Women are better leaders of space missions

June 26, 2022

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Women are better leaders of space missions

A lot of recent research (much of it reported in TR) has shown that, in many circumstances, women make better leaders than men. In the light of this, some new research in the area of suitability for space command makes interesting reading.

The new study is based on Mars Desert Research Station commanders’ reports and reveals differences in female and male leadership behavior. Although both genders are task-focused, women tend to be more positive. The genders also differ in their approach toward their team – while men focus on accomplishments, women emphasize mutual support. According to the lead author of the study, the findings suggest that women may be better suited for long-term space missions.

According to the researcher, as of 2021, only three women have served as commanders in the International Space Station during two decades of its operations. Although the space is becoming more diverse, little is known about gender differences in leadership in isolated, confined, and extreme environments.

What the researchers say: “In ten-to-twenty years when the missions to Mars start, it will be mixed-gender groups that will be sent there,” said the lead researcher. “Also, a female astronaut is preparing for a flight to the Moon in a few years. However, there is still a lack of data on women in space due to their low participation in both polar expeditions and space analogues.”

Aiming to contribute to the small body of literature on the topic, she investigated potential gender differences in leadership in space-like environments. For her study, she used commander reports from the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), a space analogue facility in Utah. Space analogs share some characteristics with spaceflight. Such places may exist for other purposes (for example, the Antarctic research stations) or be specifically built to replicate parts of the spaceflight experience.

In her study, the author analyzed the MDRS reports from 2009 to 2016. In total, 824 commander reports with an average length of 348 words (2008 characters) each were analyzed; 277 of them were written by female authors and 541 – by the male. There were 27 women commanders and 49 men commanders during that time in MDRS.

After conducting several types of analysis – computational sentiment analysis, qualitative study of the reports’ content, and word frequency calculations—the researchers detected certain differences in female and male commanders’ communication. Firstly, women’s reports had significantly higher positive sentiment scores and significantly lower negative sentiment scores. Secondly, although both female and male commanders demonstrated task-oriented leadership behavior, women commanders discussed their crew members more frequently; moreover, in such discussions, male commanders focused on team spirit, loyalty, and accomplishments, and women emphasized mutual support, motivation, and a positive environment. Thirdly, the findings revealed that female commanders tend to use less specific words while talking about their daily activities.

“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. The difference between them was that women more frequently encouraged their team with positive supportive messages,” the researchers said.

According to the lead author, the findings are in line with theory, which claims that women are more sociable, communal leaders than men. Also, it mirrors previous research evidence that male and female leaders rarely differ in task-oriented behavior.

While commenting on her discoveries, the author comments that gender and leadership are social roles with potentially conflicting behavioral expectations—leadership traits which are culturally perceived as aligned with masculine, and not feminine, traits. Women leaders are socially encouraged to show more positive feelings towards others and avoid showing negative emotions, such as anger.

However, this aspect, characteristic of “feminine” leadership, might be beneficial in extreme situations. Space-like experiences are more stressful due to long-term isolation, confinement, and limited resources; and any interpersonal conflict can jeopardize team success. Social scientists agree that a leader in such an environment should possess both agentic and communal skills, i.e. should be both task and people-oriented.

“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,” said the researchers.

Therefore, they suggest that women might be better suited for long-term space missions than men. However, more research on the topic is needed.

So, what? It is generally agreed that women make better “transformational leaders” than men—although the greatest transformational leader was a man—Lee Iacocca (read more on transformational leadership). Overall this more “feminine” style of leadership has been shown to be 62% more effective than the more traditional “transactional” male approach.

What works best in space is undoubtedly also true of any situation or project where a team has to be held together for the long haul.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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