A new study based on reports from Mars Desert Research Station commanders reveals differences in leadership behavior between women and men. Although both sexes are task-oriented, women tend to be more positive. Men and women also differ in their approach to their team – while men focus on accomplishments, women emphasize mutual support. According to study author Inga Popovaitė, a sociologist at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) in Lithuania, the findings suggest that women may be better suited for long-term space missions.
According to the researcher, in 2021, only three women served as commanders on the International Space Station for 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.
“In ten to twenty years, when the missions to Mars begin, it will be mixed groups that will be sent there. 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 polar expeditions and space analogues. The dynamics of mixed groups are compared to those of male groups,” says Popovaitė, a researcher at the KTU Civil Society and Sustainability research group.
In an effort to contribute to the small body of literature on the subject, she investigated potential gender differences in leadership in analogous spatial environments. For his study, Popovaitė used reports from the commander of the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), a similar space facility in Utah. Space analogs share some characteristics with spaceflight. Such locations may exist for other purposes (e.g. Antarctic research stations) or be specifically built to replicate parts of the spaceflight experience.
Leaders of both sexes are task-focused, but women are more supportive
In his study, Popovaitė analyzed MDRS reports from 2009 to 2016. A total of 824 commanders’ reports with an average length of 348 words (2008 characters) each were analyzed; 277 of them were written by women, and 541 – by men. There were 27 female commanders and 49 male commanders during this period in MDRS.
After carrying out several types of analysis – computer sentiment analysis, qualitative study of the content of reports and calculations of word frequency – the KTU researcher detected certain differences in the communication of female and male commanders. First, the women’s statements had significantly higher positive sentiment scores and significantly lower negative sentiment scores. Second, although both female and male commanders demonstrated task-oriented leadership behavior, female commanders discussed their crew members more frequently; furthermore, in these discussions, male commanders focused on team spirit, loyalty, and accomplishments, and female commanders emphasized mutual support, motivation, and a positive environment. Third, the results revealed that female commanders tend to use less specific words when talking about their daily activities.
“Although male leaders are traditionally considered task-oriented and female leaders more sociable, my research showed that both male and female commanders were equally focused on task completion. The only difference between them was that women encouraged their team more frequently with positive messages of support,” says Popovaitė.
According to the KTU researcher, her findings are consistent with the theory that women are more sociable community leaders than men. Furthermore, this mirrors evidence from previous research that male and female leaders rarely differ in their task-oriented behavior.
More sustainable “feminine” leadership in space missions
While commenting on her findings, Popovaitė recalls that gender and leadership are social roles with potentially conflicting behavioral expectations – leadership traits are culturally seen as aligned with masculine and non-feminine traits. Female leaders are socially encouraged to show more positive feelings towards others and to avoid showing negative emotions, such as anger.
However, this aspect, characteristic of “feminine” leadership, could be beneficial in extreme situations. Space analogs are more stressful due to long-term isolation, confinement, and limited resources; and any interpersonal conflict can jeopardize the success of the team. Social scientists agree that a leader in such an environment must possess both agentic and community skills, that is, he must be both task-oriented and goal-oriented. the people.
“Participation in a simulated space mission is not only synonymous with adventure, excitement and discovery. During the mission, the crew mainly performs mundane tasks: making food, washing dishes and tidying up the environment. In these environments, people must survive for long periods of time without emotional and psychological support from family and friends. This is why a leader, who cares about the emotional needs of his team, becomes more sustainable, especially in the later stages of the mission,” says Popovaitė.
Therefore, the researcher suggests that women might be better suited for long-term space missions than men. However, further research on the subject is needed.