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A Personal Journey of Exploration through the World of Women Astronomers


By Regina Jorgenson

June 2000

In 1998 Regina Jorgenson received a Thomas J. Watson Foundation fellowship to study Women in Astronomy and the Effects of Culture on Science. She spent a year traveling in Europe, India, Australia, Japan and Russia, interviewing women astronomers. The following article, an anecdotal look at
the trip, is the first in a two-part series. The second, which will be published in the January 2001 issue of STATUS, will contain a more rigorous analysis of interviews and questionnaires.

MY FIRST GLIMPSE was of high heels. Followed by a tight, black mini-skirt,
leopard-skin print top, coral lips and a crowning head of beautifully curled hair. Surely,
this woman descending the stairs before me must be the secretary. I gulped as she introduced herself
and only hoped that I was not as red on the outside as I felt I should be. She was indeed the
woman I was to meet, a tenured astronomer at a prestigious institute, yet I had never before
encountered a scientist who looked or dressed as she did. Her manner and style were typical of
the sensual, sexy, Latin-European country from which she came, but were never seen in any scientific
institutes or academies I had frequented. I found it difficult to hide my shock as parity
emerged between this physical identity and the competent, accomplished astronomer I was to
interview. But my greatest shock was the realization that I had judged her on such a superficial
level. Me — a politically correct crusader of women's rights, a feminist.


I would soon learn that this embarrassing, humbling experience was only the first in a series of
events that challenged not only my unconsciously held biases but also my openly acknowledged moral
beliefs. India and Russia, respectively the homes of two value systems I had been taught to disdain —
arranged marriage and socialism — were also rumored to harbor strangely female-friendly scientific
environments. And Australia, despite its similarity to the U.S., would reveal a unique piece of evidence
in an oft-debated question of education. From socialism and arranged marriage to single-sex
schools and mini-skirts, my worldview changed as I slowly gathered evidence of how greatly culture can
affect the situation of women in astronomy.


I began this year as a crusade, seeking answers to the question of why there are so few women in
astronomy — a seemingly worldwide trend. I supposed that by looking at cultures with varied traditions regarding the roles and treatment of women I could gain deeper insight into the source of the
problem.


In India, I was intrigued to discover how such a traditional society could foster a relatively high
percentage of women astronomers. As my interviews progressed, I realized that nearly every
woman I talked with was married and had children. It was explained to me that marriage holds
such an important social and practical role in the society that all people are expected to marry, usually
through a system of arranged marriage. “After all,” I was told, “if you don't marry and have children,
who will take care of you when you grow old?” This is a viable concern in a state that has no
system of social security. Unlike women in the west who often feel that they must choose between family
and a highly competitive and demanding job in astronomy, working women in India are not only
allowed but expected to take time off for family. Thus, it is not thought unusual or bad that a
woman has a family and a career in astronomy simultaneously. In addition, the large, extended
structure of most Indian families provides built-in childcare, with grandparents or other relatives
available to care for children when both parents are at work. The social expectation that family is
most important, coupled with the extended family structure, allows Indian women much more freedom
in choosing to pursue a career in astronomy.


Percentage-wise, Russian women astronomers are twice as numerous as their female counterparts
in most western countries. This surprisingly high percentage of women in astronomy has a long history
in Russia and is commonly explained as an effect of the socialist revolution. Under socialism
all people were expected to be educated, to work and to contribute to society equally. Women were
therefore commonly found in all areas of the work force and were supported rather than hindered by
the social system and cultural beliefs. Extended families and extensive daycare support often
helped to alleviate childcare concerns. Sadly, the current situation in Russia for all fundamental sciences
such as astronomy is poor and deteriorating. Since the break-up of the government, virtually no
money has been spent on scientific research. Yet somehow, many astronomers have managed to
hang on. In the words of one woman, “We [Russians] are working on enthusiasm alone right
now.” Ironically, in this situation, the percentage of women has increased in the field. Men, the traditional
breadwinners of the family, have been forced to find other work, leaving opportunities for
women who have financial support through traditional family structures.


In Australia, I was surprised to discover that pre-university, single-sex schools are still quite popular.
Growing up in the U.S., I had always thought of these schools as antiquated and I knew it was
commonly feared that women from these schools would not be able to function, once released into
the “real world” (i.e., of male competition). In fact, nearly half of the Australian women astronomers I
spoke with were a product of these schools — a fact that seems to support the belief that single-sex
schools foster an environment that allows girls to gain confidence in science and math without the
burden or pressure of competition with male peers. The significant percentage of women from these
schools shows that single-sex education does not hinder potential to succeed in science.


To me, these examples do not advocate socialism, single-sex schools, or arranged marriages per
se, but they certainly make clear the need to address the issue of cultural bias when discussing
the global lack of women in astronomy. Only through my immersion in these cultures did I
realize how complex this problem is. After all, despite the aforementioned positive impacts of
culture on women astronomers, there are still many more negative cultural influences. For
example, it is well known that girls in India do statistically and consistently much better than
boys in school, yet are more likely to fail once they go to university. This trend was explained to
me as the result of culturally instilled, gender-specific character traits. Grade school teaches and
tests the skills of rote memorization, whereas college requires independent thinking, questioning
and problem solving. Thus, in college, men are finally given the chance to apply the skills that
were nurtured in them since they were boys — independent thinking and questioning — while
women fall behind, usually lacking these skills that were traditionally suppressed by society.


In the past six months, since completing my year of travel, I have received several disheartening
e-mails from women I had met, informing me that they have since left the field of astronomy. Hearing
this news from women with whom I had so recently spoken left me saddened and acutely aware of
how volatile and precarious the apparent success of women astronomers might be. Although it is commonly
thought that the situation for women is improving, we must be careful to maintain international
support for the encouragement of women in astronomy. Blatant discrimination against women
in science is mostly a thing of the past. Now we must face the more difficult task of first recognizing
and finally eliminating the subtle and culturally grounded obstacles that are keeping women from
reaching the stars.

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