Lori Garver, NASA deputy administrator
March 9, 2012

They Gave Women Pantsuits, But Equal Footing Is Yet To Come

Ellen M. Gilmer for RedOrbit.com

Lori Garver is no cheerleader.

At an event this week celebrating women in aerospace, the NASA deputy administrator made clear she wasn't there to simply boost spirits about women's advances in the field. There's already plenty of evidence for that, she said.

Take, for example, the "Pantsuit Memo." In 1970, a note circulated in a NASA office allowing women to wear pantsuits instead of skirts and dresses, as long as the mod look would not "offend" their bosses.

"Bear in mind that if someone forgets to treat you like a lady, it was you that elected to wear the pants," the memo said.

The note is a relic of another time and, Garver hopes, not a lingering attitude in science and technology fields. She shared those work-attire guidelines Thursday to a crowd of professionals and students in Washington, D.C., kicking off the NASA-sponsored "Women, Innovation and Aerospace" event, part of Women's History Month.

Indeed, she pointed out, NASA is now the largest employer of women -- wearing skirts and pants, alike -- in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, with 6,000 women on staff, out of 18,000 total employees.

But, said Garver, "where are the Pantsuit Memos today?" Certainly, women have gained respect in the field since 1970, but what are today's subtle or not-so-subtle forms of discrimination? Plenty of statistics are unsettling to Garver. Six out of 40 members of NASA's senior management team are women, for example. And women make up just 20 percent of the agency's engineers.

"Let's celebrate the strides," she said. "But let's acknowledge that we have some distance to go.

An August 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report notes that women today earn 41 percent of PhDs issued in STEM fields, but make up only 28 percent of the fields' tenure-track faculty. More broadly, the spread of scientists and engineers in the United States is made up of 76 percent men, the study said.

The effort to draw more women into STEM fields extends beyond NASA, and into the broader government spectrum. President Obama issued an executive order two months into his presidency creating the White House Council on Women and Girls, with a stated goal of "working with each agency to ensure that the administration evaluates and develops policies that establish a balance between work and family."

Additionally, the Obama administration has emphasized the importance of innovation for economic growth, along with the crucial role women play in that push.

At a Facebook town hall meeting in Palo Alto, Calif., last April, Obama rattled off complaints he had heard that companies can't find enough engineers or computer programmers to grow their businesses.

"And that's why we're emphasizing math and science," he said. "That's why we're emphasizing teaching girls math and science."

Programs targeting women in the STEM fields are running in many executive agencies, including the Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health and the State Department.

The Obama administration additionally launched a speakers series last summer, aiming to bring top-level women in government STEM jobs to talk to girls in grades 6-12.

It's an issue that can't be emphasized enough, said Shirley Malcom, whose life work is dedicated to promoting women and minorities in STEM fields. Malcom leads a branch of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that administers education and outreach programs for underrepresented groups in science careers.

"We have really mainstreamed women's issues into all of our programming," Malcom said of AAAS's approach to attracting more women. "We have always had a much more holistic focus on diversity."

She explains that instead of having a multitude of programs that specifically recruit young women, AAAS works toward balance in all of its education and fellowship offerings. The approach keeps women's issues from getting short shrift in satellite programs with small and finite resources, she said.

"If you can affect the regular business of the entire organization, than obviously many more resources and much more clout and effort is going toward the issue," she said.

At times, though, she said a targeted approach is best.

"Sometimes you have got to shine a spotlight on it, and mainstreaming just isn't enough," she said. "During those times, we will shine a spotlight. ... Somehow we've got to do both of these things."

Malcom said she worries that parents and teachers don't always do enough to help girls foster an interest in science and technology. Children are naturally curious about how the world works, she said, but girls are sometimes discouraged from pursuing it because it doesn't suit their gender stereotypes. For example, "there's that emphasis on being clean," Malcom said.

And she should know. Malcom grew up in Alabama in the 1950s and '60s.

"Being black and female in Birmingham, Alabama, I'm sure nobody thought of us" for a career in science, she said. But in the rush of excitement after the Soviet Union's successful launch of the satellite Sputnik in 1957, "we just kind of glommed on" to the state's burgeoning aeronautics industry.

She went on to the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied zoology, and eventually received her PhD in ecology from Pennsylvania State University. At Washington, Malcom said she was often the only black student in class, and always the only black woman in class.

It's an uncomfortable distinction that's familiar for Garver, the NASA deputy administrator, who remembers high school days of missing out on math opportunities her male peers were offered.

One statistic really tells the story of progress made, Garver said, and progress needed: Often celebrated is the fact that 54 women have gone to space. But that's a mere 10 percent of the total.

Maybe, she said, "we've settled a little bit too early."