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Cultural Impact on the Percentage of Women in Astronomy

By Regina Jorgenson and Vladimir Strelnitski

June 2000

IT HAS LONG BEEN KNOWN that there are large fluctuations in the percentages of women astronomers in different countries, with trends perhaps related to their political, religious, or other cultural traditions. There are some examples that may be easy to explain, such as the remarkably low percentage of women astronomers in Muslim countries, where the role of women in strongly limited. However, there are also less apparent, and therefore more intriguing trends. For example, it has been repeatedly remarked that countries such as Germany or England tend to have a lower percentage of women astronomers relative to countries
such as France or Italy. The attempts to give a simple explanation to this dichotomy are not convincing — after all, shopping hours in Germany and Italy are not so very different (see the article by Steve Beckwith in the January 1999 issue of STATUS). In pursuit of a more comprehensive explanation, we undertook an analysis of the known quantitative data on the subject.

Using the statistics from the IAU Information Bulletin 82 (June 1998), we compared the percentages
of women IAU members in countries grouped according to three cultural characteristics: (1) linguistic roots — Germanic versus Romanic, (2) predominant religion — Protestant versus Catholic (only for Western Europe, Australia and the USA), and (3) political alignment prior to the break-up of the socialist bloc — socialist versus nonsocialist.

Our results are plotted in histogram form in figures 1, 2, and 3. They show unambiguously that the mean percentage of well-established women astronomers in Romanic speaking countries (19 ± 7%) is much higher than in Germanic speaking countries (6 ± 2%), and that this percentage is noticeably higher in socialist countries (20 ± 8%) than in nonsocialist countries (10 ± 5%). Perhaps surprisingly, religious
traditions seem less important than linguistic roots among nonsocialist countries: the percentages of women astronomers in Catholic (14%) and Protestant (9%) countries is not as different.

What is the deeper cultural tradition, correlating with the linguistic roots of a country, that has created the Romanic versus Germanic dichotomy? What is the key feature of “post-1917 socialism” that so remarkably raised the percentage of women with well-established careers in astronomy?

In order to stimulate a discussion, we propose the following tentative explanations: In Germanic (predominantly Northern European) countries the division of gender roles in the family could have been traditionally deeper than in Romanic (predominantly Southern European) countries, the intensity of division being determined by the severity of the climate. Such traditions are strong enough to persevere
despite the dynamism of the modern world.

As for the “socialist versus nonsocialist” effect, it is hard to find an explanation other than the residual of the principles of equality of genders proclaimed by socialist revolutions. It is one of few examples in which the humane theoretical principles of socialism were not completely crushed by reactionary political regimes.

*The following countries were included in graphs:
Germanic countries: U.S.A., U.K., Germany, India, Canada, Australia, The
Netherlands, Sweden, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Denmark, South Africa, Ireland,
Austria, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland
Romanic countries: France, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, Mexico, Chile,
Rumania, Portugal, Venezuela, Uruguay
Catholic countries: France, Italy, Spain, Canada, Poland, Brazil, Argentina, Belgium,
Mexico, Switzerland, Chile, South Africa, Hungary, Austria, Slovak Republic, Portugal,
Croatia, Lithuania, Venezuela, Uruguay, Vatican City State
Protestant countries: U.S.A., U.K., Germany, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia,
Norway, Latvia, Iceland
Socialist countries: Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Rumania, Armenia,
Slovak Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia
Nonsocialist countries: U.S.A., U.K., Germany, Japan, Italy, China (Nanjing), India,
Spain, Canada, Australia, The Netherlands, Brazil, Sweden, Argentina, Greece,
Belgium, Mexico, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Turkey, Denmark, Korea RP, Chile,
South Africa, Israel, Egypt, Finland, Ireland, Austria, New Zealand, China (Taipei),
Norway, Portugal, Indonesia, Venezuela, Uruguay, Iceland


Authors' biographies:

Regina Jorgenson received her B.S. degree in physics in 1998 from the University of Puget Sound. Shortly after graduating, she received a Watson Foundation fellowship to travel abroad to study the situation of
women astronomers in five countries. (See also “A Personal Journey …” by Regina Jorgenson, next page.) She is currently the Assistant Director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory.

Vladimir Strelnitski received his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Moscow State University in 1973. He worked for many years at the Institute of Astronomy of the Russian Academy of Sciences. For the last eight years
he has been working in the U.S., first at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and New Mexico Tech, and currently as the director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory.

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