Amongst great investment that is made in a

Amongst all of the possible problems that need to be
considered during space flight, such as muscle degradation and bone loss;
mental health, conflicts and aggressive behaviour between crew members are some
of the main concerns when it comes to the success of long-duration space
missions. In this paper, the effects of a mixed-gender crew on Psychological
health and well-being, as well as cohesion and performance of the crew members
will be considered.Oppositely to what many people may believe, being an
astronaut involves much more than just ‘traveling’ to space. An astronaut’s job
includes performing science and health experiments that require of
microgravity, performing maintenance work on the space station, constantly
checking life support systems as well as exercising for at least two hours a
day. It is then understandable, taking into account the great investment that
is made in a single mission, along with the costs of keeping the International
Space Station (ISS) running, to try to get the most out of it. In order for the astronauts to reach peak performance, not
just physical well-being of the crew members needs to be maximised, but also
mental health must be taken into account. Psychological health is significantly
affected by such a stressful and isolating environments that are long-duration
space missions. However, this is not the only case where humans encounter these
kind of challenges: terrestrial analogues such as winter-long missions in
Antarctica also offer a good example of how confinement affects human
Psychology. One of the factors that have been proven to affect crew
interactions is crew composition, to be more specific, crew gender. As it has
been observed in previous polar expeditions, a mixed-gender crew may have
certain advantages over a single-gender group (Rosnet et al, 2004).   

However, despite the continuous effort made over the last
decades to incorporate women into the ‘Space World’, the number of male
astronauts still overpowers that of their counterparts, with female astronauts
making up just 10% of all the people that have ever visited space (Garber Steve, 2017; Astonaut/Cosmonaut Statistics. 2017). Mental health, as defined by the World Health Organisation
is ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own
potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and
fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’ (WHO | Mental health: a state of well-being. 2014). The International Space Station, however, is not an ‘every-day
environment’, neither is ‘a normal stress of life’ an astronaut’s schedule. The
ISS has a volume of 388 cubic meters (Garcia, 2016), which, taking into account
there is, on average, 6 people staying in it, makes it an extremely confined
space. Furthermore, an average astronaut’s day involves around 15.5h of work,
including, as already mentioned, at least 2 hours of exercise in order to
preserve muscle tissue, bone mass and an optimal degree of fitness. And because
of these two main aspects, the mental well-being of the crew members could be
heavily compromised.Due to the extreme isolation and lack of privacy, many
astronauts develop feelings of loneliness, irritability and
lability accompanied by manifestations of anxiety and depression (Kanas and Manzey,
2008). Additionally, effects of chronic stress may be also carried
back home, some people having reported anxiety and depression along with alcohol
addiction and conjugal problems upon arrival. However, there are other main sources
of stress, such as social-interpersonal interactions. With the reduced number
of crew members, social boredom and tension are amplified, resulting in
hostility, conflicts and ultimately, in aggressive behaviour between team
members that could further spread amongst the crew (Geuna, Brunelli and
Perino, 1995). Also, chronic stress has a negative reaction, which, in
consequence, provokes more stress, hence creating a never ending positive
feedback cycle. That is why any measure that can be taken to reduce any
possible initial stress agent should be taken.

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Evidently there are some factors that cannot be changed (or
not that easily), for example, the habitable space in the International Space
Station. Nevertheless, there are some measures that could easily be put in
practise, like the addition of more women astronauts to the crew. Numerous scientific observations of mixed-gender crews have
been done in analogue environments, and the presence of at least one female
team member has been proven to reduce rude behaviour and normalise crew
interactions of what otherwise would be an all-male group (Bishop, 2004),
amongst many other effects that will be further elaborated later on in this
paper. First, the meaning of cohesion, one of the most important
small-team properties, should be explained. Cohesion refers not just to the
dedication of each team member to the successful execution of a common task,
but also to the feeling of belonging to the group and the motivation or desire
to continue to be part of that group (Douglas A Vakoch, 2011). Therefore, from now on, we
will make a distinction between task-based cohesion and group cohesion.

The response under a stress situation, as human spaceflight
could be considered, differs between males and females. As it has been shown in
multiple studies, not only with human beings, but also with other species of
mammals, males tend to opt for a more aggressive approach to deal with the
issue, more popularly known as a “flight or fight” response. Although this
response is shown to some extent in the opposite gender too, females are more
likely to take a more communicative “tend and befriend” strategy, which in Psychology
is described as a number of nurturing activities and the communication with the
members of the social group (Taylor et al, 2000). The Neuroscience behind this
phenomenon states that although both genders, under a stressful situation,
experience a sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) and
hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activation, accompanied by a few other
neuroendocrine responses; females may also release Oxytocin and activate additional
endogenous opioid mechanisms (Taylor et al, 2000). The last two substances,
observed during experiments with monkeys and rats amongst other mammals, have
shown to have an anti-anxiety and mildly sedative effect, which could be the
reason for the slightly different approach of females against stressors (Uvnas-Moberg, 1997).

As already mentioned in the previous section, this
particular fact is the reason of social-interpersonal interactions being
improved in the presence of female crew members. Positive social interactions
are therefore one of the basic and main precursors of group cohesion, as a
group of people that do not get along, or experience friction and tension in a
regular basis, cannot feel part of the group itself, or at least not to the
same degree than a team with extremely good group dynamics and positive
interactions would.

Cohesion, as it will be discussed in the next section, plays
a really important role in group performance. Moreover, a more united group
will have more fruitfully social interactions and will be positively associated
to a higher self-esteem and self-worth and lower rate of depression (Ahronson and Cameron,
2007). The successful completion of a given task by a team is
influenced in different ways by the group’s composition. Heterogeneity is
created when people from different age ranges, cultural backgrounds, religion
or gender amongst other variables are put together in a group. However, gender
diversity will be the only aspect considered in this paper.

Although the relation between mixed gender groups and
improved group performance is still not universally accepted, the business
simulation by Graham D. Fendwick nd Derrick J. Neal over 10 weeks suggested
that performance may be directly related to the sex ratio of a team. To certain
degree, this may be a consequence of the different nature of social
interactions between men and women. In general, women priorities are to get
everyone involved with the task, maintain good communication, collaboration and
as a consequence, they tend to make more considerate decisions (Rigg and Sparrow, 1994). Oppositely, men tend to adopt
a more forceful management strategy, they are competitive, more detached of the
group and make decisions in a more analytical fashion. However, the business
simulation showed that groups where both genders were almost equally
represented unarguably outperformed single sex groups or those with one of the
genders underrepresented (Fenwick and Neal, 2001), translating in the fact
that, when the two completely different approaches are combined (i.e. a greater
and more efficient communication with more analytical decision making), there
is a better chance of succeeding at the given task.

This is not the only example where mixed gender crews
performed better than skewed and single sex groups.

Improved performance is not a consequence of the combination
of both gender different skills and experiences only, but may also be a result
of the before mentioned enhanced group cohesion in mixed gender teams.      


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