Who is the stereotypical astronaut and why should we care?

Close your eyes and think about an astronaut. What is the image that you see? Chances are, it is a well-built man in a NASA spacesuit, and not a woman. This does not mean that you are a sexist – it simply shows how cultural stereotypes leave an imprint in your brain. Women and men are doing a terrific job as astronauts; and there is no doubt that both will be on board first flight to Mars. But let’s take a closer look how this wide spread perception of who an astronaut is can impact the mission itself.

Image by Comfreak on Pixabay.

One of the biggest challenge of a manned mission is to have a crew that is able to live and work together in very close quarters for at least three years. Isolated confined extreme environments (or ICE for short) are no doubt more stressful than your average workplace. There is very little room for error, and workload varies from time-sensitive performance to stretches of boredom (Kring and Kaminski 2012). Confinement, physical and social isolation, and lack of resources add additional levels of stress (Harrison 2002). 

Can she be a (good) astronaut?

In an ideal world, researchers interested in a group behavior during spaceflight would collect primary data from astronauts before, during, and after space flight. But in reality, these data are hard to access, sample sizes are very small, and the only place to study such groups is the International Space Station. Thus they rely on studying groups in other environments that share some characteristics with spaceflight. Analog environments can already exist for another purpose (for example Antarctic research stations), or can be specifically designed for the purpose of replicating parts of spaceflight experience (for example Hi-Seas in Hawaii or MDRS in Utah).

Evidence from such environments show that women perform as well as men in regards to task performance and physical adaptation (Harm et al. 2001; Kanas and Manzey 2008; Mark et al. 2014). Women in ICE environments tend to act in a more interpersonal and caring way than men (Kring and Kaminski 2012). They are more likely to care about the welfare of the whole team, to support mutual decision making, to provide emotional support, or to act as peacemakers in a team (Bishop 2004; Kahn and Leon 2000; Leon 1991, 2005).

At the same time, men continue to feel more at home in places like that. For example, men have reported better personal fit with Antarctic station culture than women (Sarris and Kirby 2005). Studies show that women experience rude behavior and sexual harassment from their male colleagues in similar environments (Kanas and Manzey 2008; Rosnet et al. 2004). Actually, masculine station culture and gender based conflicts were among the worst parts of experience according to women who have worked and lived in Antarctica (Sarris 2017).

Women feel pressured to prove their worth in such teams (Leon 2005), but at the same time women leaders are less supported than men leaders or women in non-leadership positions (Schmidt, Wood, and Lugg 2005). I should note that none of this is unique to ICE environments. Same trends have been well documented in everyday working environments as well (Foschi 2000). But in space analog environments, social support is even more crucial for emotional and mental well-being, as one cannot simply get up and leave.

Overall, findings seem to reaffirm our stereotypical beliefs about nurturing women and competing men. In this case, gender is understood as an innate quality that affects relationships and behavior on a personal level. If we think about gender in this way, we can argue that it is only natural that women care more about others in the team, and that men have more support as leaders. But if it is natural, and each person’s characteristics are defined by their gender, it does not explain why gender differences create extra tension. If women are naturally more nurturing, and men are naturally more prone to leadership, they should complement each other in a team.

So why do tension arise? Of course, personalities and individual characteristics play a role, but so does our society. Sociologists argue that women and men behave differently in groups not because of their gender per se. Their differences arise from gender inequalities that penetrate society on different levels – from cultural norms, to institutions, to individual interaction (Risman 2018). This means that some answers to issues that can arise en route to Mars can come from societies we live in.

Imagine an astronaut

We like to think that in the 21st century women and men are equal, at least in highly bureaucratic organization, such as NASA. Officially, gender based discrimination is illegal, and everyone has to follow the same set of rules and the same set of behavioral norms. Usually we think of an organizational structure as a formal hierarchy filled in by disembodied workers, like an empty chart. Job evaluation, and consequently promotion or demotion, is based on the idea of neutrality and abstraction of these disembodied workers. What matters is the position, and not the person who occupies it. But in reality, male workers whose lives center around a full-time job are closer to these disembodied workers than women who usually have more family obligations (Acker 1990).  In NASA’s case, the ideal astronaut both in a cultural and in a physical sense is a man.

