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News - August 30, 2019

NASA women's leadership summit hosts Pelosi, Eshoo

Despite gains, women still face inequity

by Mark Noack

It was a mix of corporate executives and political heavyweights, global thought leaders and scientific stars. And by no coincidence, the hundreds squeezed in the room were almost all women.

The event held at the NASA Ames Research Park on Monday, Aug. 26, was the kickoff for a Celebration of Women Leaders. Held on Women's Equality Day, the celebration marked the first in a yearlong series of events that will eventually culminate in the centennial anniversary of American women winning the right to vote.

To date, the past century has ushered in a new era of women in enterprise, management and C-suite offices. But is this true equality?

For many, the answer is no; there are still plenty of barriers, overt or otherwise. While the gender wage gap has narrowed, it has mostly remained unchanged for the last 15 years. On average, women earn about 15% less than their male counterparts, according to a Pew Research Center study published in March.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which organized the event, drew particular attention to the inequity holding back high-achieving women from recognition. Fewer than of 20% of board seats at the world's largest companies are held by women. Out of 3,000 top companies, only 39 have gender parity on their corporate boards.

On Monday, the attention in the room was focused on the star power of the headline speakers, two of the most powerful women in the Bay Area and national politics, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Anna Eshoo, who walked onstage to an exultant crowd.

"We do not yield one grain of sand in terms of areas where women should weigh in," Pelosi said. "This is not a zero sum game; once the ball gets rolling we can recognize that when women succeed, America succeeds."

In a public conversation, the two congresswomen discussed the gains and shortfalls over the years. On her first White House visit when she was first nominated as House minority leader, Pelosi recalled feeling the weight of generations of women leaders who had fought for suffrage and empowerment.

"I could hear them say, 'At last, we have a seat at the table,'" Pelosi said. "We owe them so much and we celebrate them, but we have even more responsibility to embrace the future in a way that would make them proud."

While there's yet to be a female president, the crowd gathered at NASA Ames highlighted a different aspiration. Under the space agency's revived lunar program, dubbed Artemis, a woman astronaut will someday walk on the moon. Or even Mars.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine assured the crowd that the astronaut crew for future space missions would represent all of America.

"When we go to the moon, we'll go with a diverse, highly qualified astronaut corps that includes women," he said. "Maybe, just maybe, the first person who walks on Mars will be a woman."

At the event, political differences were subdued but ever present. Bridenstine, a Trump administration appointee and former Freedom Caucus congressman, touted the new direction being taken at NASA to privatize and commercialize more aspects of the space industry. Earlier this summer, he unveiled plans for a new docking port to be added to the International Space Station that could be used for private manufacturing, research or space tourism.

"The big value to commercial partnership is if we're not owning the hardware, and instead we're buying a service, we can move much faster with a lot less regulation," he said. "Our commercial partners are critically valuable, and we're going to take advantage of them, and they're going to take advantage of us."

In a separate discussion, Pelosi blasted the persistent antagonism that pundits and politicians have toward government and regulation. Earlier this year, NASA and hundreds of other federal agencies were brought to a standstill due to a five-week shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.

"When people say they want to privatize this or that, what they're really saying is, 'I don't want any responsibility for diversity or respect for the government role,'" Pelosi said. "There has to be a recognition for the importance for governance."

Email Mark Noack at


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