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From the Trenches


Views from Young Astronomers

OVER THE LAST YEAR, we received letters from several readers, mostly young
astronomers, who describe a side of professional astronomy that may not be familiar to
everyone. Here we recount five stories, from an undergraduate student, two graduate students, an
observing technician, and a university postdoc. Their views are different, as are their experiences
in astronomy, and readers may or may not find common ground. This is far from a comprehensive
survey of life in astronomy, much less any kind of universal truth; rather, it is meant to be a window,
a tool for understanding our different attitudes.


In the following reader-contributed stories, the authors’ names have been withheld (and a
few details changed) to protect the identities of those involved.

 

"You Will Hold Up The Progress"


At age 12, I knew I wanted to pursue astronomy. I had a romantic vision of the
science, perhaps too romantic, and a great amount of interest in the field. Unfortunately,
I was a little girl unaware of the harsh reality of pursuing an applied science as a
female. My first warning flag came during a senior year undergraduate physics class. On the very
first day of class the older, male professor looked directly at me (the only female in the
class) and loudly scoffed, "The business classes are down the hall!" Next class he asked me to
solve a random problem at the board. After no more than a minute he began yelling at me, saying
I did not know what I was doing. He erased my work and began to redo the problem from
scratch, repeating the exact same steps I had just done. At another class meeting, we had a pop
quiz. I felt very comfortable with the material and was shocked to receive only 2 out of 10
points. I compared quiz answers with a male lab partner also in the class. My lab partner received
a 9 out of 10 for the same answers I had.


The following class meeting, the professor picked on me continuously, each time stating my
answer was incorrect before I could finish my response. Other students shook their heads in
disgust. After class I approached him in private, asking him why I had been graded unfairly and
why he was treating me with such disregard. With each question, he became more livid and
offended, finally offering: "I feel you are too stupid to be taking this class. I don’t want you in
there, you will hold up the progress." Still, I pleaded with him, saying he hadn’t given me a
chance and that I had a right to take the class. He replied, "Look, young lady, I have tenure
here. Don’t try and tell me how to run my class." I went directly to the Dean and explained
the entire story and also mentioned that I was contemplating legal recourse with help from my
parents. I was then placed in a self-taught class; sitting in a physics graduate student’s office I
would read the text and complete various assignments and exams while proctored by the student.
Any questions I had, I would ask him and he would do his best to explain things to me. I
was deprived of a regular class setting, lectures, and a faculty instructor. Much to my professor’s
dismay, I received an A in the course, the highest grade of all students enrolled in the class. I was
so proud of my accomplishment. When the professor approached me at the conclusion of the
semester I felt the urge to convey a few choice words to him, but restrained myself. Young and
naïve, I chalked it up to his lack of interaction with women and the fact he was an older
instructor, backward in his thoughts.


Time passed and my skin hardened, as I experienced many other troubling, gender-related
situations. My first job out of college was at a telescope observatory. A tour of university professors
was making its way through the site. As the tour guide introduced me and mentioned the
university I received my degree from, a man in the back spoke up in a proud voice, "I am a professor
at that university!" As he approached me happily and completely unaware, I recognized
him immediately as that physics professor! Two years had passed, but I had not forgotten one
thing about the confrontation I had with this man. Amazingly, he was oblivious as to who I
was. What mattered to him was that fact that one of the school’s alumna represented them so
well in front of all the visitors. He actually approached me and asked what my major had
been! It was all I could do to remain patient and calm, as I was well aware he was showing off for
the others. As they walked away, he loudly stated,"Great to see one of ours here!"



Objective Measures


I'm a 4th year graduate student, and a CSWA and AAS member who truly appreciates the
articles detailing the status of women in astronomy. I just finished reading Meg Urry’s
article in the AAS newsletter (October, 2000), and decided to comment about my own perceptions
as a woman in astronomy.


I've never felt any overt discrimination; no one has told me women are inferior as a matter of course. I've never before had a problem with people recognizing my worth as a sharp and reliable person. But as time moves on, I'm beginning to notice something very disturbing. I am no longer taking classes, which I felt were
a very objective measure of where I stand among my peers. I think the people who have
known my class history have respected that, and me, I hope.


