Women in Astronomy

Posted by barb on Jan 15, 2005 in Science Musings |

I was asked to be the graduate student representative on a panel discussion today for the Committe on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA). In 2003 they had held a meeting in Pasadena to discuss progress since the first Baltimore meeting in 1992. As a result of the Pasadena meeting, the CSWA has drafted a set of recommendations aimed at increasing the retention of women in astronomy.

Right now, over 50% of the American Astronomical Society members aged 18-23 are female. However, less than 20% of tenure-track positions in astronomy are held by women. The main thrust of the recommendations is that women advance in the same proportions as the enter the field. So that, for a class entering graduate school with 25% women, it would be hoped that of the members of that class graduating with a PhD, 25% would be female. This does not seem to be the case. Women are dropping out at a greater rate than men.

The Pasadena recommendations start with a few guiding principles. It’s somewhat embarassing that these principles need to be written at all. For example, the first principle is that men and women are equally capable of doing astronomy. The recommendations themselves range from sexual harassment awareness training to mentoring programs to active recruitment of women for open faculty positions.


Those of us on the panel represented various stages in the career of an astronomer — in addition to me, there was a postdoc (our token male), two full professors, and one “non-traditional” member. We were each to discuss what we thought was most important in the Pasadena recommendations and share any successful implementation of those recommendations that we have seen.

For me, as someone poised at the beginning of my career, the recommendation that struck me was the one recommending training in subtle discrimination, unconscious bias, and the accumulation of disadvantage. This one struck me partly because of the importance in knowing that an institution that I might apply to has such training, but more because of the importance of grads to be aware that this sort of discrimination can come from anywhere, including other women. Even more important than the existence of training, however, is the existence of an avenue for discussing this sort of discrimination and bias without fearing reprisals.

I have an example of such discrimination in my own career, but would never reveal it in such a large group setting. Generally I discuss it quietly with trusted friends who would not be able to affect my career. It would be nice if those of us who were victim could have reported it to our institution, but it came from such a well-respected and senior female astronomer, than none of us felt we could do anything.

The other panel members brought up other recommendations, and somehow we touched on all the major areas of the recommendations without having talked prior to the discussion. These recommendations will be published in the next couple issues of Status, the semiannula publication of the CSWA.

After each of us panel members presented our take on the recommendations, the floor was opened for comments and questions. About five of the comments/questions came from undergraduate students, two from non-traditional undergrads. In answer to one of those non-traditional students, I shared my own non-traditional route to where I am now (English major –> science major –> New Mexico Tech –> UMD as a full-time grad student –> Goddard as a full-time contractor after my Master’s degree –> back to UMD as a half-time grad student). I, in fact, had considered turning down the invitiation to be on the panel because I wondered if I could truely speak as a graduate student representative with my circuitous route. However, after the discussion broke up, the moderator thanked me for sharing my non-traditional experiences. She commented that they have never seen such a response from the undergraduate population at these discussions, and speculated that it was due largely to my discussion of my non-traditional background.

Here are a few other points that came up during the discussion:

  • There have been a lot of developments at UC Irvine in the direction of gender-equality, and not just in the astronomy and science departments. One very intersting development is the creation of positions for spouses and partners of newly hired faculty. This is a great solution to the so-called two-body problem that married acedemes have to cope with.
  • Women need to learn to work together rather than back-stab (this was brought up by an undergraduate who had noticed that in school she and the other students tended to compete; whereas, at a summer internship they all worked together).
  • It seems that women who earn ‘C’s in science tend to leave the program, but men who earn ‘C’s stick with it. We need to figure out how to keep those women becuase they will have just as much to contribute as these ‘C’-earning men.

All-in-all it was a good discussion. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to participate, and hope that in time such discussions will become obsolete.

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