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Glass Ceilings and Ivory Towers


By Margaret Burbidge

January 2000

Dr. Margaret Burbidge is a professor emeritus in the Physics Department and an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. She entered astronomy at a time when there were few women and their access to astronomical facilities was severely
restricted. She not only transcended these obstacles, she made countless critical contributions to the field, as attested by numerous honors and awards, including (naming only a few) the Presidential Medal of Science,
the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship of the American Astronomical Society, and membership in the National Academy of Science.

THE EDITORS of STATUS have suggested that it might be interesting to compare the situation
that faced me, as a young woman wishing to enter the professional ranks in astronomy, with the situation
as it is today. First, it is clear from the statistics gathered by various experts that discrimination
based on gender is faced by women in astronomy and physics at all levels, from entering students to
highly qualified professionals striking the “glass ceiling.” To quote the opening sentence of the perceptive
commentary by Claude Canizares [STATUS, June 1999], “Recent reports of the death of
discrimination have been greatly exaggerated.”


Yet when I describe the ban on women using the Mt. Wilson telescopes that prevented me from
being considered as a possible candidate for a Carnegie Fellowship in 1947, I am met quite often
with surprise: “You mean women were not allowed to observe with the 60- and 100-inch telescopes?”
I then have to explain that the ban was peculiar to the Carnegie Observatories directorship
and tradition, and was indeed circumvented eight years later by pressure from the California
Institute of Technology (Professors William A. Fowler and Robert Bacher).


Such a ban did not exist at Yerkes and McDonald Observatories; Dr. Nancy G. Roman
was a frequent user of these telescopes, as I also was after being accepted in 1951 as a postdoc by
the University of Chicago. All this ancient history is described in my prefatory chapter in The Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics,“Watcher of the Skies” (1).


However, while such discrimination is seen as barely credible today, discrimination of other
kinds exists throughout academia in the United States, as documented by articles in STATUS and
elsewhere, and as specifically addressed at the workshop held at the Space Telescope Science
Institute, Baltimore, Maryland in September, 1992 (2). That workshop resulted in a document, “The
Baltimore Charter for Women in Astronomy,” as described by Meg Urry in STATUS, June 1999,
(see also www.aas.org/~cswa/bc.html), with recommendations and a “call to action.” A caption
below the title of the Charter reads “Women hold up half the sky,” a Chinese saying that I first heard
in 1977 during a visit of ten astronomers to China, led by Leo Goldberg (I was the
only woman in the group, one in ten — a typical ratio). It was said in a dinner-time speech
by the woman interpreter, Wu Ling-an, a speech which followed my talk on the situation for
women in astronomy in the United States (3).


This brings me to a consideration of the situation for women in astronomy in other countries
besides the United States. Steven Beckwith's comparison in the January 1999 issue of STATUS, of
the satisfactory conditions for women in France, and the Latin countries in general, as compared
with the very much less than satisfactory situation in Germany, accords with my own impressions. In
recent travels to astronomical affairs in Europe, I have been asking women about their own experiences.
These talks have been completely informal, mostly over coffee breaks or cafeteria lunches during
meetings or scientific visits; I have taken no notes, and have collected no statistics. The information
I gathered has thus been simply anecdotal, but it agrees with Steve Beckwith's account. In a
recent visit to Australia for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Anglo-
Australian 4-m Telescope, I made just one half-day visit to the AAO and the Australia Telescope
National Facility Headquarters in Epping, Sydney, so there was little chance to gather any information,
but my impressions are that younger women at these institutions receive fair treatment, but
there are few role models at higher levels. I was, in fact, the only woman on the original Board that
planned the AAT, during my two years as Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at
Herstmonceux (not as Astronomer Royal, an honorary title which has always been held by men!)


I asked Geoff Burbidge, Editor of The Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics since
1974, whether other women with long lifetimes in astronomy had been considered as authors of the
ARAA Prefatory Chapters. He thought for a moment, then said: “Only Cecilia Payne-
Gaposchkin, and she wrote a historical review entitled ‘The Development of Our Knowledge of
Variable Stars’ (4), not an autobiographical account of her own life.” She had, however,
already written her autobiography, The Dyer's Hand, which has been published as the core of the
book “Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin,” a fascinating account put together by her daughter, Katherine
Haramundanis, of Cecilia's life from childhood until her death in 1979 (5).


Cecilia was brought up in a family where her brother's life and career were considered of paramount
importance, and where Cecilia's acceptance as an undergraduate at Cambridge University and her successful completion of those years of study owed no thanks to any help from her family.


Realizing that there was no future for her as an astronomer in England, Cecilia then emigrated
to the United States — to Harvard College Observatory, at the invitation of Harlow Shapley.
In two years, she produced her doctoral thesis, the masterpiece “Stellar Atmospheres” (6) which
showed that hydrogen, not iron, is the principle constituent of stars. But Cecilia had to wait for the
appointment of Donald Menzel as Director of Harvard College Observatory, after Shapley's term
of office came to an end, before Harvard University could be brought to offer Cecilia an
appointment as Professor of Astronomy.


Finally, I would like to comment on the situation in the physical sciences in the U. S. National
Academy of Sciences. An excellent Symposium on Women in Science was held during the April 1999
NAS meeting; its success was due to the choice of speakers and the dedicated efforts of several
women, particularly Dr. Jong-on Hahm, Director of the National Research Council's Committee on
Women in Science and Engineering. We await follow- up of that very successful affair.


The 1999 List of Members of the National Academy of Sciences shows that Section 12
(Astronomy) has four women members, out of a total of 78 (including Foreign Associates and
Emeritus Members, who are not involved in nominations or voting). This meager score is still better
than that of Section 13 (Physics), where one counts again, only four women members among a
total of 181.


I will close by endorsing Meg Urry's list of“ten things you can do,” published at the end of
her article in the June 1999 issue of STATUS. Number 9 on this list — “Listen” — reminds us
that the concerns of young women today are not what they were 10 years ago, much less 40 years
ago. Women can apply for observing time on any telescopes that are available to their male colleagues,
and I believe their applications are considered only on scientific merit. But fair treatment in
the job market, in the committee structure of academic institutions where appointments and promotions
are dealt with, is another matter, and this must be addressed by all of us.

 

REFERENCES

(1) Burbidge, E. M. (1994), Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 32, 1.
(2) Urry, C. M., Danly, L., Sherbert, L. E. & Gonzaga, S. (1992) “Women in Astronomy,” Proc.
Workshop, Space Telescope Science Institute.
(3) Goldberg, L. et al. (1979), “Astronomy in China,” Report No. 7 of The National Academy of
Sciences Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China.
(4) Payne-Gaposchkin, C. (1978), Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 16, 1.
(5) Haramundanis, K. (1984), “Cecilia Payne- Gaposchkin,” (Cambridge University Press).
(6) Payne, C. (1925), “Stellar Atmospheres,” Harvard Monograph no. 1 (Cambridge, England:
W. Heffer & Sons).

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