Historically, NASA’s public discourse reaffirmed cultural ideals of a man and a woman (Sage 2009). During the Apollo era, media portrayed astronauts as patriotic family men  who stood for traditional American values. White, straight, and masculine heroes embodied the very idea of the American way of life (Llinares 2011).

Until the 1980s, there were no women astronauts. On one hand, it was a direct consequence of NASA’s gendered institutional rules: only military test pilots were eligible to apply to become astronauts, and only men were eligible to become military test pilots (Lathers 2009; Sage 2009)[1]. But it was also a manifestation of a large belief system. NASA argued that it is not willing to put women in mortal danger. This reaffirmed cultural beliefs about women being a weaker gender; it is also possible that early inclusion of women into astronaut corps would have made spaceflight seem too straightforward and safe, thus not prestigious and masculine enough (Pesterfield 2016; Sage 2009).

Today women have no official barrier to participate in the space program. But institutional and public discourse still shapes the idea who an astronaut is and is not (Llinares 2011). Media tends to focus on the ‘women’ identity first, and the  ‘astronaut’ identity second, and contrast the two (Llinares 2011; Penley 1997). Media can be well-meaning: for example, portray astronauts as highly achieved women, or present them as role models for young girls. But by talking about women astronauts as someone who is fighting the traditional ideals of womenhood, it inadvertently reaffirms the same ideals.

Women astronauts must constantly prove that they are just as capable as men astronauts, and that they do not need any preferential treatment (Casper and Moore 1995). But at the same time,  women bodies are seen as problematic and disruptive, because they menstruate and can get pregnant (Casper and Moore 1995).

A ‘woman’ and an ‘astronaut’ are two identities that in our society does not completely overlap. Stereotypical astronaut is a man, both in a cultural and in a physical sense. Women are evaluated against men; and any differences are seen as a deviation from the norm (Casper and Moore 1995).

            Stereotypes in action

Our culture teaches us that men are better at being explorers and adventurers. They are also believed to be better at STEM. And a stereotypical astronaut is a man, and not a woman. But in what way does all this affect crew dynamics?

Our culture teaches us that men are better at being explorers and adventurers. They are also believed to be better at STEM. And a stereotypical astronaut is a man, and not a woman. But in what way does all this affect crew dynamics?

Stereotypes are unwritten rules that guide and influence our behavior. They operate beyond the reach of consciousness, and provide a frame of reference in each situation that helps us make fast decisions. When we see a person, we instantly look for visual cues that give away information about them. What is their gender? How old are they? Do they look white? Or Asian? Or Black? We subconsciously connect these cues with cultural beliefs about that specific group of people, and then behave accordingly.

In our culture, men are believed to be better in the majority of tasks, unless those tasks are explicitly labeled as feminine. Gendered stereotypes are present in every interaction and every task, but they become even more important when interaction takes place in a very masculine or very feminine domains. Stereotypes impact behavior, performance, and evaluation of otherwise similar men and women in a systematic way. Faced with a decision, we question ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, ‘can s/he do it?’  In addition to our actual knowledge of a person’s expertise, we rely on stereotypical knowledge as well. Stereotypes function in a self-fulfilling way: we give more opportunities to those people whom we perceive being more competent; and they end up having the most influence.

Thus the idea of an ideal astronaut (or an Antarctic explorer) being a man slightly tips a decision in every interaction, within and outside of a crew. Women are not ignored, but they are listened just a tiny bit less and have a bit less influence than otherwise similar men. But these differences accumulate over time, and can lead to tensions in a crew, increased stress, and a missed possibility to get the most of each person’s actual capabilities. Next time, I will explore how behavioral differences that are partially caused by stereotypes affect emotional wellbeing of an individual and their mental health in a long run.



[1]Lovelace’s Woman in Space Program was a short-lived, privately-funded project testing women pilots for astronaut fitness in the early 1960s. In 1961, thirteen women pilots passed the same physical examinations that the Lovelace Foundation had developed for NASA’s astronaut selection process. However, NASA refused to let them become astronauts because they were  not military pilots. In 1962, program participants instigated congress hearings, but they were still rejected from becoming astronauts.

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