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“Good Morning, Gentlemen and Meg”
Astronomy: A Woman’s Choice


By Ann Finkbeiner

January 2001

Ann Finkbeiner is a freelance science writer who writes often about cosmology and other astronomy topics. She currently teaches in the graduate science writing program of The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. Being a woman and a science writer, Ann is often asked to write
about women in science. Her articles have addressed “How few women are in science and no one knows why” and “What does a woman need if she's going to make it?” The present article is reprinted with permission from the November 2000 issue of Astronomy magazine.

Women astronomers are now and always have been underrepresented, underpaid,
and undervalued. This isn’t the 1880s, when Wellesley College astronomy professor
Sarah Whiting was asked by a colleague, "If all the ladies should know so much about
spectroscopes and cathode rays, who will attend to the buttons and breakfasts?" This is now, a
century later, when women are half of the labor force and a fifth of all scientists and engineers,
but still under a tenth of all astronomers. Vera Rubin at the Carnegie Institution is nearing the
end of her distinguished career and is, as she says, "getting fed up": "What’s wrong with this
story is that nothing’s changing, or it’s changing so slowly. For 20 years, I’ve been optimistic that
things are getting better and better. But 20 years later, it’s still 6 percent, and sure, that’s better
than 2 percent. But four percentage points in 50 years isn’t saying much." And in spite of endless
analyses, no one quite knows why.


What happens next depends on the woman."At 16, I wanted to do math and science," said
Gillian Knapp of Princeton, "and I thrashed around to see what was the matter with me.
Then I just said, ‘So there’s something the matter with me. So what? I’ll just go and do what I
want.’" This is now a more interesting story altogether: how women manage to stay in
astronomy anyway.


In the first place, things are indeed getting better. Women now win competitive professorships
and postdoctoral fellowships, chair national committees, and direct national observatories;
the numbers of young women astronomers are at an all-time high. "There has been a huge
improvement," said Wendy Freedman of the Carnegie Observatories. But the bottom line is
the same as in the bad old days: few women get in and fewer stay. One quarter of graduate students
are women, but only 7 percent of tenured full professors are. (Rubin’s 6 percent isn’t necessarily
a contradiction; besides, she says, "it doesn’t even matter — it’s just pathetically
small.") And when women do stay in, their salaries for a given rank are lower; they’re
unlikely to be on the track for tenure; they don’t get promoted as quickly, they are scarce in the
higher ranks, their offices are smaller, and their voices less audible.


The reasons for women’s underrepresentation have been the subject of countless surveys,
articles, committees, websites, newsletters, and symposia in innumerable departments, journals,
professional societies, and agencies. The results of all this brainpower have been a little
vague. One reason that’s often given: Women aren’t encouraged by those whose job it is to
encourage young scientists: parents, teachers, advisors. Another reason is that women are bent
socially to be cooperative and consensual, to be less self-confident, less self-promoting, less competitive. Another is that women most often marry their colleagues, and then face all the tricky balances of a two-career marriage. Analysts now say that women’s discouragement comes from no one great obstacle, but from
years of accumulating small, subtle ones. "Each incident is nothing," says Gillian Knapp,
"but together they erode you." The incidents include trivialities like standard masculine pronouns;
being addressed not as Dr. but as Mrs.; and "saying something in a meeting and it’s
ignored," says Stefi Baum at STScI, "then the guy next to you says the same thing and it’s great." Such incidents are incremental, said Megan Urry, also at STScI, "and only after a while do you feel the
weight of them."


Most simply, women are seen to be different. From the time they were college students, they have heard the equivalent of the words — sometimes kindly meant — with which Urry’s graduate
classes began: "Good morning, gentlemen and Meg." Occasionally, the words are unkind:
Knapp says her undergraduate classes in physics had three women "out of 60 or 70. One professor
would harangue about women not belonging here until we burst into tears and then he’d
leave. We learned to burst into tears really fast." Sometimes no one says anything particular: during
Lisa Storrie-Lombardi’s first postdoctoral fellowship, she said, "The department was all
men. I was startled that I noticed it. I didn’t handle it well — I just didn’t feel connected."
The point is, such incidents, whether outright illegal or barely noticeable, are evidence to
women that they’re outsiders.

