By appointing Josef Aschbacher to its top post — instead of the first female leader in its 50-year history — the European Space Agency (ESA) has followed the usual better safe-than-sorry-strategy of previous decades. In these moments, it becomes clear why nothing will ever change in terms of gender equality at the top of major boards, institutions and organizations, if all that counts is mere symbolism.
Of course, at ESA only qualification counts, not the person, nor their gender. But let's be honest: management positions are often not only filled according to professional criteria, but also according to political interests. And unfortunately, gender equality is not top of the agenda at ESA.
Old boys' club
In 2019, NASA filled three out of four science divisions leadership positions with qualified women. ESA too has made diversity a top priority. But somehow the top management level, where nine out of 10 directors are male, didn't get the message.
Given this male dominance, it becomes clear that qualifications alone can't be the decisive factor in the selection of management positions. Men often recruit men who are like them, in origin, age and education. Women, on the other hand, are judged less favorably — often unwittingly — and are less often considered for leadership positions. Unconscious bias has also been identified at ESA: Applications from men to use the Hubble Space Telescope were approved more often than those from women. The moment the selection process was made anonymous, the inequality disappeared. Equal numbers of female and male researchers were given the chance to work with Hubble.
Empty phrases bingo
Let's play a game: Which of these statements could be the reason why top jobs in research, business and society go almost exclusively to men?
"There aren't enough qualified women."
"Women just aren't that interested in a career."
"There are too few women with leadership experience."
"Women are more likely to choose family over job."
"No women have applied for the leadership position."
The answer: none. On closer examination, these statements are just hollow phrases. They are particularly popular among those who get off the hook by pointing to women's advancement programs in their sphere. ESA is no exception.
Advancement of women programs — a bottomless pit
But women's advancement programs are like a bottomless pit: they've been around for decades, and still women don't make it to the top. Women's advancement programs also feed into a dangerous narrative: For one, they shift the focus of the problem away from the company and onto women themselves, blaming them in the process. It's like attesting women a deficit that must be fixed otherwise they won't be fit enough for management positions. For another, special support for women also masks the structural problem of gender inequality.
Promoting women can't be the be-all and end-all. Especially not when it is accompanied by such strange campaigns as the collaboration between ESA and toy manufacturer Mattel: In order to get more girls interested in so-called STEM professions (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti became the model for a Barbie doll in 2018. But pink glittery "Girl's edition" products miss their goal: They don't break gender stereotypes, but rather aggravate them.
Equality not the same as equity
We can't just rely on media-effective promotion of women and good intentions if the world is to become more equal. It will take a change in corporate culture. But if men dominate decision-making positions, the rigid structures from which they themselves benefit will not change. To correct structural inequality, it takes the will to make room at the top. But this also means that men who are already in the starting blocks for respective positions will have to give up some of their power and privileges. But that will never happen voluntarily.
An organization like ESA, which spends €5 billion ($6 billion) of taxpayers' money every year, should be aware of the message it sends out when filling attractive positions. And it should finally start implementing diversity and inclusion at the highest levels.