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The Baltimore Charter and the Status of Women in Astronomy

By Meg Urry

June 1999

The following was an invited talk at the Centennial meeting of the American Physical Society in March 1999, in a session called “Patching the Pipeline: Issues and Actions” sponsored jointly by the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and the APS Division of Astrophysics.


The status of women in astronomy To be a women in physics or astronomy is to feel out of place, consciously or subconsciously. This was especially true when I was just starting out, some 20 years ago. The professors were mostly men, the graduate students were mostly men, speakers at meetings, prize winners, committee members — all mostly men, sometimes only men. The subliminal message was: women don’t belong here, there’s no place for you.

Some ten years later, in the early 1990s, after 10-20 years of supposedly enlightened “non-discriminatory” times, women still didn’t seem to be progressing at the same rate as men. For a very clear example, I could look to my own institution, the Space Telescope Science Institute, which aspires to be an elite academic institution in the top five or ten astronomy departments in the U.S. Unlike Harvard or Caltech or Princeton, however, STScI had been founded only very recently (to run the Hubble Space Telescope science program), and so its faculty reflected very recent hiring patterns, not the vestiges of massive hiring of science faculty in the 60s (which is often given as the reason men dominate physics departments). The first STScI staff were hired in 1981, and the astronomy “faculty” (a tenure-track completely analogous to University faculty) had grown to more than 30 by 1990, when I was hired, only the second woman.

Thus STScI was a pristine “experiment” illustrating the slower advancement of women in the profession — throughout the 1980s, the percentage of Ph.D.s in astronomy (and physics) awarded to women was 10-20% (which has been true for the past 100 years!) yet only ~5% of the newly hired tenure-track faculty were women. (I’m happy to say this has changed dramatically, because of affirmative steps taken by an enlightened management. There are now seven women out of 42 tenure-track astronomers, or ~17%, which is the highest percentage and highest absolute number in any major U.S. astronomy department, and there are 11 women of 76 total faculty, plus another half-dozen Ph.D. women in technical roles. My women colleagues, especially in physics, may be envious of the idea of a dozen female colleagues in the same department, when many universities barely have that many women across all the physical sciences. Having been in both situations, I must say my present environment is much better, much less stressful, at least for me.)

The 1992 STScI Survey of 32 major U.S. astronomy departments and institutions showed a similar situation throughout the field. (See Schreier, ‘Proc. Meeting on the Status of Women in Astronomy,’ 1992, and http://www.stsci.edu/ stsci/meetings/WiA.) As shown in the bar graph at left, in 1992 the percentage of women in astronomy decreased with rank, from nearly a quarter of the graduate students to less than 5% of the senior faculty. Although the data represented a snapshot of the profession at only one epoch, it was alarming that only one third of the women in elite graduate schools appeared to find postdocs in the same elite institutions, compared
with half of the men.

The field of astronomy grew in the 1980s, so the climate was a positive one. Why were women not moving from graduate school to academia at the same rate as men? It certainly wasn’t an absence of qualified, interested women — there is a long and glorious tradition of women in astronomy making fundamental contributions. In just the last 100 years, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin established that stars consist primarily of hydrogen; Henrietta Leavitt discovered the period-luminosity relation in Cepheid variable stars, a key element of determining the distance scale of the Universe; and Beatrice Tinsley created the field of stellar population synthesis to understand galaxy evolution. Indeed, “women have made most of the fundamental contributions to cosmology in the postwar era,” according to Jerry Ostriker, a distinguished professor of astronomy at Princeton University. Astronomy today would be very different without these critical contributions, yet women as a group have not benefitted from the conspicuous successes of their predecessors.

There is considerable evidence that women advance more slowly than men across almost all professions, particularly science, as discussed by Gerald Sonnert and Virginia Valian in the January 1999
issue of STATUS. Dr. Valian summarizes the extensive literature on this phenomenon across academia and
the professions in her recent book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women (1998, MIT Press). She concludes there is no one reason for the gender disparity; rather, that women are held back by the accumulation of many micro-disadvantages, such as tougher evaluations, lack of mentoring, limited access to crucial resources, and exclusion from leadership positions. As just one small example of the latter, the recent statistics from the National Academy of Science are disturbing. Women constitute only 6% of the NAS (132
women, 2067 men), and in the areas of astronomy and physics it is worse: in the last 20 years, an informal
count (based upon parsing names) shows 302 men and only 13 women have been elected (4%), and in the
last five years, 89 men and only two women (2%) have been elected. The trend is going in the wrong direction.

Studies and statistics clearly show women falling behind in science at all levels — the “leaky pipeline” —
and there are many different ideas for what is wrong. The disparity isn’t fair, and science undoubtedly suffers from missing half the talent pool. But what to do?

