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Evaluation of the Status of Women in Astronomy

by Andrea Dupree

June 2001

Andrea Dupree is a past president of the American Astronomical Society, a Senior Astrophysicist at the
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and recently chaired the Astronomy Survey Committee Panel
on Education and Public Policy.

AT THE JANUARY 2001 meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), Margaret Burbidge correctly noted that a great deal has changed for women in astronomy over the course of her own career. In theory at least, the doors to observatories are open to all, and that is indeed an accomplishment. But worrisome facts appear in today’s statistics. While women have made progress in some areas, studies such as the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) faculty survey, the AAS survey, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study of senior women faculty all present evidence that women are
still struggling for equal treatment in the sciences.

The surveys highlight two areas critical to professional advancement: the movement from graduate student to postdoctoral position, and the achievement of the highest professional level – the full professor
level. At both these junctions, women are under-represented relative to their availability.

Evaluation of the status of women and minorities takes place in the context of a growing professional
contingent of all astronomers in the United States. The 1999 Survey of Women in Astronomy carried out by the STScI(1) documented that the field of astronomy experienced a huge growth between the 1992 STScI
Survey and 1999 - an overall 1/3 increase in the number of Ph.D. astronomers active in 32 US
Departments of Astronomy and 4 observatories with equivalent science facilities.(2) With so many
new jobs created and in an expanding market, there should be ample opportunity for equal
access. What has actually taken place?

In the first instance, the STScI survey found that 58% of men progress from graduate school
to a postdoctoral position at a comparable institution, but only 41% of the women Ph.D.
graduates do likewise. Men are about 1.5 times as likely as women to make this first critical step
in a professional career.

Why is this happening? It is neither logical nor persuasive that competitive schools select and
graduate women to fill preferentially and consistently the lower ranks of their classes
making women less attractive as postdoctoral material. Some other factor is at work. Are
women consciously deciding to opt out of the postdoctoral experience for their own reasons?
Or is this evidence of outright rejection for postdoctoral positions? After the graduate school
experience, do women feel themselves not to be strong candidates for postdoctoral positions? Is
this feeling subtly reinforced by faculty? Is a fear of failure lurking in the background? There are
few or no data to answer such questions.

Certainly challenging, exciting, and satisfying opportunities are numerous outside of a “traditional”
research/faculty career. And in many cases, the pay is much better too! Several of my
male colleagues have left or refused faculty positions. A faculty position can actually be “a
drag.” Teaching at specified times year after year, competing for a summer salary, dealing with
students who are marking time to fulfill requirements, working around the clock to make tenure,
with committee or administrative requirements added on, may not produce a satisfying career.
All of these activities can compete too with“a life.”

Are women not selected for postdoctoral positions? My experience and review of several
named postdoctoral fellowship programs shows that women quite frequently make the short list
and selection in greater proportions than the gender division of the applicants. The majority of
postdoctoral positions however are not the named fellowships; is it here that female candidates
do not appear as scientifically strong? Are there subtleties in the recommendation letters
that make them appear less worthy candidates? Or do women themselves decide that, for
whatever reason, they prefer not to pursue a postdoctoral position? Perhaps their talents are
used in a myriad of other technical or scientific fields, and that is fine. Perhaps they are attracted
to something quite different. Everyone can make her own choice and selection of a life path.
However, the postdoctoral statistics should raise deep concerns in all segments of our community.
Losing the contributions of a substantial fraction of the next generation of accomplished women
marks a loss of scientific discovery and progress regardless of reason.

The second problem is not a surprise. The literature of science careers well documents
that professional women do not advance as fast as men, receive lower pay than men, and remain
at lower ranks then men. This disparity does not appear to stem from marital status, child-bearing,
mobility, or any of the sociological factors that might distinguish women from men in current society; rather, the prevailing model is that women suffer from the accumulation of smaller disadvantages, which cumulatively result in their taking longer to be promoted to tenure or to full professorship, being paid less compared to men with similar credentials, and being less well represented at the top echelons of scientific society.(3)

In astronomy, about threequarters of the men on faculties are in full professor positions;
whereas only about 43% of women currently hold that rank. In astronomy 5-6% of the senior
positions are held by women. The lowered representation of women at the highest levels
is mirrored also in the National Academy of Sciences.

