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Towards Gender Equality in Space Aeronomy


Each year, we celebrate Women in Science Day on February 11. But why? What are we trying to achieve exactly? And how are we working towards it? At the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, we have recently started to work on a Gender Equality Plan (GEP), to lay out specific goals and ways to reach them. It is meant as a roadmap towards better working conditions for women and a more gender inclusive, and thus more innovative and productive environment. In future stages, the aim is to extend that road and tackle all kinds of diversity, be it gender or other.

Gender Stats
Figure 1: Infographic showing the percentage of women in several staff categories at BIRA-IASB. Credit: BIRA-IASB

Getting started

The influence of one’s gender on their life and career has been an object of concern for a growing number of people, including at BIRA-IASB. Efforts have already been undertaken to encourage young girls and women to engage with STEM fields of study (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and to support women already on their tracks in STEM careers. Many of BIRA-IASB’s scientists pay special attention to gender by participating in activities like Wiki-Edit-a-thons, sessions on gender and diversity in scientific conferences, internships for students and educational activities for children; or through the organisation of Soapbox Science Brussels, an annual event in which women or non-binary researchers are given a platform to communicate about their work with the public.

The European Commission's “Gender Equality Strategy” - which sets a requirement for each scientific research organization to have a Gender Equality Plan (GEP) in place in order to apply for funding - formed the catalyst to take these efforts one step further: the forming of a Gender & Diversity Team, a group of individuals ready to invest time and energy in formulating this GEP.

The long and complex process of learning, educating oneself, investigating the current state of affairs and identifying key issues, as well as measures that will make a difference, has started. Societal change, be it on large international or national scales or on small institutional scales, is never quick or easy. Recognizing the difficulty and complexity of the matter, but also acknowledging the importance to tackle (often invisible) prejudices and their harmful impact on well-being and on professional careers, is a crucial step towards improvement. Those beginning stages are being performed as we speak. The first version of our GEP will be the first step of the process, and we intend to refine, improve and complete this work in the years to come. With everyone’s help and input, we will keep learning and endeavour to make the work floor a better place for all.

The necessity for a Gender Equality Plan

Gender Equality, two words that might sound unpleasant or annoying to some, and to others sound like an unattainable paradise. As with other issues of humanity (e.g. climate, politics, religion), a danger of polarisation, of a clash of opinions based on personal experiences, exists. As a scientific institution, we understand the importance of data and scientific methodologies to tackle a problem objectively.

Research shows that teams with a more gender diverse composition bring forth better results, enable new and innovative paths of thinking (Campbell et al. 2013; Elsevier 2015; Nielsen et al. 2018). These kinds of data have been discussed at length by many experts in this field, and we encourage any interested party to educate themselves further on the matter (Inno et al. 2020).

At the same time, we are also aware that we have to face invisible issues that do not show up in statistics and can be harmful to the life and well-being of some.

The creation of a Gender Equality Plan thus requires much care and exploration beyond the borders of our own fields of expertise. This is why we aim at addressing these hidden barriers in a science-based way as much as possible, and by following knowledge, recommendations and methodologies from experts, as well as guidelines and background information provided at this aim by the European Commission in the framework of the H2020 and Horizon Europe programmes.

As researchers, the fact that diversity leads to stronger science would be motivation enough to strive for gender equality; but most importantly, as human beings, we also cannot allow for any type of systemic influences to affect the well-being of any individual or group, whatever their characteristics.

Therefore, BIRA-IASB’s Gender & Diversity Team is committed to contributing their part to societal change towards equality for all, by beginning small at the institutional scale.

Since BIRA-IASB is one of the Federal Scientific Institutions (FSI), our plan is part of the Gender Equality Plan of the Federal Science Policy (BELSPO).

Women at BIRA-IASB

Having briefly stated the general necessity for a Gender Equality Plan, it is important to take stock of our current situation at the Institute. The infographic shown at the top of the article illustrates the most relevant numbers regarding the space that women take up among our workforce. These are simply a statement of fact, of hard data, and further investigation by the Gender & Diversity Team in 2022 is necessary to identify possible causes, correlations, but also hidden issues and barriers, and to form conclusions.

A first examination of the statistics on gender distribution among BIRA-IASB staff shows a general trend of 30-70%, with a minority of women (according UNESCO, 33% of researchers worldwide is female). The scientific and engineering staff follow roughly the same distribution, as is the case in leadership positions. Deviations from the general gender distribution are found among administrative (majority of women), IT (despite efforts to encourage women to apply, the fact remains that very few women engage in careers in IT), technical (exclusively men) and cleaning staff (exclusively women) (see figure 2). Note that some staff categories are much smaller than others, and thus more sensitive to deviations.


Gender distribution
Figure 2: Representation of gender distribution among all staff categories of BIRA-IASB. Non-scientific includes the administrative, technical, cleaning and IT staff. For the leadership, the numbers represent the number of positions available that are taken up by men and women. Some people hold two different positions and other positions are shared by two individuals. Created with Datawrapper.


Reference material


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A collection of artwork made by BIRA-IASB scientist Noel Baker (lower left corner), chosen for their illustration of some of our Institute’s research domains: the Earth atmosphere (upper left) and its interaction with the natural environment (lower left) and with anthropogenic influences (lower right); as well as our research further into the solar system with the Sun-Earth relation, Mars, Venus, meteors and comets (upper right).
Credit: Noel Baker @noel.c.baker on Instagram, go check it out ;)
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According UNESCO, 33% of researchers worldwide is female.
Credit: UNESCO