The STScI meeting on women in astronomy

In 1992, we at the Space Telescope Science Institute decided to do something positive to address the apparently low status of women in astronomy. Following a suggestion from Goetz Oertel, the head of AURA, our parent organization, we decided to hold a meeting about the issue. Riccardo Giacconi, then Director of the STScI, supported the idea enthusiastically and immediately wondered how to “solve the problem” in his characteristic activist fashion. He first looked for an existing solution, some “code of behavior” that would make things right. When he couldn’t find one, he suggested we write our own — this was the origin of the“Baltimore Charter,” a document that would describe the positive actions needed to turn things around. It is important to note that these two men were in powerful positions and could make things happen — the meeting, the Charter, and within a few years, a significant increase in the number of women scientists working at STScI.

The 1992 meeting at STScI on The Status of Women in Astronomy was aimed at our “sphere of influence,”
meaning women in the U.S., at the undergraduate level or beyond (although much of what we discussed,
and the Charter itself, applies to minorities as well). More than 220 people attended the meeting, 3/4
women and 1/4 men, roughly 1/3 students, 1/3 postdocs plus junior faculty, and 1/3 senior faculty plus
observatory directors and funding agency representatives.

The agenda included formal talks on the history of women in science, the present statistical picture, and
reasons for the exclusion of women. These facts and ideas informed the conference participants, who then
spent most of their time in small break-out sessions on topics like affirmative action, sexual harassment,
and work and family issues, writing reports that were the foundation of the Baltimore Charter. The consensus
was that there was no one problem inhibiting the success of women in astronomy. It was certainly not a lack
of interest, lack of ability, or even the formal lack of opportunity. Instead, there was a complex set of micro-problems, including overt discouragement of women; perception of women as less talented, less capable, less authoritative; lack of faculty/role models; frustration at lack of advancement; physical safety; family issues (logistical difficulties more likely to affect the women); sexual harassment; and “climate” (language, pictures). Not all women are affected by all of these factors, and any one woman might be affected by a few or none, but the cumulative effect is the “handicapping” of women in the astronomy horse race.

The Baltimore Charter

The purpose of the Baltimore Charter was to suggest concrete action (not just griping) to improve the status of women in astronomy. It represents the consensus of many views, with input from a significant fraction of the active astronomical community. (In addition to fundamental contributions from the Meeting participants, we also solicited comments and suggestions from additional leaders in the field.) The Charter was completed in the months after the meeting by Sheila Tobias, Laura Danly, Ethan Schreier (Associate Director of STScI), Riccardo Giacconi, and myself. It was released in June 1993 at the semi-annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society, receiving a lot of attention from the national press and popular science publications. In subsequent months the Baltimore Charter and/or its goals were endorsed by the AAS, NASA, NSF, AURA, and several prominent universities. Hundreds of posters were distributed to observatories and universities, where one hopes that young women and men found them encouraging and supportive where needed.

Poster to advertise 1992 STScI meeting on women in astronomy

The Charter states five basic premises and briefly justifies them (see accompanying document). A key assertion is that positive action is required to change the status quo, hence the five major recommendations of the Charter. The most important of these, and the most controversial, is the statement that “Affirmative action is a necessary part of the solution.” This means establishing, publicizing, and honoring objective standards for any evaluation (hiring, prizes, etc.); bringing women into the evaluation process; encouraging men to take responsibility for the success of women; and monitoring progress through demographic data. Other recommendations address family issues, sexual harassment, climate, and physical safety. The Charter ends with a call to action, to all our colleagues, to facilitate the full participation of women.

After the Baltimore Charter: Changes in U.S. astronomy

There was no mass movement to endorse the Baltimore Charter or to implement its recommendations
widely, although it appears to have helped some individual women, especially those isolated in small departments. The most profound impact, however, was probably the meeting itself — its effect on the 220 people who attended. The experience of listening, learning, thinking positively, reinforcing one another, and forming a consensus for action, more than the actual Charter words, affected many participants profoundly. Students felt fortified in their ambitions, junior astronomers felt hopeful and determined, and senior astronomers and officials felt renewed determination to make change. More than two hundred highly informed and enthusiastic people dispersed from the meeting throughout American astronomy, into positions of power from which they made change happen.

Or so it appears. For the APS talk in Atlanta, we updated the STScI statistics on women in astronomy, re-surveying the same top institutions as in 1992. The preliminary results are encouraging. There are two major changes in the past seven years, during which the field grew by roughly 25% (see bar graph, page 6):

  • The progress of women and men from graduate school to postdoc positions is more nearly equal, with about half making this transition. (In 1992, this fraction was true for men; only a third of women moved on to postdocs in the same top institutions.)
  • Promotions from associate professor to full professor (well-sampled in this seven-year period) are at least as likely for women as for men, within the statistics (nearly 100% throughput).

