Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Leadership, Role Models . . . and Captain Kathryn Janeway(?)

The January 2015 issue of CSWA's STATUS Magazine includes an article entitled, “Senior Women Moving into Leadership Positions: Has ADVANCE Affected Junior and Senior Women Scientists Differently?” by Sue V. Rosser, the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at San Francisco State University. Part of the article describes responses to a survey question, “In your opinion, what changes in institutional policies and practices are most useful for facilitating careers of academic women scientists or engineers at the senior level?” The only response that got much traction was, “Training for leadership.”
I agree that training is an important, perhaps most important, component for leadership. I can think of another one, however, that doesn’t appear to have made the list: Role Models. This is one component of astronomical life that I, unfortunately, was not able to benefit from during the early stages of my career. When I was an undergrad at an engineering school, I knew other undergrad women but no women grad students, postdocs, or professors. When I was a grad student at a state university, I knew other women grad students but no women post docs or professors. When I was a postdoc, I finally started to become aware of senior women in astronomy, but they were not part of my research group and I was not able to interact with them on a personal or professional level.

I appear to have taken a step backwards when I moved to Memphis in the mid-1990s to take a job as an assistant professor. Not only were there no other women professors in the physics department, but there were no women postdocs, grad students, or undergrads that were interested in doing astronomy. As I started to build my research lab, I found that despite my best efforts, all the students interested in working for me were guys. Don’t get me wrong; many of them were great guys and terrific research students, but I felt I was in uncharted personal territory as I stepped into this new role as the research supervisor of a lab full of young men.
I found that my only role models were my own research supervisors, all men. Some were great, others were awful, but none were women. Enter Captain Kathryn Janeway. Star Trek Voyager made its debut on Jan. 16, 1995, and I was glued to the television set. I was always a closet SciFi fan, but most (all?) books, TV shows, and movies of the genre had male leads. (Thank you, Anne Mccaffrey, for Killashandra Ree, who may have been my first SciFi female protagonist. I think I read and reread the Crystal Singer Trilogy until the books actually fell apart.)
Janeway was the captain of the starship Voyager. In the pilot episode, she and her crew are transported to the unexplored Delta Quadrant where they encounter new planets, civilizations, and humanoid species, including the Borg. Without guidance from Starfleet and the Federation, Janeway must navigate uncharted territory and battle aliens with superior technology to successfully traverse the Galaxy and bring Voyager home. 
Janeway is inspiring. Here’s an example from the series pilot, Caretaker:
JANEWAY: We're alone in an uncharted part of the Galaxy. We have no idea of the dangers we're going to face, but our primary goal is clear. Even at maximum speeds, it would take seventy five years to reach the Federation, but I'm not willing to settle for that. We'll be looking for wormholes, spatial rifts, or new technologies to help us. Somewhere along this journey, we'll find a way back . . . Mister Paris, set a course for home.
Janeway knows her 24th century physics. I love it when she explains the finer points of temporal mechanics to the crew, like this example from Parallax:
JANEWAY: One of the more difficult concepts to grasp in temporal mechanics is that sometimes effect can precede cause. A reaction can be observed before the action which initiated it.
Janeway shows vulnerability in this entry to her personal log from The Cloud.
JANEWAY: Our journey home is several weeks old now, and I have begun to notice in my crew and in myself, a subtle change as the reality of our situation settles in. We are more than a crew and I must find a way to be more than a captain to these people, but it's not clear to me exactly how to begin.  At the Academy, we are taught that a captain is expected to maintain a certain distance. Until now, I've always been comfortable with that distance. Maybe this is just the way it works. Maybe the distance is necessary. Maybe more than ever now, they need me to be larger than life. I only wish I felt larger than life . . . Computer, delete last sentence.
Janeway leads her crew into battle in this scene from Basics.
JANEWAY: How many do you count, Mister Tuvok?
TUVOK: Eight large carrier vessels, confirmed Kazon signatures.
JANEWAY: Time to intercept.
PARIS: Eight minutes.
TUVOK: Curious. They have left us with an obvious avenue of escape, Captain.
JANEWAY: You're right . . . too curious for me. I don't know what's down that avenue of escape, but I like to choose my own way. Set a course to intercept their lead ship.
PARIS: Aye, Captain.

There is no one in Starfleet who calls the crew to, “Battle stations!” with more authority and conviction than Kathryn Janeway.
Star Trek Voyager came back into my life recently when I downloaded season one on to my Kindle Fire. I got chills when I heard the music from the opening credits for the first time in 20 years. As a solar physicist, I remembered how much I identified with the sequence of the solar storm. As a professor teaching Astronomy 101, I loved showing the segment moving through the ring particles to my class; it was the best animation available back then. But mostly, I remembered how much I admired Captain Janeway. A special thanks to actress, Kate Mulgrew, for creating a character who could not only serve as my role model in 1995, but who can still draw me back to episode after episode in 2015.

Other Women in Leadership Posts:
On Leadership by Joan Schmelz
Becoming a Leader by Kelly Korreck


  1. I agree, Captain Janeway was and is an important fictional role model for women in leadership. It was quite a step forward in the mid-90's to have a female character in the lead position in the show, as Voyager did. It is too bad that the stereotype is that science fiction is a guy thing. If they do another Star Trek series, they should really make it a point to appeal to female and LGBTI+ audiences.

    I also don't get why people think Voyager was not a good Star Trek series. I like it. I just finished watching all 7 seasons (again), and, 15-20 years later, it is still a good TV show.

    I also think it is cool that Kate Mulgrew plays the character of "Red" on Orange is the New Black. Maybe they could have a Voyager mini-reunion, with Tim Russ playing one of the prison security guards, and Roxann Dawson, Jennifer Lien, and/or Jeri Ryan playing some new inmates?

  2. Thank you for your article. I've watched Voyager more than ten years ago and Kathryn Janeway caught me from the very first moment. Currently I'm (by coincidence) watching the show again and I'm thrilled by this woman as I was before. So I think you are right: although I'm not an teenager anymore Kathryn Janeway is my role model. Some things dont't change... and I'm glad about it.

  3. I remember hearing that Martin Luther King said that lieutenant O'Hura had to stay as she was a role-model for women and blacks. Here we are discussing how once again Star Trek is providing role models for women (and blacks with Tuvok). I loved this series because nothing was impossible, science mixed with belief to help pull people through difficult times. Yet, at the same time we have Guardians of the Galaxy where as ever the women play 2nd fiddle and are required to be young and beautiful to be any part of it! I will be playing the entire series to my daughters!