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  • thomcheney

SGF2 and Space for Women

The Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) was founded in 1999 as a result of the Third United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE III). Therefore, SGAC decided that it would be a good idea to host an ‘anniversary’ event to coincide with UNISPACE+50. This event was the Space Generation Forum 2.0 (SGF 1.0 having been held back at the beginning). I have been a member of SGAC for over four years now and been actively involved with the Space Law and Policy Project Group for most of that time and have been co-lead of the project group for just over two years now. I attended SGF2.0, aided by the ISS Crew Fund scholarship, and wish to discuss it here. I will be attending the High-Level Forum part of UNISPACE+50 later (tomorrow and Thursday) and will do a separate post on that.


Space Generation 2.0 (SGF2 as per the hashtag) kicked off with discussion from the self-described ‘dinosaurs’ (i.e. the founders, although apparently the moniker ‘dinosaurs’ relates to the need to create a space programme to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs) of how SGAC came to be. It was a fascinating discussion which should probably be better promoted within SGAC as history and values are important for an organization ethos and cohesion. Essentially, during the build up to UNISPACE III it was decided that a ‘youth forum’ should be held in conjunction with the main event. For various reasons this wound up being organized by the International Space University (ISU) and was the Space Generation Forum. Which from the sounds of the tales regaled during this past weekend was an absolutely amazing event which resulted in a few recommendations to UNISPACE III. One of those recommendations was the creation of a UNCOPUOS Youth Advisory Council or, as it is now, the Space Generation Advisory Council. It is worth mentioning that Kai-Uwe Schrogl says that for him two of the main lasting outcomes of UNISPACE III are the Disaster Management Charter and SGAC. It was a big job and it was very inspirational to hear the challenges that were faced in setting up and keeping up SGAC enabling it to become the fantastic organization it is today.


However, for me, the highlight of the weekend was the working groups. There were 7 working groups covering a range of topics but mostly mirroring the themes of UNISPACE+50. I was in the Space for Women Working Group. For what it is worth I was the only male in the working group. Which segues nicely to our list of outcomes/recommendations. The outcomes of the working groups were put into a ‘conference room paper’ which SGAC will be presenting to UNOOSA at UNISPACE+50 this week. I would like to think the fact that Space for Women was Working Group 1 is a reflection of the recognition by SGAC of the importance of the topic. While Space for Women (or diversity in general) isn’t a specific thematic priority of UNISPACE+50 it does fall under Thematic Priority 7, ‘Capacity Building for the Twenty-First Century’, furthermore gender equality is the fifth Sustainable Development Goal. While the main focus of our working group was women we recognized that it really needs to be part of a broader discussion on diversity in the space sector, and STEM more broadly. It is also important to keep in mind that this is an issue for everyone. This isn’t a ‘women’s issue’ it is a human issue; women’s rights are human rights. Additionally, while there is a strong, and undeniable moral and ethical case for greater diversity and participation in space, STEM and everything else it also makes economic sense. There is a huge pool of very talented individuals and it would be stupid not to enable them to thrive and flourish.

As far as our specific recommendations goes we made two that were targeted at the UN and the space sector more broadly and two that are targeted more internally at SGAC. First it was decided that some sort of ‘awareness campaign’ was necessarily. This is to make sure that everyone recognizes that this is an important issue for all. It is important and sadly necessary to make men aware of the issues that women face but also that it is an issue that they need to care about. As we discussed in the working group it is sadly reflective of a lack of interest and awareness on the part of many men that I was the only male member of the working group. Additionally, most of the comments I received from male delegates when they asked which working group I was part of were, to put it mildly, less than supportive. However, we also felt that an awareness campaign is necessary to show other women that they are not alone, as #MeToo has shown there is a strength in numbers and solidarity. To facilitate this and recognizing that evidence-based advocacy is often the most successful we propose creating a platform for women to share their experiences and testimonies. We think the SGAC website would be an excellent platform for such a storytelling initiative but that we should also back it up with a social media campaign, under #allinspace (cycling back to recognizing that this isn’t just a women’s issue and there’s a need for broader diversity in general.)

Our second outcome/recommendation was about the idea of mentorship. Again, the initial notion was to help women grow and develop within the space sector but we feel that it shouldn’t be gender specific. Matching should be based on competency and experience, rather than women mentoring women and men mentoring men. We feel that the recently launched SGAC alumni network could serve as a foundation for this and that we could use virtual mentoring (ie via Skype etc) to capitalize on SGAC’s global network but also to maximize the opportunities available to those in developing and emerging countries who may not have a sufficiently large space sector to provide adequate mentoring opportunities.

Our third outcome/recommendation was the creation of ‘Space for Women ambassadors,’ these would be at the national or regional level and they can serve as role models for the local states. This partly arose from a discussion about while astronauts are great and very cool they can sometimes seem too distant and remote from the majority of people’s experiences, i.e. Scott Kelly is awesome, but I can’t really relate to him. Additionally, space is about far more than astronauts and it may be more useful for young people to meet ordinary engineers and programmers and other space professionals to realise that there’s plenty to do in the space sector beyond being an astronaut. As it happens this was also a recommendation of the Report on the UN Expert Meeting on Space for Women (A/AC.105/1163 para 45), which is a reasonably short but excellent report that is well worth reading (and following and implementing.)

I’m not a convert to the cause as a result of my involvement with this working group, that happened some time ago, but I have been inspired, informed and invigorated by my participation and am more determined to be involved. My fellow working group members are an impressive group of people, representing some of the best of the #spacegen. To some extent I think this is a problem that will, at least in part, be solved by ‘time’, there is a generational divide, although perhaps not as wide as I had thought. However, it won’t magically fix itself, things are improving because people are taking action, saying #timesup, so don’t get complacent, don’t expect ‘the tide to turn’, things only change because people work for change and we must work for that change and men must be part of that change.

I had an excellent weekend in Vienna. Well done to the organizing tea, I’ve had an inkling of an understanding of how hard you all worked to put this together and it was well worth it and hope you agree.  I am proud to be a member of SGAC and am grateful for the opportunities (like speaking at the UN) that membership has afforded me but listening to how much SGAC has meant to so many people over the years made me realize just how special an organization it is. Hopefully it won’t be twenty years until the next Space Generation Forum but regardless I look forward to it and seeing the changes in the space sector and society during that time. And if it is twenty years until SGF3.0 then hopefully we’ll have returned to the Moon and perhaps even have paid a visit to Mars by that time.

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