In the past couple years, I have encountered a strange perception of me and my abilities by
certain people, one that clashes with what I perceive of myself. As an example, I recently finished
a course with two other students, both male. We are very good friends, and have taken
many classes together over the years. I have received better grades than both of them on
many exams we took together, and I know that they respect my ability to "kick their butts" in
some really tough physics courses. But students coming in after us usually assume that the guys
did better than I did in classes, which I take to mean they think my male colleagues are more
intelligent than I am. I infer that all, or most, of the younger students think this, after an illuminating
conversation with one of them. He told me he had assumed that my male friends had
done much better than I had, and was very surprised to learn that it was the other way around.
And this was perhaps the last person I would imagine would have a gender bias! I guess it
hurt me even more because I wouldn't have expected it from him; I felt he knew me well
enough to have an accurate opinion of me.

There have been other similar, though less obvious, incidents in which my opinion of my
intelligence and capability was higher than the one others held of me. I was not nominated for
a student leader position in our department while both my male colleagues were. That irked
me for a year, and this year, when I was nominated as sort of a joke, I ended up winning by
one vote.


I'm coming to the conclusion that it gets tougher because the objective measures are
gone. No more classes. People evaluate you on how you act, what you say, how you write, and
perhaps, if you're a woman, on how you dress. I've always envied the European women, who
seem to look great and sexy every day, and noticed how different women scientists dress
here. I wondered if it was a selection effect. Maybe you can't make it looking like that here.
But that, I hope, is a side issue. So maybe most women have a different way of going about
things, one that our male colleagues don't recognize as easily? It's hard to see someone's worth if
you're not on the same wavelength.

Thanks for your time, and keep up the great work! I hope to still be reading those articles in
10 years as an AAS member and assistant professor somewhere.



Women Have Inferior Ph.D.’s


I am a female student in an astronomy Ph.D. program. As a reader of STATUS, I wanted
to share with you a rather unpleasant, but enlightening, conversation I recently had with a
male colleague.


I was talking with a fellow Ph.D. student and somehow the conversation turned to racial
and gender bias in various professions. I had just read Meg Urry’s article, "The Status of Women
in Astronomy" in the June 2000 issue of STATUS. I was impressed with the scientific
approach taken to examine the question of how women progress in our field. So I told my friend
about the article, saying that Meg had looked at statistical data and found that, in general,
women astronomers do not do better than men when looking for post-docs and faculty positions,
and also that they are underrepresented in the pool of AAS awardees. I was thinking (naively) that because those findings were based on scientific data, the scientist I was talking to
would at least be open to the idea that despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, he, as a
white male, would not be cheated out of a job by his female colleagues.


Almost immediately the conversation turned to the possible reasons behind the differences
between men and women's success in astronomy. This man said it was very possible that women
do not do as well because they are "not as good as men" at astronomy. I pointed out that it
would make sense to me that the women who are getting Ph.D.s in the same programs as men,
i.e., taking the same courses (and presumably doing well enough to earn a B or better) and
qualifying exams, and doing Ph.D. thesis research at the same time and in the same
department as their male colleagues, are probably as good as the men with whom they graduate.
He told me he didn't believe that was necessarily true.


I said that I thought it was possible that there was some sort of distribution (a Gaussian??) of male astronomers according to their skill level and talent, with most being of about average talent compared with the others, and some being very good and others not very good. I said that if that is so, it is likely that the pool of women has a similar distribution, just with smaller numbers in it.

He responded by saying that the distribution of women may be skewed so that the overall
quality of the women is inferior to that of the men; therefore, he hypothesized, women Ph.D.'s
do not do as well as men in astronomy. When I asked him why this would be true, he outlined
several possible reasons:

  • Women graduate students are more often married and therefore spend less time at
    work than their male counterparts, because they want to get home to their
    husbands/families.
  • Female graduate students are unable to develop as close a relationship with their
    advisors as male students, because they are not "like" them (though how this indicates
    inferiority is unclear).
  • Women do not have as strong a background in math and science, because from the time
    women are in the early stages of elementary school, they are taught not to like math and
    science (by their female teachers), and therefore make worse astronomers later in life.
  • Fewer women get into the "best" Ph.D. schools; thus more women have inferior
    Ph.D.s and are consequently not as successful in their subsequent careers.


He concluded that the fact that women are not doing as well as men overall is likely just a
reflection of the comparatively poor quality of the pool of women available. He said that
women shouldn't be given extra encouragement or special advantages just because they are
women, because it's possible that they are simply not as good as the men.


I was completely surprised by this conversation. I have been replaying it in my head since it
happened, trying to make sense of it and of my reaction to it.


