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Young Astronomers’ Views: Gender Bias Perceptions


By Lynne Hillenbrand

January 2000

Iconducted a survey of young-ish women colleagues (I say “young-ish” because I am starting
to feel not so young anymore...) to gauge the general thinking of our generation on gender
issues in astronomy. To my great surprise, I actually know close to 70 women who are within 8-10
years of their Ph.D. date (in either direction). Replies were received from 47. I also sent a slightly
modified version of the same survey to about 55 men in the same academic age range, and received
37 replies.


Of the respondents, 28% (13) of the women and 22% (8) of the men were graduate students,
47% (22) of the women and 44% (16) of the men were either postdocs or soft-money staff, and 25%
(12) of the women and 33% (12) of the men were tenure-track faculty/staff. Many questions were of
the yes/no variety, and hence subject to multiple interpretations. I gave people the opportunity to
add details if they wanted to, but did not want to ask specific questions of an overly personal nature,
such as “Are you considering leaving the field?,” “Do you want children and if so do you think they
will affect your career advancement?,” etc., so as not to inhibit participation.


The statistics are small, but the results interesting nonetheless, and rather enlightening in some
regards. Several people expressed surprise at seeing such a survey coming from me. I have to admit
that I have been less than sympathetic to “women's issues” throughout most of my life, but here I will
let the data speak for themselves.


There were overwhelmingly uniform answers to a few of the questions. First, 96% of the women
and 97% of the men do think that “gender issues” exist today in the field of astronomy. This was one
of several broad, intentionally vague questions on the survey. Nevertheless, it is interesting that only a
few denied the existence at all of any gender-related career issues. One perhaps could make the argument
that those who do not believe any problems exist simply did not answer the survey, but my suspicion
is that this is not the case.


The other question evoking near-uniform sentiment among women, and a surprising majority of
affirmative responses from the men, asked about recalling instances of perceived differential treatment
in professional interactions from the way a member of the opposite sex would have been
treated in the same situation. To this, 94% of the women and 64% of the men said, yes, this had
happened to them. Again, the question is vague and does not get at whether the results of differential
treatment were net good or net bad. Nevertheless, the replies indicate at least some
awareness on the part of both sexes that all is not equal.


For women, being treated “differently” usually implies in an inferior manner. Examples probably
are not necessary as I suspect most of us are familiar with stories of gender-based professional discrimination.
But there are instances where “differently” can mean better. Family leave, for one, is a
circumstance in which most new dads are not given the same advantages as new moms in spending
the first 3 months settling in with a new family member. Nor are men given the same slack
women seem to get when having to deal with family issues. I know for a fact that I have benefited
from having this kind of gender advantage. Also, there are affirmative action programs in place
which assist in hiring rates for women and clearly constitute different, but preferential, treatment. I
sincerely hope that I have not benefited from this kind of gender “advantage” (see accompanying
article). Finally, there is a perception among both women and men that extra attention is often paid
to younger women compared with equivalent younger men in the field, for whatever biased reason.
I am fairly sure that I have been involved in such circumstances, having given more than my
fair share of departmental colloquia, for example. These incidents can have either positive or negative
consequences for the woman involved depending on “performance” while under the
extra scrutiny. More attention is usually good in the “love-me-hate-me-but-don't-ignore-me” view,
but can be bad in the case of a woman's comments/ questions in a classroom or conference situation being treated more critically than a man's would be, or in the case of one woman's poor performance
being extrapolated to represent the capabilities of all women.

For men, of the 64% who claimed to have experienced differential treatment, more than half
(56%) said these instances had negative rather than positive effects for them. This totally surprised
me. Specifics, when given, often involved one of the three positives of differential treatment
listed above for women. Yes, it was acknowledged by the men that some more senior men in the field
do treat women improperly and that this had worked to their professional advantage. Yes, it was
acknowledged by the men that qualitatively different kinds of conversations do take place when
women are not present, and that this probably worked to their advantage in some subtle way. At
the very least, these sentiments reflect that younger men are indeed aware of differences in
the way women's and men's presence and scientific contributions are viewed. And it appears that no
one of either sex seems to enjoy it, even when the effects are net positive for one's career.


Does the fact that women often are treated differently from men in day-to-day interactions
really have to be categorized as “better” or“worse” in every case (in many cases the answer is
clearly yes), when it might mean just “differently”? Some women claimed that they were well aware
of their differential treatment in social matters discussed at work, but that this did not extend to discussions
of professional nature. Others said the differences did include professional matters, but
attributed it to a preference for boys to hang out and talk with other boys, an aspect of human
nature that unintentionally creates an atmosphere of subtle bias. But does not the same sort of thing
happen when only women astronomers are together? “Water cooler” interactions could work
to women's advantage in the same way they currently do to men's, were there more influential
senior women in the field.


I also asked those answering the question about differential treatment in the affirmative
about the number of episodes and whether or not there were long-term consequences. For the
women, interestingly, the median number of recalled instances of differential treatment was
about the same as for graduate students and faculty/ staff, at 3-4, but for postdocs the median number
was in the range 5-10. Do significant numbers of postdocs leave the field because of dissatisfaction
over these kinds of issues? Several women complained that it was hard to separate specific
episodes from prolonged, continually bad behavior by the same person. For men, no one raised the
issue of continually differential treatment, and the median number of recalled episodes increased, as
one might expect, with academic age, from 2-3 for graduate students, to 4 for postdocs, to 5-10
for faculty.


Interestingly, the young men faculty claimed more instances in the mean of differential treatment
than young women faculty. Male postdocs claimed fewer instances than female postdocs, and
male graduate students claimed marginally fewer instances than female graduate students. As for the
long-term effects of particular episodes of perceived differential treatment, 43% of the women
and 33% of the men claimed the existence of long-term consequences. Again, these consequences
could be either good or bad, but my suspicion based on attached comments is that they
were largely bad for both groups. The incidence of long-term consequences was higher (57%) for the
45% of women who claimed personally to have experienced blatant, offensive professional sexism,
as distinguished from just differential treatment. Although the statistics are small, at least three men
claim to have suffered long-term consequences themselves due to experiences with blatant, offensive
professional sexism directed against them.


I asked only the women the following two questions. First, 43% of women claimed ongoing
concerns/issues/problems in their current positions that they attribute to gender. This could mean problems
with outright sexist behavior, issues of balancing working with spousal/parental commitments, or
concerns about commanding the respect of a class, for example. Second, 66% of women said that they
anticipated experiencing hindrances related to gender as they advanced in their astronomy careers. By
and large, therefore, young women in astronomy do feel that they are at a chromosomally-based disadvantage. I did not ask about sources of any perceived discrimination (e.g. colleague of same academic
stature, senior male astronomer, etc.). Yet many women did offer comments to the effect that
they thought their male colleagues of the same academic age had less-than-equal views of women's
capabilities. Some men, on the other hand, were of the opinion that as soon as some particularly problematic
older men either retired or expired, the situation for women would improve.


It seems clear based on the above that gender biases in astronomy and their effects have persisted
to the current generation of young faculty, and also to the next generation, today's graduate students.
Almost everyone acknowledges the presence of gender issues. Young men seem just as aware as young
women that differential treatment exists and, in fact, men as a group feel affected by such gender
biases almost as frequently as women, although certainly differently and, one could argue, less emotionally
severely in the worst cases.

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