Gentlemen and Meg”
Astronomy: A Woman’s Choice
By Ann Finkbeiner
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
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
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
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:
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
So what does it take to stay in astronomy?
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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