Astronauts and Workplace Harassment5 min read

It can be hard to believe that discrimination and harassment are still significant matters in the workplace in this day and age, but they are. The majority of people in the workforce have been or known someone who has been either harassed or discriminated against while trying to successfully do their job. In fact, in 2017 over 84,000 workplace discrimination charges were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson, the first female commander of the International Space Station

Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, even some of the most upstanding positions in the U.S. workforce are subject to issues related to workplace harassment and discrimination. Take a profession that still is still associated with words like “hero” and “patriot” across much of the country: astronaut. Over the years, NASA and many of the engineers and astronauts working for them have been the subject of these serious issues.

Much like other workplaces across the U.S., NASA has struggled with issues of racism and sexism in its workforce. Given the high stakes and necessary qualifications associated with space travel, the issues have been particularly notable. Although many issues still exist, substantial steps have been taken to make amends. 

Harassment in the Workplace

Workplace harassment can occur for any number of reasons. Often times, though, it arises from deep-seated biases regarding a different race, religion, or gender and works to prevent people from those groups from achieving the same potential. Particularly in the healthcare field, issues such as cultural incompetence are growing, though they are evident in a wide variety of workplaces and are likely to continue being an issue as the percentage of different nationalities represented in the U.S. grows.

When discrimination or harassment happens in the workplace, many people simply do not know what to do about it. Polls have shown that many Americans are aware of sexual harassment issues, but tend to disregard other hostile work environment issues, brushing them off as not as serious. However, both of these are serious and can carry disciplinary action for the perpetrator.

Within the realm of science in particular, minorities and women have long struggled to gain opportunities and recognition from their peers. Throughout much of history, these groups of people have met challenge after challenge in regard to being able to receive the necessary education for success. Once they obtain that education, they have still frequently met hardship with few job opportunities or others taking credit for their work.

Space and Race

In relation to space and all related fields of work, opportunities were traditionally limited to lower-level data crunching and other positions with few ladders. During the Jim Crow era, even when given the opportunity to contribute significantly, minorities were forced to conform to Jim Crow standards, which frequently left them with lower quality or flat out degraded equipment to work with. Fortunately, this type of blatant discrimination and segregation was finally banned from NASA in the early 1960s.

Since that time, NASA has taken substantial strides to foster a diverse community within its workplace. Although it has certainly taken a long time to reach this point, over a dozen African American astronauts have flown in space and several have visited the International Space Station. Numerous astronauts from other minority groups have also made the trip.

Concerns regarding racism within the space organization are still prevalent, though. Recently, a female African American astronaut was unexpectedly pulled from a mission to the International Space Station. Her brother publicly called out NASA for racism, though frequently crew changes are made without explanation for a variety of private medical or other sensitive reasons. Although it is unclear why the change was made, her replacement was also a minority female astronaut, which says something regarding the improvements in diversity.   

Space and Gender

NASA has also struggled substantially with gender inclusion over the years, and many issues are still a factor today. Although some level of testing on the physical and emotional capabilities of women traveling in space was conducted in the mid-1960s and showed no real difference, the first American woman wasn’t space-bound until Sally Ride in 1983. Even then, she dealt with severe criticism and sexism, which lasted throughout much of her career.

Although NASA got a very late start in accepting women into the workplace as astronauts, they have also made substantial strides in fixing it. As of now, there is a comparable number of female astronauts in the U.S. as in other countries, if not there are more. Additionally, in recent astronaut classes, nearly half of the students were women.

Unfortunately, however, there are still a number of hidden biases within the space program. Take radioactivity exposure for instance. NASA rules limit both male and female astronauts to a lifetime radiation accumulation dose that does not increase their risk of developing cancer by more than 3 percent. Although the risk of exposure while in space is the same for both men and women, women have been shown to have a lower toleration for exposure, meaning women will ultimately fly substantially less than men throughout their careers.

Combating Workplace Harassment

Harassment and discrimination in the workplace can come in a variety of forms ranging from very obvious and blatant to very subtle and unclear. Either way it is critical for those experiencing any form of harassment and for those witnessing any form of harassment to speak up. Everyone deserves a workplace free of it.

There are certainly situations in which the harasser doesn’t realize that they are participating in harassing or discriminatory behavior, and speaking to them about the issue can do a world of difference. If this doesn’t work, take the steps outlined in your workplace harassment policy or simply speak with someone of authority about the issue. Every little bit of information is useful in situations such as these.

Even some of our most prestigious institutions have dealt with and are currently dealing with issues surrounding discrimination and harassment. Agencies such as NASA have long had problems with discrimination of race and gender. Although there are certainly still issues that exist, NASA has taken significant steps to help create more of a balance and equal opportunity workplace. If discrimination or harassment occurs in your workplace, speak up. Only action will stop these things from continuing into the future.


Avery Phillips is a freelance human based out of the beautiful Treasure Valley. She loves all things nature, especially humans, and was driven to pursue an Anthropology degree due to her childhood love of Indiana Jones and Laura Croft. Now she lovingly writes about all things great and small.

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