Gender Balance in Mars Exploration: Lessons Learned from the Mars Science Laboratory

María Paz Zorzano*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
12 Downloads (Pure)


There is, recently, a global concern about the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) areas, starting from education role models, student applications, through the academic, industrial and management career progression. Given the high visibility and popularity of all subjects related to space exploration, female participation in this field may be used to change the existing stereotypes and provide role models to the younger generations, thus having a positive influence on education while also demonstrating to other organizations how to promote diversity in the working environment. Previous studies on spacecraft science teams, considering only principal and co-Investigators, PIs and co-investigators (CoIs), respectively, show that the percentage of women in the role of investigators has remained flat at 15.8% since 2000. The NASA Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is taken here as an example to perform a statistical analysis of the gender profile for the period 2004–2018. The results are compared with: (1) data from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) about gender distribution in STEM postdoctoral profiles and faculty members; (2) the trend of planetary exploration team profiles; (3) research and innovation statistics in Europe; (4) proposals of the EU FP6 funding program; and (5) the percentage of female researchers from the Elsevier status report. This analysis shows that the process of continually holding open calls for Participating Scientists based on individual merit and the application of a flat working structure have allowed gender balance within the MSL team to improve naturally while maximizing individual and team performance. Women represent approximately 30.6% of the team, in agreement with the current percentage of female planetary exploration researchers and senior faculty members in academia. Interestingly, the percentage of female-led articles has been above the MSL women percentage trend. While the percentage of women in planetary science appears to be increasing, their role on the proposing teams is still low. As in other STEM fields, attention should be paid to secure the adequate promotion of younger generations to achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 of achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls by 2030.

Original languageEnglish
Article number10658
Number of pages11
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number24
Publication statusPublished - 20 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding: The author has been partially funded by the Spanish State Research Agency (AEI) Project No. MDM-2017-0737 Unidad de Excelencia “María de Maeztu”-Centro de Astrobiología (CSIC-INTA).


  • Gender balance
  • Mars science laboratory
  • Solar system exploration
  • Sustainable goals


Dive into the research topics of 'Gender Balance in Mars Exploration: Lessons Learned from the Mars Science Laboratory'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this