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Women, Culture, and Science

By Steven Beckwith

January 1999

A new feature of STATUS will be a guest column by a senior astronomer. For our first issue, we asked Steven Beckwith, until recently the director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, Germany, and now director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, to offer his thoughts on
the status of women in astronomy.

You are struck by it immediately upon entering a French institute for astronomy: a large fraction of the scientists are women. You even find them at the director’s level, a situation somewhat different from that in the United States. Italy has also been favorable for the promotion of women in the sciences; I am told it is true for Spain as well. The Latin countries with the “macho male” mentality seem, nevertheless, to be comfortable with women in intellectual positions.

In Germany, you rarely see women in the physical sciences — although it varies among institutions — and there are almost none in prominent positions; the number of women directors in the CPT Sektion (physical sciences) of the Max-Planck-Society is for all practical purposes zero. There are not many in Holland, either, or in Great Britain. The United States is better than the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon countries and is approaching the Latin countries in representation. The Space Telescope Science Institute seems better than most American institutions. Interestingly, a remarkable fraction of its staff is Italian.

It is hard to avoid concluding that culture plays a dominant role in the integration of women into the physical sciences. This is good news for women, because cultural barriers can be changed by the application of social pressure and natural evolution, whereas it would be impossible for women to achieve equal status to men if they were inferior at doing science, as some of my male colleagues seem to believe. There is no doubt in my mind that women and men are equally equipped to solve the mysteries of nature.

Men in the Latin countries are evidently more comfortable working with successful women doing research1 than their counterparts in other countries. I do not know why this is not so in all cultures. Personally, I like working with women, and I think of those I work with as being scientists of very high caliber. My two longest and closest collaborators are Anneila Sargent and Antonella Natta, and I have not had two more enjoyable research partners. Our collaborations have given me a chance to see firsthand the difficulties they had in their careers as a result of cultural barriers.

But these barriers are not what everyone may think. It is no doubt true that the attitudes of men serve as a powerful deterrent to women who want to do research, but I do not think that they are the most powerful deterrent. The most powerful deterrents are often structural aspects of society that deny particular individuals the opportunities to excel in endeavors of their choice.

The contrast between France and Germany, two countries sharing a common border, provides a good example. France has abundant day care at low cost available to families who wish to pursue dual careers. Rather than placing the burden on the family to decide who is the caregiver— the women have historically lost out in these family battles — France makes the argument moot from the beginning. France has found a way to put enough flexibility in its social institutions — supermarkets, shop closing hours, job security — to encourage women with careers to pursue them regardless of their choice of personal lifestyle.

In Germany, daycare is essentially nonexistent. The legal barriers to establishing daycare centers probably make them unprofitable. I actually investigated the possibility of putting a small childcare facility at the Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg for young couples with children, but I was told it was not allowed unless we met a certain quota that, of course, we did not meet. In any case, school hours are so limited — typically 4 hours per day through high school, and the students go home for lunch— that someone has to be home most of the time even when the children are in school. The lack of substitute teachers exacerbated the problem. If a teacher is sick, the students are often sent home with no prior notice. The strict shop closing hours make it difficult for a working couple to cope with the normal problems of life.
So great are these structural barriers that married women with children have no avenue to make choices about their career paths unless their husbands are unusually committed to helping them out. Most German men are not.

Removing these structural barriers should be the first priority not just for women but for men, too. By doing so, women, or any other group that feels unfairly treated, will at least have the opportunity to excel based on their merits, thus giving lie to the notion that they are incapable. This is not to say that the “old boy” networks and overt methods of discriminating against women should be tolerated; they should not, but I doubt that they are the biggest problem in the long run. Most men my age, even in Germany, are more accepting of professional women than our counterparts a decade or two older, and the older men are beginning to retire. A bigger problem is a societal structure that frustrates women from competing equally, even if they ignore prejudice.

The United States has made some progress along these lines. Life is convenient with our 24-hour supermarkets and abundant services for everyday chores. The schools are responsible for our children most of the day. Childcare, however, is still not readily available to everyone at an affordable price. Low unemployment may push the private sector to offer more than it has previously, but it may take some government aid. We need to make the workplace sufficiently family friendly so that working moms and dads can be judged on their performance, not on their ability to deal with the inevitable emergencies that arise. It will take some time and some dedication from those of us in prominent positions to support these values.

Men and women should be united in overcoming these structural barriers. It is as much in my interest as it is in my wife’s to have ready childcare, convenient shopping, and a workplace understanding of the demands of family life. I am delighted when we can solve the problems of everyday life without having to worry about whose career suffers the most. I think most men now understand how important these factors are, even though not everyone will be equally ready to defeat them.

With these impediments removed, women could set their own culture for research. It may be better than the culture we have now. Who knows? The only way to find out is to foster an environment that makes it possible without destroying productive habits. It is these productive habits that we must retain while striving to give star performers, be they men or women, equal opportunities: hard work, constant learning, contact, challenge, competition, and (yes) support from our brightest colleagues. Women who want to succeed need support for developing and maintaining these habits without having the Hobson’s choice of deciding between a career and a personal life. It seems to me that if men and women work as collaborators rather
than adversaries, we will all be better off.

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