The six-member crew consisted of five men and one woman, NASA astronaut Serena Auñon-Chancellor, who was on her first flight in space.

Here is Simonetta Di Pippo again.


Simonetta Di Pippo - You all are the evidence of the relationship between education and sustainable development and I have this question for Serena.  Why is science, technology, engineering and mathematics important to you and what can we do to encourage more students, including more women and girls, to study in STEM related fields.


Serena Auñon-Chancellor - That is a fantastic question.  I actually I get asked that a lot and I think it comes out of concern.   When I was growing up – You know, I grew up with three sisters, no brother and it was almost an expectation that- in our family that we would go into STEM related field because my father was an engineer. 

But I think that what I see nowadays with young girls and young women, is that they’re very interested in learning more about the STEM related fields and they are afraid to ask ‘cause they feel like they’re going to bother somebody and take away their time – and their time is too precious.

So, what I tell young girls and young women is to bother.  Bother people if you’re interested in their work.  Bother them if you’re interested in their research.  Get them to tell you about it.  Ask questions.  If you’re too much of a bother they’ll tell you to go away.

But until then ask, explore, discover.  And that’s the best way for, I think, young girls and women to become more interested in the STEM fields. 

Don’t be afraid.  Step up. Ask and Bother.


That was ISS crew member NASA astronaut Serena Auñon-Chancellor talking to Simonetta Di Pippo from the International Space Station.

I am FATIMA E MENDEZ from UN News.  Thank you for joining us for this episode of the UN Gender Focus podcast. For more information on UN backed STEM programs please check out the UNESCO and UNOOSA websites at and

Please check out more episodes of our podcasts on our website at, soundcloud, itunes and other podcast platforms. Thanks for listening!


It’s impossible to imagine the future of science in outer space, or embrace its challenges, without “the talents of women” being at the heart of it.

That’s the message from astrophysicist Ersilia Vaudo, of the European Space Agency, who was speaking at the recent ‘Space for Women’ forum, which was part of June’s historic UNISPACE+50 conference, on harnessing the peaceful uses of the cosmos.

The need for more women and girls to take part in STEM studies - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics - was foremost on the minds of many participants, as Fatima E Mendez has been finding out, in our latest UN Gender Focus podcast, from UN News.

“Taking Flight" by Chuck Lovejoy.  Licensed by OMNI.


Cynda Collins Arsenault, President & Co-founder of the Secure World Foundation, at the UNISPACE+50 Symposium, at the Vienna International Centre, Austria. 18 June 2018.
Cynda Collins Arsenault, President & Co-founder of the Secure World Foundation, at the UNISPACE+50 Symposium, at the Vienna International Centre, Austria. 18 June 2018., by UNOOSA


Ersilia Vaudo, Chief Diversity Officer of the European Space Agency (ESA), at the UNISPACE+50 Symposium, at the Vienna International Centre, Austria. 18 June 2018.
Ersilia Vaudo, Chief Diversity Officer of the European Space Agency (ESA), at the UNISPACE+50 Symposium, at the Vienna International Centre, Austria. 18 June 2018., by UNOOSA


Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), at the opening of the UNISPACE+50 Symposium, at the Vienna International Centre, Austria. 18 June 2018.
Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), at the opening of the UNISPACE+50 Symposium, at the Vienna International Centre, Austria. 18 June 2018., by UNIS Vienna



Audio Credit
Fatima E. Mendez, Muna Gasim and Vibhu Mishra
Photo Credit
Screen video capture