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By Claude R. Canizares

June 1999

Our guest column is from Claude Canizares, Bruno Rossi Professor of Experimental Physics and Director of the Center for Space Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


To paraphrase Mark Twain, recent reports of the death of discrimination have been greatly exaggerated. These accounts accompany a pernicious surge in legal and political challenges to affirmative action programs, based in part on the premise that such efforts are no longer needed. It is true that significant progress has been made in swelling the ranks of both women and minorities in some areas where they have been previously underrepresented, from Cabinet offices to Boardrooms to the tenured ranks of research universities. The fact that people bother attacking affirmative action programs is itself a sign that, whatever their shortcomings, they have had effect.

In our own discipline signs of progress can be found in the numbers of women advancing through all levels, as some of the statistics in this issue of STATUS indicate. But, as in many areas of society, we are nowhere near where we should be in eradicating gender bias. Sadly, we are still much further behind in building the participation of minorities. In the half century it has taken us to erase all vestiges of devastation in Europe and Japan, and to start and end the cold war, we have not managed to end discrimination.

Where should we be in terms of the representation of women in astronomy? I strongly believe the only conceivable answer is that women, and indeed all segments of society, should be represented roughly in proportion to their representation in the population at large. This premise is contained in the Baltimore Charter, and my own thinking on this was very much sharpened by the discussions at the 1992 STScI meeting on Women in Astronomy, which engendered that document. Until someone finds convincing genetic evidence to the contrary, women are biologically just as capable of leading creative and productive careers in science as men. So their historically low representation in the physical sciences, for example, can only be the result of systemic societal deficiencies that
inhibit or discourage their participation.

Why has progress toward equality been so hard to achieve? This is not an easy question for people with backgrounds like mine, and I suspect most of yours. We are used to solving problems on blackboards, computer terminals and lab benches, where we can manipulate equations, data sets and integrated circuits. The problem of the underrepresentation of women in astronomy, and even more so in physics, is nothing like the ones we’re used to solving. Though numbers are often used to talk about it, this is not a problem of numbers. It is insidious and deeply entrenched in human psychology and sociology — those very subjects we tended only to dabble in or even shied away from because they seemed so woolly and imprecise. There is little comfort in knowing that our college friends who did major in those subjects are not doing much better than we are on this one.

A major impediment to addressing the problem is that the causes of gender imbalance are so widely diffused across society and the time scales for effecting and observing change are so long. The best astronomical analogy I can think of is the Hubble constant. For most of my career, I’ve had to carry around two numbers, 50 and 100 km/s-Mpc, each determined by a different group of extremely capable and convincing astronomers. There was no single explanation for the factor of two between these disparate values. Rather, the discrepancy came from an accumulation of small differences of the same sign at each rung of the distance ladder, leaving us with embarrassingly different size scales and ages for the universe.

The underrepresentation of women results from a similar accumulation of small, subtle and generally unintended effects, most of them of the same sign. In Virginia Valian’s succinct phrase, “… mountains are molehills piled one on top of the other.” [NYT, Aug 25, 1998]. A major distinction to my cosmic analogy is that the career ladder for an astronomer has many more rungs than the distance ladder to the Virgo Cluster, and there are literally thousands of baby steps she must take between rungs. So while the retarding effects may be tiny, they add up to cause much more than a factor of two in almost every measure of female participation, from high school physics classes to the rotunda of the National Academy of Sciences. And whereas decades of hard work are bringing us close to convergence on a single value for the Hubble constant, it has taken many more decades to make significantly less progress in eradicating gender bias.

The only way to make progress in achieving gender balance is to match the wide diffusion, deep entrenchment and long duration of the causes of imbalance with a broad spectrum of forceful and sustained countermeasures. This, of course, is the motivation behind most affirmative action programs. But such formal programs must be complemented by a host of collateral actions, many of them informal, many tailored to individual institutions or situations. An obvious example is the need to address family issues — one, by the way, that also shows how often “women’s” concerns turn out be long neglected “human” concerns. Everyone will benefit from the solutions.

We men must carry our fair share of the burden for redressing gender imbalance. It is much harder to break a glass ceiling by bashing it with your head from below than by using a sledgehammer from above. Because the ceiling exists, most of those presently above it are men, so for now their share is more than half the load. So long as men hold most of the positions of power, they must accept the bulk of the responsibility that comes with it. It is also appropriate that men at all levels take responsibility for redressing gender inequities in the same sense that whites must take responsibility for addressing racial inequities — whether or not any one of us feels personally at fault, we are collectively responsible for past and present abuses.

There are also several reasons some women may be inhibited about appearing too forceful on the issue of gender bias. Women in science already bear enough of a burden overcoming the retarding forces to their advancement that cause the imbalance. Junior women particularly face the very difficult dilemma of wanting both to be accepted into the club and to change the bylaws. In astronomy, as in most academic pursuits, peer recognition is the most important form of remuneration (and one which affects the more tangible rewards like promotion and salary). Again, most of the senior “peers” are men, so women must feel some sense of risk associated with speaking out on gender issues. Many courageous women have acted forcefully in spite of these risks.

One cannot address the issue of gender balance and affirmative action without confronting the goblin of “special treatment,” implying“lower standards.” I have yet to meet a woman scientist who wants any such special treatment, nor have I met any that received it. But concerns by professional women that their efforts to level the playing field would be seen as attempts to fix the game loom very large in most discussions of affirmative action. Unfortunately, opponents use this weapon to taunt women who are succeeding in the face of discrimination and to discourage them from speaking out about gender bias. Again, men have a responsibility to exorcise this specter.

One example of how cooperative action by men and women can bring about major change can be found in the recent experience of the MIT School of Science, which just recently made the front pages of the Boston Globe and New York Times. In this case the concerted efforts of a group of tenured women faculty, together with the decisive actions of a male dean and several department heads, uncovered serious problems and then addressed them.

Four years ago, a committee on women faculty in the MIT School of Science identified real inequities that explained a deep discontent that had been shared by all the tenured women faculty. (In contrast they found general satisfaction among their junior female colleagues.) They also found that the fraction of tenured women faculty in science stagnated at MIT for 20 years, during which time the female representation among students soared and most of us thought real progress was being made across the board. They describe the dean’s immediate and substantive actions to correct the most egregious problems, and how profoundly things changed, including a rapid increase in the fraction of tenured women faculty. To quote: “One senior woman faculty described the outcome of this collaboration as ‘more progress for women faculty at MIT in one year than was accomplished in the previous decade.’ ” (The report is available at web.mit.edu/fnl/ women/women.html. See also “MIT Women Win Fight Against Bias,” STATUS, June 1999.)

The challenge remains to consolidate such successes and multiply them manyfold. Progress must be accelerated, not simply continued. The MIT report notes that even at the recently increased rate of adding tenured women faculty it would take 40 years before 40% of the science ranks were women. And that assumes that the pipeline can support this pace. So our goal must be to drive the system non-linearly, to keep the needle of progress pinned at maximum. This may be different from measuring the Hubble constant and it may even be harder, but surely it is time to rededicate ourselves to the task.

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