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Letters to the Editor

June 1997

It's Not Bad Everywhere, by Nicole Zellner

Nicole is a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

I feel I need to comment on the content of the past few Status issues because, frankly, I'm tired of hearing
and reading about how awful it is for women in Astronomy. While I do believe that it's important to
make women aware of the discrimination and sexism that may exist, I also think CSWA should discuss the
"other side" – success stories of women in Astronomy.

Like "Annie", of Derailed..., in the January 1997 issue, I attended a "large Midwestern university." I
received B.S.'s in Astronomy and Physics in May, 1993 and I have nothing but good things to say about
my time there and the people I associated with. Only 2 instances of what might be remotely described as
sexism – perhaps "discouragement" is a better word – occurred: I had an Astronomy professor tell me I could count on him for a letter of recommendation if I intended to work at a planetarium or other such job
but not if I intended to go to grad school; I also had a Physics professor tell me that I would never make it
in grad school if I didn't get A's in my undergraduate physics courses. Do you know what I did? I didn't
listen to them, and I didn't let those comments get me down.

I'm in graduate school now, pursuing a degree in Physics after taking off 3 exciting years working in
Astronomy as an observer and as a member of a telescope team that was involved with a space
shuttle mission. As a matter of fact, it was that experience that helped me decide to go back to
school to get an advanced degree so that I could work in the space industry – and I had total support and
encouragement from my undergraduate professors who wrote my grad school recommendations. These
men are aware of the situations in Astronomy and Physics and think I made the right decision to not
follow the traditional academic career path.

This attitude was not unique to my undergraduate institution. I'm finding the same support here in grad
school. I've had several co-op offers from JPL and GSFC, and my advisor and other faculty are
supportive of my decision to leave school for a semester to work and gain more experience in my
field of interest. Of course, I'm not leaving Physics and Astronomy altogether – I will return for the
Masters and Ph.D degrees and then move permanently into the space industry, not academia.

I'm considered to be a serious student. My decision to work right after my BS was my own – I felt no
pressure to go right on to grad school, even though most of my classmates did. Not once during
those 3 years I worked was I looked down upon by any of my Physics or Astronomy professors for not going directly to grad school.

I'm sorry "Annie" had such an awful experience. Not all insitutions, professors, or classmates are like hers, though, and I thank you for letting me share my experiences.

 

No Excuse for Sexism, by Eric Schulman

Eric is a postdoc at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I was very touched by one of the articles in the January 1997 issue of Status. The harassment and
discrimination experienced by the author of Derailed on the Track to "Success" is not uncommon, and
astronomers must rid the field (and in some cases themselves) of such attitudes towards women. Most
troubling to me was the following statement made by one of "Annie"'s astronomy professors:

"I understand that women try to compete with men mathematically, but sometimes it just isn't possible."

Another professor claimed that this man wasn't sexist and that Annie had simply misunderstood him.

I am fortunate that most of the undergraduate and graduate astronomy courses I took had at least as
many women as men. In almost every class, the person with the best math skills was a woman. I do not
conclude from this that men can't compete with women mathematically. I have seen no evidence for
correlations between gender and mathematical ability in the classes I've taken or in the discussion
sections or labs that I have taught. It is possible that the best student has been male in most of the
classes that Annie's professor has taught, but why should he expect anything else if 95% of his students
have been male? In any case, if professors treat women as less mathematically competent then men,
and take their in-class questions or comments less seriously than those of men, then women will be less
likely to contribute in class and therefore less likely to do well. Astronomy and physics do not come
naturally for most of us, and if we are discouraged from asking questions then classes don't teach us any
more than reading a book would.

And just because someone says they aren't sexist, or has done things in the past that aren't sexist, it
doesn't mean that they aren't sexist. Someone who believes that women aren't as good at math as men
are is sexist. Someone who treats questions from women less seriously than questions from men is
sexist. Astronomy cannot afford to protect sexist professors; we must make every effort to change their
attitudes.

Annie also makes a number of important points about how members of the astronomical community, in
particular tenured professors, need to change their attitudes towards students who consider careers
outside of academia. Only 20% of the astronomers who got their Ph.D.'s since 1980 have remained in
academia; we must change our attitudes, our classes, and our undergraduate and graduate programs to
accommodate the fact that most of our students are not going to be tenured professors of astronomy.

Annie has decided to leave astronomy, at least for now, and that is our loss. Perhaps a large part of her
decision was based on the sexism of her physics and astronomy professors and classmates. Perhaps
another large part of the decision was based on the unrealistic expectations that most departments have
for the amount of research that tenure-track faculty must do if they are to get tenure. These are things
that we can and should change. But part of her decision was certainly based on the fact that
there are more astronomy Ph.D.'s than there are jobs for them in astronomy. In my opinion, there is
nothing wrong with getting a B.S. in astronomy and then working in medical physics. There is nothing
wrong with getting a M.S. in astronomy and then becoming a software engineer. There is nothing wrong
with getting a Ph.D. in astronomy and then going into finance. The sooner the astronomical community
realizes that leaving astronomy doesn't make one a failure, the better off our field will be.

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