The glass ceiling in outer space may already be breaking. A new study reveals that women commanders are better suited for long-term space missions than men.
The study was conducted by Inga Popovaite, a sociologist at Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania.
“In 10 to 20 years when the missions to Mars start, it will be mixed-gender groups that will be sent there. Also, a female astronaut is preparing for a flight to the moon in a few years,” says Popovaite, a researcher at KTU Civil Society and Sustainability research group, in a statement. “However, there is still a lack of data on women in space due to their low participance in both polar expeditions and space analogues. The dynamics of mixed groups are compared with that of male groups.”
To conduct her study, Popovaite used commander reports from the Mars Desert Research Station, a space analogue facility in Utah. She analyzed a total of 824 commander reports from 2009 to 2016. Of the 824 reports, 277 of them were written by women and 541 by men. During that time period at the Mars Desert Research Station, there were 27 female commanders and 49 male commanders.
Popovaite conducted computational sentiment analysis, qualitative study of the reports’ content and word frequency calculations. She was able to detect differences in the way the male and female commanders communicated.
Popovaite found that women’s reports had higher positive sentiment scores and lower negative sentiment scores compared to men. She also found that female commanders discussed their crew members more frequently. While male commanders discussed team spirit, loyalty and accomplishments, female commanders communicated to their crews mutual support, motivation and a positive environment.
Both women and men demonstrated task-oriented leadership behavior.
“While it is traditionally considered that male leaders are task-oriented and women are more sociable leaders, my research has shown that both male and female commanders were equally focused on task completion,” says Popovaite. “The only difference between them was that women more frequently encouraged their team with positive supportive messages.
With long space missions on the horizon, Popovaite says “feminine” leadership could be beneficial in more extreme situations when astronauts are isolated and confined long-term with limited resources. In that situation, a leader must possess both task and people-oriented skills.
“Participation in a simulated space mission is not just about adventure, excitement and discoveries. During the mission, the crew is mainly performing mundane tasks: making food, washing dishes, and tidying the environment. In these environments, people need to survive for prolonged periods without the emotional and psychological support of their family and friends. That’s why a leader, who cares about the emotional needs of their team, becomes more sustainable, especially in the later stages of the mission,” says Popovaite.
The study was published in the journal Acta Astronautica.