The other point is, such incidents are the universal reactions to someone different. "It’s
human nature," said Rebecca Bernstein, a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie
Observatories, "and any change will be a long time coming." Sandra Faber, who was hired at
Lick Observatory about when Bernstein was born, agreed: "It’s the way it is. So then you
say, ‘So what?’"


I interviewed 15 women astronomers who are now at nine of the country’s best astronomical
institutions. They ranged from postdocs to senior faculty; they looked like anything from
corporate lawyers to suburban parents to — quite frankly — nerds. They agreed that the
basic problems of career-building in a difficult science were the same for men and women, but
that women had this extra problem of difference."You do stand out and that can either hurt
or help," said Bernstein. "But I don’t think being different always helps. There’s not an animal on
the planet that feels relaxed standing out like a sore thumb."


They disagreed, according to their own personalities, on styles of handling the difference.
For instance, Anneila Sargent, who is at Caltech and is the president-elect of the American
Astronomical Society, said, "It doesn’t hurt to be an engaging person. ‘Compromise’ is not a dirty
word." But Daniela Calzetti at STScI said, "I start the fights. I’m quite aggressive." They did
converge, however, on a broad rule for staying in astronomy: define yourself as an astronomer.
This rule has several sub-rules.

1) Fit into a mostly male community.


Most of those I interviewed stayed in by paying less attention to the word "male" than to
the word "community." After Knapp said that in graduate school she’d learned to cry fast, she
added, "But it was a relief, for the first time being around other nerds." And now, she says,
her men and women colleagues "are all pretty similar — vain, hard-working, and fortunate,
extremely fortunate." Astronomy "needs a passion, an ability, a single-mindedness," said
Wendy Freedman of the Carnegie Observatories, "and that’s all true for men and women both." These women weren’t trying to change gender: "I don’t go into this wanting to be a man," said Anne Kinney, director of the Origins program at NASA; "the goal is to do good work."Rather, they included themselves and their male colleagues in a larger category, the community of astronomers. Such "redefining is not hard where people so love the field," Kinney said."It’s the main coping mechanism." Crystal Martin is at Caltech on a post-doctoral fellowship: "I’m in the community now. It’s one I enjoy being a part of."


Fitting into the community, however, also means competing for limited resources. The National Science Foundation funds about one astronomical proposal in four. STScI grants telescope time to one in five. Ten Hubble postdoctoral fellowships receive 140 applicants. In this field, Urry says, "the personality filters screen out the diffident. The aggressive get through." Freedman said she has to "defend my science against people who want me off my own telescope, get me uninvited from meetings, and call me incompetent publicly. Our field is not gentle."


Everyone I interviewed was conscious of how she handled competition.


Freedman dissociates the scientific from the personal: "In the Hubble constant controversy, I
look at my male colleagues jostling around and hurling things at each other and I don’t feel singled out at all. It’s not because I’m a woman." Rubin avoids the jostling and hurling:"I couldn’t take the sociology,"
she said, and instead picks problems no one else worked on "but results they’d be pleased to have." Rosemary Wyse at Johns Hopkins jostles and hurls: "I was brought up Catholic on the [Protestant] east coast of Scotland, so I am used to asserting my right to be where I want, doing what I want." No one handled competition in any one way, of course. But they all seemed to take Sargent’s father’s motto: "It’s a great life if you don’t weaken."

Competing requires self-confidence, which also seems to be a prerequisite for fitting into a
male community: "What it really takes is a male ego," Bernstein snapped. "When you’re trying to
compete with the top three percent in your business, you’re going to hear ‘no,’ and you can’t go around feeling bad about it," said Lisa Storrie-Lombardi at the SIRTF
Science Center at Caltech. They all said they consciously constructed confidence.
They said time helped. Daniela Calzetti has been on tenure-track for several years:
"I’ve built confidence over the years. Now I have an indestructible self-confidence."
Experience helped too. Urry said she’d earlier "imagined everyone else was
as good as I was or better. Now, after 20 years’ experience, I rarely feel that same
intimidation." Anne Kinney: "When you’re from a small town, you stitch together your
own world. That builds your self-confidence. Nobody else is going to do it." Faber is blunt:
"I’ve never really failed at something that mattered to me."


