The United States landed a robot on Mars this week. The Mars Rover Curiosity is about the size of a car, and is collecting and analyzing rock and soil samples, as well as sending images back to Earth for analysis. This is a big deal - we landed our machinery on another planet. It's a precise maneuver, requiring thousands of hours of work, engineering, calculations, and precise predicting. It's not a walk in the park. Needless to say, the people in charge of the project were thrilled when Curiosity survived its trip and landed safely on the surface.
When photos of the celebration at NASA hit the internet, however, I found myself wondering where the women were. Within a day, the count had come out - of what appears to be 40 or so people in the control room, seven were women. And finally I started seeing pictures of them celebrating right alongside their male coworkers.
This is good. This is progress. It's still a ratio that skews heavily male, but it's much better than it was during Apollo 13 or the moon landing.
Much closer to home, the XXX Olympic Games in London this summer are the first ones to have women competitors from every country. Saudi Arabia was a last hold out, and essentially sent their women athletes to appease the international community, not necessarily because they had a change of heart. They refuse to air their games in Saudi Arabia, robbing little Saudi girls of an important, visible, motivation: seeing women doing the things they love.
This isn't a knock on men, but a lot of men, especially white men, don't quite grasp the importance of having women visible in the mainstream, doing things traditionally considered in the realm of men. This is because men are already represented in everything. There's no question for little white boys of whether or not they can be president, because all the presidents (up until Obama), all the presidents looked like them. That's part of why Obama's election was so meaningful.
I celebrate when I see women who are helping to put a robot on Mars, and acting in high-powered offices like Secretary of State (Hilary Clinton).
Visibility is important for women. Having women visible in the STEM* field of working for NASA is an important message for women who want to go into those fields but are told that women can't. My own mother, for example, was discouraged from taking higher level math classes because it just wasn't something women did. Today, women are a visible presence in every major scientific field. And that is good progress.
We can never forgo the importance of visibility. It is not political correctness and it is not affirmative action. Women who are visible in high power positions help create a world in which seeing a woman in such a position is no longer remarkable or noteworthy, but simply normal.
*Science, Technology, Engineering and Math = STEM.