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About This Issue

From the Editor, Kathryn Mead

January 1997


Partly through design and partly through accident, this issue has developed a theme: What is important in a career? The articles I had originally requested from authors were to be on topics quite different from those you see here, though all were related to career matters. Suffice it to say that this issue of Status was my most challenging with regard to obtaining articles. One author who was writing about balancing career and family sent me an e-mail saying, "… I realize that being a mother, when something happens to your children, is incompatible with work. At least in my case." And here I thought she had it all figured out! My angst over the need to find a replacement article was superseded by the reaffirmation that it is hard for us all and that there are people out there making the right choices.

After knowing the author of "Derailed on the Track to Success" for only a short time, I asked "Annie" about her plans after graduation. She said she had decided against graduate school. I was impressed at how articulately and thoughtfully she expressed her reasoning. I was further struck by how clearly her feminist convictions came through what was otherwise a composed presentation. I thought to myself, "something bad has happened to her." It is my experience that the most committed feminists are those that have faced harassment and discrimination. Further, they speak with a passion and intensity characteristic of people who have personally dealt with a particular adversity (rather than having simply an intellectual understanding of it.)

People are always asking, "Why do a higher fraction of women than men leave astronomy?" Annie answered this question perfectly, so I asked her to write an article for Status. When I received Annie's article, I found that my intuition was correct: she had been the target of harassment. (I am not making a legal judgment here, merely a moral one.) While her story is personal, it gave me insight into why a higher fraction of women are filtered out by a system with narrow and rigid expectations. Apart from sexism (or maybe because of it) I think that women simply think more about the consequences of working in such a system and are more likely to believe that there are alternatives. Men may believe, in whole or in part, because of societal expectations, that they have no choice but to endure the system.

During our correspondence, Annie requested anonymity. Though I was reluctant to have two anonymous articles in two successive issues, after careful consideration I decided that the need for her story to get out and the need for her to feel "safe" in doing it, outweighed the reasons to publish her name. Publishing anonymous contributions is certainly a debatable issue and I considered discussing this situation
here. However, I quickly realized that the journalistic issue might obfuscate the profound societal implication. Women are receiving treatment so malicious that they have legitimate fears of retribution for writing about it.

While neither the harassment nor the apprehension is a surprise to me personally, I think there are many in our field who are surprised, or who in fact may question that these situations (Annie's and Anonymous' [Status, June 1996]) even occurred as reported. After the June issue, I received a letter from someone who compared Anonymous' story to stories of alien abductions (in that the abductions are real only in the mind of the abductee.) I found this letter profoundly troubling. However, I also received many supportive e-mail messages making it clear to me thatreaders believed Anonymous. I was no longer troubled; I was gratified, both personally and editorially.

The status of women in astronomy and society has certainly improved in the past few decades. The recent discussion in AASWomen of the relaxation of housing restrictions at certain observatories was a rather amusing reflection of how our status has improved. (Though it probably was not the least bit amusing at the time.) However, while many explicit impediments to success have been removed, there are still implicit impediments which are just as effective at disproportionately discouraging women from staying in astronomy.

Kathryn Mead, kmead@nrao.edu

Acknowledgments: Those who have read the previous two issues of Status have probably noticed that the proofreading was lacking at best. I knew I needed help, so I went (desperately) looking for a good proofreader. Nadine Dinshaw graciously agreed to take on this task. She did an exceptional job proofreading and editing, and this newsletter is vastly improved because of her input. Any remaining errors or problems in this issue are my responsibility alone.

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