2) Be tough as nails.


For all their determination to fit in to the community, they didn’t do so seamlessly. Some
handled the resulting isolation or intimidation by seeking out other women; some didn’t.
They all seemed to have a central resource, a core of determinedness. Rubin recited a fast list
of discouragements: her high school physics teacher told her to stay away from science,
and Princeton University answered her request for a catalog with, "Inasmuch
as we do not accept women, we will not send you a catalog." And then said, "The
point of all these stories is, I desperately wanted it. They just didn’t understand and
I didn’t care if they did."


Freedman said that as a student, one of her male classmates told her, "‘Women
belong in the kitchen and in the bedroom,’ and I thought, ‘There are jerks in
this world.’ And at the end of the course, he had the D and I had the A." Storrie-
Lombardi’s colleagues noticed she was older than other postdocs and told her, "‘ If you
haven’t done your work by age 35, you’re not going to do it.’ And I say, ‘Well, stuff it. I didn’t
figure it out until I was 33.’"


Along with universal determination was universal hard work. "It takes luck, hard work,
complete concentration," said Faber. "My strategy throughout life is, how few minutes can I
give to this, and still feel 40 hours is a slow week. Bernstein says, "most of my colleagues
work a hard six days, if not seven days a week, and 12 hours a day." When "there’s something big," Freedman says, "I work from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. The kids get up at 7 a.m., we get them out the door. Come home from work at 6 p.m. Go to bed 10ish. Weekends, 3 a.m. to 11, it doesn’t impact the kids. My sister said, ‘you’re nuts, you better slow down,’ and I took her advice for a few days. But I enjoy working hard. Those work hours sound horrendous but they’re not. If you love it, it’s not hard."


3) And that’s the last sub-rule: love astronomy.


For some of them, the love started young. When I asked Calzetti when she knew she
wanted to be an astronomer, she said, "since ever." Knapp, as a child, had asthma: "The
nights I couldn’t breathe, I just spent watching the stars go by and thinking about them."
Rubin said much the same: "At age 10 or 12, I had a bed under a north-facing window and
watched the stars, and soon I would rather watch the stars than sleep." Sally Oey, a postdoc
at STScI, had "a two- or three-inch refractor. The first time I looked at Saturn — the
light from it lands on your eye so it’s really there — I was just so excited. Something clicks
when you see something elegant." Freedman:"For me, I came into this field because I loved
it. I can’t believe I’m paid to do this. When it’s time to go home, I can’t believe the whole day
has gone by."


Variants on this last were nearly universal."It’s really a privilege to be paid to do this,"
said Storrie-Lombardi. "Being paid to do this is not normal." Sargent: "I feel astonishingly successful.
I can’t believe I’m here." Calzetti’s English is her second language: "I think my job
is a call more than it is a job. In fact, I don’t think it’s a job at all. It’s a liberation, a joy."


Rubin must be the prototype of how women manage to stay in astronomy. "Nothing
discouraged me," she said. "It’s an incredible universe we’re in and how could you do anything
but try and learn about it?" About 15 minutes into the interview, Rubin said she was
bored telling me her life story, she’d rather talk about an elegant observation she’d made about
spiral galaxies that behave like ellipticals."That’s what I like to do," she said, "go off and
find a nice result. Just sit here and look at galaxies and nobody bothers me and I can get a
result no one expected. I just love it. I can’t imagine having more fun. The fact is, we really
don’t know what the universe is doing. We might die thinking we know some things that
turn out to be wrong. And that’s ok."


Why is that ok?


"Because then the children can have the fun."


