In honor of Women’s History Month, Breaking Gov highlights women’s relatively recent breakthrough in the growing and increasingly crucial world of federal IT. This is the last of a three-part series on women in federal IT that reveals who these leaders are and how they’re making a difference.

NASA, well-known for breaking technological barriers to explore outer space, has now launched a different kind of innovative program.

The agency has aggressively pursued hiring and promoting women in an enclave once dominated exclusively by men and now boasts women as one-third of its 18,000 employees. Forty-eight women have become astronauts, including 14 currently ready for missions, representing about 15% of the 330 that have been trained since NASA was created in 1958.

The number of women in supervisor positions at NASA has grown to 50% in the last 10 years; female aerospace engineers increased 76% over the same time period. And NASA counts 29% of leadership positions help by women, including the deputy administrator, the CIO, CFO and many others. In the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) 2011 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, NASA was rated the top federal agency in innovation. The record showed that it adopts innovative practices, including workforce diversity, at all levels of its operations.

I absolutely believe that women will go to Mars.” – Lori Garver

Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator, said NASA needs a more diverse workforce to continue on the innovative path the agency is known for.

“Let’s celebrate the strides, but let’s acknowledge we have a ways to go,” Garver told the audience at last week’s Women, Innovation, and Aerospace conference in Washington, D.C.

(Garver is pictured above, far right, as part of a panel at the conference celebrating Women’s History Month).

She added: “Women make up half the population, but only one third of NASA’s workforce.”

Increasing that number probably won’t be difficult. NASA began ratcheting up its employment of women as scientists, engineers and technology specialists in the last decade as more and more women came out of colleges and graduate schools with degrees in the science technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. And those numbers continue to rise, providing a steady pool of talent from which NASA can choose future female leaders and innovators.

“We have many women as well as men apply for our positions and therefore we are able to hire more women,” said Rebecca Spyke Keiser, NASA’s Assistant Deputy Administrator for Policy Integration.

Coinciding with last week’s event, NASA also launched a new website highlighting 64 videos and essays from women across the agency who contribute to its mission. The was created in response to the 2009 Executive Order establishing the White House Council on Women and Girls and developed by the NASA Open Government team in order to encourage transparency, participation, and collaboration and create a new level of openness and accountability at NASA

According to the site, the women’s stories that are featured illuminate the vibrant community of dedicated women employees who play a vital role at the agency. Officials hope the website will support a collaborative and supportive community of women at NASA and serve as the hub of all activity related to women’s issues at the agency. In addition, they foresee inspiring young girls to explore the myriad careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Catherine Bahm‘s story is a perfect example.

According to her biography, she dreamed as a child of becoming the first female astronaut. That didn’t happen, but her accomplishments have been notable.

Bahm served as flight controls lead for the second flight of the X-43 / Hyper-X project. In 2010, she was stationed at NASA Headquarters supporting the Office of Chief Technologist in the Crosscutting Capability Demonstrations Division as part of a year-long detail. Her assignment included supporting the formulation and management of the Technology Demonstration Mission Program and the Flight Opportunities Program.

Today, she remains at Headquarters and is currently the Acting Deputy Director for the Integrated Systems Research Program in the Aeronautics Mission Directorate. Bahm has received the NASA Space Flight Awareness Leadership Award, the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, and the NASA DFRC Peer Award for Supervisor/Manager/Leader in 2010.

“I’ve been able to make contributions in areas that I never envisioned possible,” Bahm writes in her essay on the site.

Projects other women at NASA are working on include:

  • Using NASA’s discoveries to help reduce carbon dioxide
  • Evaluating how transportation loads impact a space vehicle
  • Making better high performance aircraft
  • Developing rocket engine hardware

NASA’s commitment to women is reflected in many of its policies:

  • A flexible workplace policy being developed to give researchers time off for parental and other caregiver needs, suspending their research until they return to work or reassigning their duties while they are gone.
  • A broad telework policy to help employees balance the demands of their work and personal life. Employees may work from an alternate work site such as their home, a telework center or other location.
  • Embracing social media and other proactive programs to reach out to young women to think big, major in the sciences, consider NASA as their goal.

Keiser said NASA’s experience in attracting women is a template for other agencies. She offers these four tips:

  • Make your agency a place where people want to work.
  • If you get a large number of applicants for a position, you will likely have a significant number of qualified women. Give their applications equal consideration with male candidates.
  • Support programs that encourage young women in high school and college to major in the STEM fields. NASA has embraced a nationwide drive to increase the number of women in STEM careers.
  • Make diversity your goal. If you tap more women for your brain trust, you will get many different personalities, backgrounds and mindsets. Bring a variety to the problem-solving table, and that includes the diversity of mindsets that exist in the male workforce, too.

Garver believes the sky is no longer the limit for women at NASA.

“I absolutely believe that women will go to Mars,” she said.