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Measuring women’s progress in science since Sally Ride’s flight

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Tess Vigeland: The death of Sally Ride — the first American woman in space — made us stop and think for a moment about the progress made by women in the fields of science and engineering. Her historic space flight took place 29 years ago, inspiring countless women in all fields and specialties and of all ages. Among them, this radio host, a high school sophomore at the time.

We asked Amy Standen of KQED in San Francisco to take a look at what that moment really led to for women in science.

Amy Standen: Things have changed since Sally made her famous ride: The numbers of women going into physics and engineering have more than doubled. Fifty-six women have made it into space, according to NASA.

But back then, Sally Ride was unique, an oddball. In the mid-’80s, she and an aspiring female astronaut named Millie Hughes-Fulford were waiting to board a flight to NASA headquarters.

Millie Hughes-Fulford: That was the day that they only looked at the baggage of very suspicious people. We were two of the people they picked out to look at our baggage.

Those bags were a red flag.

Hughes-Fulford: We both had a lot of wires and computers and things that were not normal for a woman.

And it really wasn’t normal. In those days, fewer than 10 percent of Ph.Ds in physics went to women. Before her first flight, in 1991, Hughes-Fulford got hate mail telling her to go back to the kitchen.

Hughes-Fulford: That was the mentality back then.

The critical thing about Sally Ride is she made it seem like those challenges didn’t exist, says Erin Cadwalader of the Association of Women in Science.

Erin Cadwalader: As a child, you’re not aware of restrictions on based on gender. You just see someone who is doing something remarkable. And you want to do the same thing.

That’s what happened with Fiona Harrison, an astrophysicist at Caltech and principal investigator for NASA.

Fiona Harrison: She just made it feel like everything was possible. She was a normal person and if she could do it, you could do it.

Still, there’s a long way to go. Fewer than a quarter of physics and engineering degrees go to women. The key to changing that will be a lot more Sally Rides.

For Marketplace, I’m Amy Standen in San Francisco.

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