So what does it take to stay in astronomy? Storrie-Lombardi: "Fortitude."


Oey: "A thick skin."

 

ADDENDUM: The One Large Imbalance, by Ann Finkbeiner

When I asked 15 women astronomers what it takes for women to succeed in astronomy,
they usually answered, "about what it takes for men to succeed." The added discouragements are
cumulative, they said, but tractable. Small disadvantages "make you uncomfortable," said Daniela
Calzetti at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), "they don’t destroy your career." The one
large imbalance they saw in women’s situations is in the broad and nebulous area of sex, marriage,
and children. Sandra Faber at the Lick Observatory said it flatly: "The careers of women
are never going to look like the careers of men."


Nobody would recount for publication the non-consenting sexual incidents — usually overt
propositions — that are inevitable when women and men work together. "This doesn’t happen
every five minutes," said Anneila Sargent at Caltech, "but it happens to all of us sooner or
later." "You need the resilience to ignore or to deal," said Wendy Freedman at the Carnegie
Observatories. Everyone who told these anecdotes said they first got uncomfortable and worried, then
behaved as though nothing happened and hoped for the best. "Most of it doesn’t turn out negatively,"
said Freedman. What they worry about, of course, is the effect on their careers: "Someone
being attracted to you is always an obstacle, especially if they’re senior," said Sally Oey at STScI.
"You don’t want to say, ‘screw off,’" said Sargent,"because you might want his good will."


When sexual attraction is mutual, the next obstacle is what the field calls "the two-body
problem:" couples who want geographically neighboring jobs. The two-body problem is
worse for women: women scientists tend to marry men scientists, but not the reverse. "My
boyfriend is in astronomy, unfortunately," said Lori Lubin at Caltech. The likelihood of finding
two good jobs in the same area is small, but all nine of the married women I interviewed had
done it anyway. They were split fairly evenly among those who followed their husbands to
jobs, those whose husbands followed them, and those who did a little of both. Most had periods
of living separately, usually a year or so; but Daniela Calzetti and her husband have been married
eight years and "lived together about four," she said. "Neither of us wanted to give up our
careers." Rosemary Wyse at Johns Hopkins has been in a bi-coastal relationship for ten years: "It
doesn’t seem unstable. We’d prefer to live together, but I’d also prefer to be a multimillionaire."


Kinney is unmarried, "and it’s not unrelated," she said. "It’s a luxury to be in this field,
and the two-body problem is one of the prices. That’s just life."


Children raise the price higher. Some women— especially older ones — accepted the greater
share of parental responsibility, meaning that their hours were longer and professional contacts
lower: "I always got home by 5 p.m. and came back at 8 p.m. when the kids were in bed," said
Sargent. "What I missed was having time to shoot the breeze." Other women are what Megan Urry
at STScI calls "co-parents." "When the kids went into school," said Gillian Knapp at Princeton, "my
husband and I just switched off getting home. It’s like Wendy said once, we’re a two-person one-parent
family." "It’s extraordinarily, pleasurably busy," says Wendy herself; but even so, "you have to be
extremely scheduled." All these women become, as Faber says, "ruthless about minutes." "When I was
younger," she explained, "I had less time than my male colleagues. I was absolutely ruthless in saying
only two things I would do. If I’d picked three things, I’d have given up astronomy."


None of these women was complaining. On the contrary, they expressed deep, real gratitude
toward their husbands — for taking up the slack during observations or deadlines or travel, and for
general moral support. When I asked Vera Rubin at the Carnegie Institution how women managed,
she said, "Number one is to have a supportive husband." Their gratitude might also come from comparing
their own husbands to other men they knew, though only Knapp was explicit about it: "If
your husband doesn’t cooperate, you have a stark choice. The wrong man is a disaster."


They all noticed, as Lisa Storrie-Lombardi at Caltech said, "women who want to have families
have a harder time than men who want to have families." One graduate advisor, she said,
"would say that from now on, he’d accept only graduate students with children because they
were used to staying up all night and could multi-task. Nobody could believe I catch up on
sleep during observing."

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