What I find ironic and strange about this whole exchange is that I happen to be a woman,
and I have done very well in the Ph.D. program that I, and this student, are both enrolled in. I
earned the highest possible grade in every one of my graduate courses here. I was the only woman
in my Stellar Physics course, and I earned the highest score on the exam in that class. I did
well on my qualifying exam, and I have been awarded a full fellowship to complete my thesis
work. But the point is that I am *not at all* out of the ordinary. I know of many female graduate
students who are doing as well or (often) better than their male colleagues in graduate school.


But none of this seems to matter. What I learned from this recent conversation (and this is
what bothers me most about it) is that no matter how well I do in this field, and how many times
I prove my ability, there will always be people who think that I am not as good as my male
counterparts, and/or that I came by my successes in part because I am female. (Exactly how the
fact that I am female would help me during an exam on Stellar Physics, I have no idea!) Perhaps
I am naive, but I just had not thought of things in quite this way before. I thought that by working
hard and writing papers and giving good talks that eventually I would be able to make my
own niche in this field, and that I would succeed or fail based on my merit and ability as an
astronomer, not on my gender.


Perhaps I can learn to discount the opinions of people such as the person I spoke with. Or I
hope I can get to the point where I can objectively assess the particular point of view he was
presenting without having such an emotional reaction to it. (I was, embarrassingly, nearly in
tears by the time the conversation ended.)


I wanted you to know (and perhaps this is not news) that things down here "in the trenches"
of grad school can still look pretty bleak at times. It's going to take a lot of work on all of
our parts to change attitudes and remove barriers so that we can begin, as Meg Urry said in her
article, "attracting and retaining and fostering success among the best minds in astronomy."



Sexual Harassment at Every Turn


My first job after receiving my degree was at an observatory. I paid little attention to the comment made by the site manager during the interview, "What’s a nice girl like you doing in a field like this?" But
maybe I should have. For the entire first month on the job, 90% of the men on site flirted with
me. One male employee even brought a mattress in one evening, laid it on the floor next to
me and beckoned me over. I thought to myself, is this place a pickup joint or an observatory?
Was I hired to make it convenient for the men here to find dates? On more than one occasion,
our married supervisor asked me to accompany him on "business trips." He bought me extravagant
gifts whenever he traveled to foreign locales. He would call me into his office, shut
the door and present the gift, and then hug me and occasionally kiss me on the cheek. Many of
the other staff members would sheepishly make sexual remarks; I would always change the subject
or walk away. I was young and I was afraid I would ruin my future if I reacted negatively to
any of this.


Several years later at a different observatory the harassment from a male colleague began practically my first day on site. Every night I was in the observing room, he would enter uninvited
and talk about himself for hours. The topics included his ex-wife, women he was sleeping
with, women he would like to sleep with, his fiancé, specific details of his exploits with certain
women, all leading to how much he ‘liked’ me. On one occasion he sat behind me on a couch
and said, "You look like you could use a backrub," and grabbed me from behind. I jumped up
quickly and left the room, completely frazzled and scared, thinking only that no one could get
to the site in less than one hour. Many times I was alone at this remote site with this man 2.5
times my size, 20 miles away from any town.


On another occasion while taking a coffee break with another co-worker, the same guy
interrupted us, walking toward me and blocking my path. As I tried to walk around him, he
grabbed me and pulled me towards him, and kissed me on the head, in front my coworker, no
less! His total disregard clearly demonstrated his lack of respect for policy and for me. He continued
to harass me all evening until I slammed the door to the observing room. Sitting in the closed
office, I was overcome by tears, wondering if I would be blamed for his actions.


Later that day I related this story to a female colleague who was also a close friend. This guy
had done the same thing to her and to another woman at another institution, and was never
reprimanded. He was leaving a trail of harassment at every site and the worst part was, he
was getting away with it! I took this information directly to our site manager, thereby becoming
the nail in the coffin. The university that runs the facility has a very strict harassment policy.
The outcome: he was not allowed to return to the site for any reason. Also, a warning was
given, or, as I like to say, "a slap on the hand and run along." As an aside, he denied everything
and insisted I provoked it.


