Science & Environment

Viewpoint: Is there a glass ceiling in space?

Woman astronaut from 1960s illustration
Image caption "Hi honey, I'm home" - stereotypes have often followed women into space

Some countries banned women from entering a recent competition to win a seat on a space plane. In this Viewpoint piece, Sue Nelson, who is one of the entrants, explains why there's still some way to go until we achieve equality in orbit.

In the 1960s, during the space age hey day, a magazine advert showed a glamorous female astronaut, with long spidery false eyelashes, holding a bottle of detergent.

"Women of the future," it said, "will make the Moon a cleaner place."

Flash forward to today's ad campaign for the Lynx Space Challenge - an international competition offering 22 astronaut places on a new space plane.

In one image, a fully clad astronaut, face hidden behind a mirrored helmet, relaxes in a hot tub with two scantily clad women.

In another, a hastily disrobed spacesuit is spread on the floor of a bathroom alongside a red dress, red bra and black high heels. The tag line, as with all the ads, makes it clear what hidden gender lies behind the visor: "Leave a man. Come back a hero".

This year is the 50th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova becoming the first woman to go into space.

It is also the 30th anniversary of the first American woman in space, Dr Sally Ride. In fact, so far, 55 women have boldly gone where most of us will never go before and yet - when it comes to sexual stereotypes - it appears little has changed.

Apollo astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin launched the groundbreaking competition in January. Lynx (brand name Axe in the States) was "looking for regular people like you to go into space".

So far so good. The competition, it was clear at this point, was open to both men and women. The problem came with that "leave a man, come back a hero" tagline, which Aldrin used to end the promotion, and the ensuing campaign.

No matter what the scenario, a gaggle of sexy young women can be seen admiring or lusting after a besuited figure. The message appeared clear: the competition was aimed at potential male astronauts.

In some countries, the message was even clearer. In Mexico, Ukraine, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia and Russia - the birthplace of Valentina Tereshkova - women were actually barred from taking part.

The Twittersphere erupted with a number of indignant women (and men) wondering why this unprecedented opportunity appeared to exclude half the planet.

Image caption Valentina Tereshkova was an early pioneer in a male-dominated field

As a result, a group of women then got together via social media to form AstroGrrls, a pressure group specifically aimed at encouraging women to enter and supporting those who have thrown their space hats into the ring (including myself).

Third year physics and astrophysics Sheffield University student Gillian Finnerty instigated an AstroGrrl Facebook page and mother, carer and Open University science student Lorraine Rodger helps manage the Lynxastrogrrls Twitter account.

"I was inspired to make a noise in support of female entrants," said Rodger, "by Gia Milinovich's blog Finding the Positive, seeing other women's Tweets scouting for votes and Glasgow Science Centre's Tweet pointing out the extremely male-oriented nature of the competition promotion."

This isn't the only ad campaign that has prompted public criticism. AstroGrrls sprang from ScienceGrrls, when last year a number of women responded unfavourably to the video 'Science: it's a girl thing!'

Produced as part of a European Commission campaign to encourage teenage girls into science, its aims were admirable. But not everyone liked the fashion, lipstick and heels approach. The grr in grrl was an expression of displeasure.

ScienceGrrls director Dr Heather Williams, a physicist and NHS imaging specialist, is also onboard with AstroGrrls. She believes the ad campaign is "astonishingly gender biased" and described the banning of female entrants in some countries as "outrageous".

"Our principal aim is to celebrate female scientists and encourage more women to join us and work towards gender equality," says Williams, "and that's why we see things like the Lynx campaign as certainly something we should challenge. That's one of the reasons it got my back up as it feeds an assumption about what girls can or cannot do."

The first challenge for all entrants, male and female, in the UK, is to gain enough votes on the competition website to secure a top 200 place by the end of April.

So far there are fewer than 20 women within the top 200 shortlist.

"What the [ad campaign has] done is fallen back on an old stereotype," says the highest woman on the UK's shortlist, Kate Arkless-Gray, who was one of the first to highlight the campaign's sexism. Speaking on the Space Boffins podcast, Arkless-Gray described the adverts' style as an outdated stereotype.

"They had a great opportunity and could have played with it a bit," she says, "and the only guy wearing the Lynx product gets the female astronaut."

There have been successes. After people voted, an automatic message once said, you have helped "him" get into space. AstroGrrls persuaded Unilever, the company behind the brand, to make the message gender-neutral.

It has also responded over the exclusion of women in certain countries with the following statement. "Unilever has communicated to all markets in all regions, that the contest is open to both men and women. Upon review, certain markets are currently revising their terms & conditions to reflect this directive."

A spokesperson for Lynx also said: "The Lynx Apollo campaign is meant to be a humorous play on mutual attraction illustrating the impact that the male grooming product will have on the opposite sex. The advert features male astronauts to communicate the product benefits to the target audience.

"We have never excluded women from entering the UK competition and currently have 16 women in the top 200 entries which means they will automatically be going through to the second round."

There's a long way to go to the ultimate prize: a trip on that sub-orbital private space plane built by XCOR. Those who progress to the next round must undergo physical and mental challenges before the final few attend a global space camp in Florida.

I may not make it to the bitter end but, like all AstroGrrls, I too have dreams. Becoming an astronaut is not simply so that men can get the girl. Some women have always reached for the stars.