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Young Astronomers’ Views: Employment and Affirmative Action

By Lynne Hillenbrand

January 2000

Dr. Lynne Hillenbrand is a named fellowship Postdoctoral Scholar at the California Institute of Technology and a member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy.

The activities associated with “job season” — CV updates, letters, talks, and interviews — are in full swing. Despite general perceptions, it is a relatively good time to be looking for a job in astronomy. Postdoctoral positions are abundant. If you are a female graduate student seeking that first postdoc, keep at it
— we want you to remain in the field! For those us of looking for more permanent employment, overall
numbers are also up, with many university astronomy/physics departments expanding and the number of
long-term-temporary positions increasing due to a prevalence of big projects (ground-based surveys,
space missions, etc.). That is not to say that the astronomy job market is an easy one,
however, as the number of qualified applicants for these new jobs is also rising.

We are fortunate to have choices these days in the types of jobs we consider. As opposed to
the case 20 years ago where it was “university professor or bust,” today there are astronomy
positions in programming, instrumentation, management, teaching, pure-research, and public
outreach. The character of long-term employment in astronomy is changing, and so are the
required skill sets. Women, having had a successful postdoc, appear just as likely as men to move
from postdoctoral to permanent positions (STScI preliminary statistics, June 1999 STATUS).

So what is it like down in the trenches? And do women and men face the same issues when
seeking jobs? To find out, I conducted a survey of younger female (N=47) and male (N=37)
astronomers, as described in the accompanying article. Here I discuss results from the survey on
perceptions about the percentage of women at various levels in astronomy, and on affirmative
action programs. I also did a few more extensive interviews with students and postdocs, including
those in the process of leaving the field, to discover what folks are looking for in today's
employment environment.

As one might expect there is little common thinking in what individuals want in their lives.
There were no discernible differences between women and men on issues such
as importance of career vs. lifestyle, career vs. geography, or career vs. spouse/family. Older postdocs tended to have somewhat different priorities compared to younger postdocs or graduate students. One alarmingly common theme in these interviews though, was that, by and large, today's young people
in astronomy do not expect to be able to enjoy long-term careers in the field. Morale in the
trenches is not good! At the postdoctoral level, most people say they will apply for a few select
jobs (but not every job), and if not successful they will try to support themselves on soft
money for a few years, then perhaps abandon the field. As bad as this sounds, there is one
good aspect: there do not appear to be divisions by gender or, among women, because of gender
issues, in attitudes toward long-term success. See the accompanying article for further discussion
of gender issues in astronomy.

How do the actual percentages of women at different academic stages compare with the perceived
percentages? The results of the survey, when split into female and male, faculty, postdocs,
and graduate students, show that almost every group tended to underestimate the percentage
of women at every level, with each group faring the most poorly at their own level
or above. In the mean, female graduate students think there are fewer female graduate students
than there really are, female postdocs think there are fewer female postdocs than there really are,
and female faculty/staff think there are fewer female faculty/staff than there really are. There is
some indication that males, overall, misperceive the percentage of women to a greater degree
than females do. I followed this up by asking about the percentage of women at all levels “in
your research area,” hoping to take advantage of familiarity of the respondent with the frequency
of male vs. female names from meeting attendance or journal reading. Interestingly, nearly all
males put the percentages of women in their own fields at < 5-19%, whereas most females
chose between 10 and 29%. From all of this I conclude that “the younger generation” has
some slight misconceptions about the true numbers/ percentages of women in the field, generally
underestimating them, with males underestimating to a larger degree than females. However,
everyone seems to be aware that the numbers/percentages are on the rise with far
more younger women than older women.

The next question on the survey asked about belief in affirmative action programs at the junior
and senior faculty/staff levels. This is a rather complex question to which I requested a simple
yes/no answer, in an attempt to make people choose one side or the other. Forced to choose,
of the 47 women, 22% were opposed, 56% were for, and 24% refused to choose, instead writing
in “qualified yes,” “maybe,” or “don't know.” Of the 37 men, 28% were opposed, 58% were for,
and 16% refused strong commitment to one side or the other. In other words, there is no difference
between women and men in general sentiment on affirmative action. Votes from both
groups run > 2:1 for affirmative action initiatives, and > 3:1 for if you count all of the undecided
or qualified-yes votes as forms of “yes.”

I happen to be of the minority opinion on this issue. I think we all agree as a community
that the number of women in senior-level astronomy positions should be increased, not
just to improve statistics, but more importantly to encourage junior women to stay in the field.
We want the smartest people we can attract making contributions to astronomy, not turning
away to other pursuits because they do not see in the field today models of themselves in 20
years. Women notice when there is an unusually low (or unusually high, say > 25%) proportion
of women when visiting a new department. If there are no women currently, it is hard to get
any to come — and then to stay. These points I acknowledge. I also think we all agree that no
one should be put on a short-list, hired, or promoted simply because she is female. But, if in
the final decision process there are two equal candidates, one of each gender, the proponents
of affirmative action would support favoring the woman. This is a tricky game to play, in my
opinion, because such an environment creates no winners. Young men often feel discriminated
against, that they are today's victims of yesterday's mistakes. Young women often feel paranoia
that they are hired for reasons other than those of fair academic competition, and often suffer
verbal abuse from male colleagues who mistakenly think they have an easier career path
because of affirmative action. Nobody wants these circumstances. The problem of underrepresentation
of women should be fixed, most people seem to agree, but based on the many comments
I received, I think it safe to say that no one wants his/her own career affected by the climate
affirmative action creates.

None of these arguments are new, nor are they very different from those applied in other
affirmative action debates. At the base of the problem in astronomy is simply this: good jobs
are rare, and thus every hiring decision is given more attention and carries more weight than in,
for example, the corporate world. Because astronomy is such a small field and because most
of us who have persisted through several postdocs are capable of doing faculty-level work, no
matter who is hired, people will gossip about why candidate X or Y or AA would have been a
better choice. In the corporate world it simply does not matter in the grand scheme of things
exactly who is hired, given that there are enough jobs for everyone and that any one of the equally
qualified candidates could do the job if hired. In academia, the story is different primarily because
there are not enough jobs for everyone, but also because there is more value placed on the unique
capabilities of particular individuals. The turnover time for permanent positions in astronomy
(and in academia in general) is extremely long compared with that in the corporate world.
Thus we cannot, as they can, create a less underrepresented environment for women by enacting
a short-term affirmative action program to equalize the percentages of women and men in proportion
to the numbers of qualified applicants. Why? In a corporation, the affirmative action
hiring period would not have to last all that long given the rapid turnover in employees and the
pace of promotions. In academia, by contrast, if each department hires for a permanent position
only every 5-7 years, it will take decades of drastically biased affirmative action hiring to remedy
current situations. I, for one, do not want to be employed during such an era.

Making sure that women are not systematically put at a disadvantage is acceptable to me,
but creating an environment where women are clearly preferred over men in faculty/staff hiring,
I do not support. In my opinion, we simply have to live with the historical inequities until they
are slowly repaired with non-biased hiring into the non-indefinite future. This will take only 2
to 3 times as long as totally biased hiring and amounts to decades in either case. The overall
expansion of the field implies that repair can happen on shorter timescales.

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