A full report on the new statistics will appear in the next issue of STATUS, by which time we hope to receive missing data from the University of New Mexico. We also intend to make the database fully accessible on the Web within the next few months. (N.B. The AAS has now undertaken a similar but much larger survey of the profession, the results of which should be available on the Web within a year.)

Ten things you can do

Clearly the field of astronomy is changing. But even with equal progress of men and women (and we’re not there yet), change at the top (most astronomy faculty are full professors) will take decades, so it’s imperative to maintain the momentum. In the spirit of the Baltimore Charter, I close with a list of ten positive steps everyone can take:

  1. Do what you can do. No one person can solve every problem, or even one problem, but we all have our own sphere of influence. Start locally, and take on some aspect you’re particularly interested in. Be careful not to pass the buck! For example, if you are a University professor, concentrate on what you can do for undergraduate and graduate students. (Even if you think it all starts in kindergarden, leave that problem for someone else.) Mentor women, invite women scientists to give colloquia, conduct exit interviews when students or postdocs leave your department, encourage support groups — whatever it takes in your particular situation. There is no one answer and no simple formula, but everyone can contribute.
  2. Mentor. The research is clear: mentoring makes an enormous difference. Watch out for those coming up behind you, support your peers, and stick up for those ahead of you. Encourage discussion groups, listservs, special dorms, the CSWP and CSWA. Keep a list of bright women scientists — people are always looking for suggestions for talks, prizes, refereeing, committees, etc. And there is no reason women should bear the brunt of the mentoring burden— men can be effective if they make the effort.
  3. Maintain a positive climate. Say he/she, make sure women are pictured in publicity brochures, get rid of “pinup” images, avoid male-dominant language, make clear that behavior contributing to a hostile climate is unacceptable.
  4. Ask questions. Hold your colleagues accountable: ask how many women are included in recruitment for
    jobs, prizes, committees, APS fellows, NAS, etc. Ask how many women are giving science talks at the next meeting you organize or attend. The Special Symposia at the APS Centennial meeting were filled with esteemed scientists giving talks on fascinating topics, but if you exclude the “sociological” sessions on women or minorities in science, I counted only one woman speaker of perhaps 100 or more men.
  5. Affirm, don’t defend. You don’t have to address other people’s agendas or their definitions or misconceptions (e.g., “quotas,” “lower standards,” “reverse discrimination”). Instead, emphasize that standards should never be lowered, that it is the evaluations, the rankings, that are subjective and therefore flawed. The goal is not to “help” women but to equalize opportunity.
  6. Involve others. Tell them stories — yours, and what you know. We are the products of our individual histories, so sharing experiences gives us new insights. Talk to students, give an extra talk when invited to give a colloquium, offer to meet with women students. When talking to senior faculty, ask how many women students there are, what the retention rate is, how many women faculty there are, etc. Small efforts multiplied by many people can have a significant impact.
  7. Be goal/outcome oriented. Don’t get bogged down in the whys, or which is the major problem, or what is the (perfect) solution. When you talk to your Department Chair or division head, don’t let them sidetrack you with their theory of why women “fall behind” or with their story of all their heroic efforts on behalf of women in the past. Ask about the outcome. You (individually) are not responsible for the solution; you are raising the question, and the people in power (mostly men) are responsible for the solution. Without men we cannot effect significant change in our scientific institutions because they hold the reins of power.
  8. Admit your own subjectivity. Examine your own perceptions — is there anyone, male or female, who has escaped the indoctrination of societal attitudes? Recognize that many of us automatically “give authority” more easily to men (speaker/teacher/colleague), whereas women start with a deficit (we doubt their abilities) until they prove them.
  9. Listen. The concerns of young women today are not what they were 10 years ago, much less 40 years ago. As in all of life, if we extrapolate from our own personal experiences, we can help only those who are just like us. (As Sheila Tobias explained, this solipsistic approach contributes to the continuing exclusion of women from male-dominated institutions.) Many of us have argued for affirmative action, and have seen it help women move forward. But some young women object to “affirmative action” because they have bought into the notion that it gives preferences to women and therefore devalues their worth. They don’t want the attached stigma. So listen to men and women with diverse experiences and views — ultimately, there has to be “room at the Inn” for all these different outlooks.
  10. Be pessimistic and optimistic. There will be (there is!) a backlash, but many things are far better than they were 30, 20, even 10 years ago. Discrimination has gone underground — it is no longer overt, and although subtle barriers are harder to fight, they are also more transparent filters. There are more women in all fields, there is greater acceptance of women, and there is greater support for working families. Remember the claim of the Baltimore Charter: “Improving the situtation of women in astronomy will benefit [all] astronomers,” men as well as women.

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