National Geographic’s Mars and the rise of women in leadership
One small step for woman, one giant leap for diversity.
National Geographic’s Mars is back for a second season and its first mission is smashing down gender roles. After season one saw humans establish a colony on Mars, season two takes us nine years into the future to see what life has become there. Commander Hana Seung (Jihae) is still at the forefront of the mission to make Mars habitable for humans, while Dr. Leslie Richardson (Cosima Shaw) is the new head of the International Mars Science Foundation. It’s a startling and noticeable take on an industry that is usually perceived as predominantly male.
We spoke to members of the cast, production and big thinkers assigned to National Geographic’s most-talked-about show for their thoughts on season two and the representation of female experts in space.
Showrunner Dee Johnson admits that portraying women in power wasn’t meant to be so topical. Johnson, who started work on Mars for season two and previous credits include Nashville, said: “It was set up when I came into season two. There was so much in place already that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I knew a private company would come and that would be the primary source of conflict, but in addition to that those strong female characters in leadership positions and of course you’re gonna take from your own life.
“I have faced these kinds of leadership decisions and women leaders they have a different experience. This is something I really want to explore. It’s really weird how topical the things we have been exploring in season two would become. Who knew?”
“I think this happened organically in the show,” adds Anamaria Marinca, who portrays exobiologist Dr Marta Kamen on Mars. “The subject matter informed the decisions, and it was a natural thing that [Leslie] become the head of ISMF. It’s like the characters are there, they have a life. It’s the obvious thing to do.”
Meanwhile, Shaw has her own insights. “It’s interesting, we lost two male characters in season one due to bad decision making, but the women survived. The woman who dies in season two dies due to natural causes.” She laughs, before adding: “Maybe Dee’s slightly responsible for it.”
The portrayal of females in prominent positions of leadership on an interplanetary stage suggest some huge questions. What are the fundamental differences between men and women, and how can that affect decision making on a new planet? Shaw believes male and female leaders have some vital differences: “I think we have this classic understanding that men act from their head and women act from their heart, and I think that’s put into question again and again and again throughout the season. We see women in power making difficult decisions that have to come both from the head and the heart.”
The fact of the matter is there are women in science, and plenty in fields that are perceived as predominantly male. Oil expert and Mars consultant Antonia Juhasz thinks such diversity is vital in discussing important world questions. “In season two, the majority of the talking heads are women and there’s a predominance of women of colour. We present different attitudes and a different way of thinking what are the challenges, presenting a much broader sense of answers to the same set of questions.”
Ultimately, the goal is simple. “I hope young women see this and see that there are women in these fields,” admits Johnson. “You kind of get the impression there aren’t, but there are a lot of women in these fields. They just have been invisible. Representation matters. If you see that’s a possibility, then that’s a possibility.”