Only a few months later, a research group was visiting our facility for a few days. The first
day this group was on site, one of the young male members inquired if he could tour the
grounds with me. As we walked, we discussed various research topics, our educational background
and such. Our conversation was polite and casual, not at all inappropriate. The next
day, as I was about to begin walking, he asked to accompany me again. A mile away from the site,
his dialogue turned to courtship, dating, and romance. I became flushed as his discussion continued
with comments like, "I thought I was going to be stuck here with a bunch of bearded,
out-of-shape, men; instead, I find a beautiful girl." Nauseated from stress, I made every effort
to get us back before he could try anything. Just before the observatory came into view, he
stepped in front of me, put both hands on my shoulders to prevent any movement, and said,
"We have a lot in common and I really like you and I think we should keep in touch after I
leave." I tried to back away, and made it clear to him I was otherwise involved. I said his actions
were inappropriate, and announced I had just recently dealt with a situation similar to this,
hoping this would make him rethink his actions. Instead, ignoring my negative response, he cited
his ability to fly across the country to visit me. Panicking, I made a comment about the setting
sun, provoking our hurried return. The same improper questioning occurred every time we
were alone that evening. I reported this incident to my superior, who in turn, relayed the events
to the lead researcher of the visiting group shortly after their departure. The male visitor
was reprimanded by his research team lead, which prompted him to attempt to contact me
via e-mail, although I would not respond to his mail. I feel that the controversy was not dealt
with properly.


I have since left that observatory to take up another position. I have been asked to speak at
Elderhostels, College for Kids, Women’s History Month festivals, and Conferences for Women in
Higher Education, never once missing the chance to describe and discuss the awe-inspiring
fascination astronomy kindles in most people. When asked why I left "such cool jobs", I reply
truthfully. My conscience will not allow me to promote the field without imparting all the facts.
Encourage possible students to toss reservations to the wind, and scurry off to follow their
dreams? It proved impossible for me. Astronomy has not made me bitter; at times, it
has made me wish I was a different gender, but quite literally, it has allowed me to see more
deeply and clearly. Male or female, isn’t that what all astronomers desire?



Leaving Astronomy


I'm writing to let you know of my recent decision to leave astronomy. I had been
thinking about this possibility for some time, since I had always wanted to be prepared
in case I had to leave astronomy. Just prior to my most recent postdoc ending I had
gone through the usual process of applying for another position elsewhere. I was offered a
very nice postdoc position as a spacecraft scientist, with a team leader who has a reputation
of being an excellent person to work for. The position was extendable up to four years with the ability to move up in rank throughout that time.


Shortly after accepting this offer, I began sending out my resume to businesses and
posting it on "techie" web pages, just to see what kinds of bites, if any, I would get. I
ended up getting a very nice offer from a local company for approximately double what the postdoc position was offering me. Soon after, I was called by a recruiter who saw my
resume on the web to interview with another company. They were forming a high-tech
research group in a large metropolitan city to study new and emerging technologies that
could be utilized by their firm. I was made an even better offer there (about 3x the postdoc
offer). Seeing that an astronomer could get such nice jobs in industry made me rethink
the whole astronomy thing. I have a little girl, almost two years old. Taking into consideration
my age and that I might be able to be considered for a possible faculty or other permanent
position once my postdoc ended, along with the huge debt my wife and I have
accumulated over the years, made me lean towards leaving astronomy. The salary these
jobs were offering I couldn't possibly expect for another 10 years or so in astronomy.
Sadly, I called to reject the postdoc offer. I believe I made the right decision for my family,
despite all the years I spent preparing for a career in astronomy, because my family, after
all, is the most important thing to me.


In the end, I also rejected the offer for the higher-paying job mostly due to considerations
of living convenience and my wife's overall happiness. Living in the outskirts of a large metropolitan
city is much less convenient than living in the suburbs near my wife's extended family,
who have kids the same age. So, we have moved and I am now working for the small contracting
company. This stuff is nowhere near as exciting as astronomy, but it is interesting and utilizes my
physics background extensively. I am still thinking of transitioning over to software development
at some point, which is easier in some respects than my current work and pays a lot
more money, but I'll stick with this job for a while. We are very close to my wife's family
here, which will make her life much easier with the baby (and any other babies we may have in
the near future). And of course, a happy wife is the key to a husband's happiness!


I want to emphasize that unlike many other sad cases I've heard in recent years, I chose to
leave the field of astronomy rather than being forced out. I had a goal a long time ago to
become an astronomer, and despite the resistance I encountered along the way, I needed to
reach that goal, regardless of what came next. In the end it came down to family or career, and I
chose family. I GREATLY appreciate all the help and support I have received from colleagues
over the years. I don't think that it was all wasted, since I will always value my time as an
astronomer and the friendships that I have made along the way.

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