Some have asserted that lack of women is a “pipeline problem.” Now that more women are studying astronomy, they (eventually) should be represented through the ranks at all levels. But the statistics do not support that idea. Lack of senior women is not a recent phenomenon that will be improved when the “pipeline” catches up. The pool of availability to assess adequate representation is the Ph.D. production rate. We can go back as far as the 1920’s and continue to the 1980’s and the Ph.D. production in astronomy and astrophysics varied between 8 and 20%.(4)

Since then, the NSF tabulation shows that from 1980 through 1999, doctorates by year ranged
from 10 to 20% women. The pipeline has been full for almost a century! Yet the fraction of
women who are full professors is about 6%. The figures for women are always playing catch
up. If there were truly gender blind appointments, if the selection were truly random -
sometime, somewhere, women would exceed their availability in the pool. I have not found
evidence that this has ever occurred. I suspect that search committees do not value women’s
research as equivalent to that of men and that biases are hidden. I also am concerned that such
behavior and the chilly climate and inequities for women in academia (as has been demonstrated
by the MIT study) discourage application for faculty positions.

What can be done about this state of affairs?

First, constant vigilance is needed to remind our colleagues that opportunities are not yet
gender blind. We need current statistics to demonstrate that this continues as a real problem here
and now. Frequently the issue of equal opportunity is dismissed with the statement: “your data
are out of date; we have fixed that problem, it is no longer an issue.” I have learned that data
must be up to date; the statistics must be current. We are a scientific profession, and
anecdotes don’t carry the day. The AAS should continue their annual compilation of statistics
of its members, and STScI is to be applauded for initiating and supporting two very helpful

  • Demand open policies and procedures at your institute or department. Much goes on
    behind closed doors offering private opportunities for subjective decisions and
    ‘rewards’ to an inner circle of colleagues. The more that procedures themselves
    are available, options are brought into the sunlight, the better for everyone.
  • Identify leaders who will support the issues that concern professional women. Experience
    shows that a leader determined to make change can influence that change enormously.
  • Band together to make your case. Discuss issues with your colleagues; they undoubtedly
    have had similar experiences. The women faculty initiating the MIT study achieved their
    strength through shared experience. It is easier to dismiss a single person with a problem than
    a group with the same problem.
  • Speak out both loudly and frequently when egregious events occur. Not so long ago,
    in our observatory, a lovely, large, color poster appeared announcing a meeting and
    listing the speakers. Thirtynine speakers were named of which 38 were men. Surely
    more than one woman was making contributions in this field. Even one (male) graduate student was listed as a speaker! Several senior women complained, loudly, and the speaker’s list was
    modified. It is amazing to me and sad as well that such pressure was needed in this
    day and age. I think that agencies funding meetings should keep an eye out for an
    appropriate balance of speakers, just as they already do when funding participants.
    The CSWA Electronic Newsletter frequently receives scorecards with gender distribution of
    speakers. This is a good resource. Make sure that your local colloquium program is well
    balanced both in gender and science.
  • Learn from success stories. An impressive effort was made in Johns Hopkins University
    School of Medicine to identify gender-based career obstacles for women and then to
    establish a number of interventions to correct these problems and improve career success and
    satisfaction of women faculty. These ranged from structural changes, to mentoring programs,
    to educating faculty, and actions to decrease isolation of women faculty. They even
    went so far as to reschedule a 100-year old tradition of holding medical Grand Rounds on
    Saturday morning to Friday morning. And the attendance of both men and women increased!
    The Johns Hopkins results are impressive, both in the numbers of women faculty they have
    retained and promoted, and in improving the climate for all faculty. Follow-up surveys to this
    long-term program demonstrated that men also felt the situation had improved for them.
    These procedures forcefully demonstrate that with motivation and strong administrative
    backing, that conditions can be improved for both men and women.(5) The NSF has initiated a
    cross-cutting program this year, dubbed ADVANCE, to support academic institutional transformation
    to promote increased participation and advancement of women scientists in academe.
    We need to keep apprised of the results of this new effort and adopt the successful strategies.
  • Don’t underestimate your effect as a role model. A most pleasant surprise for me has
    come from other women, now well known and accomplished in astronomy, recalling a lecture
    I gave or an article they read about me, way back in the early stages of their careers, or even
    before they had decided to enter astronomy. And I am told such contact made astronomy an
    interesting and appealing career, and gave them encouragement to continue. I know our days are
    overloaded with responsibilities and pressures, but take a moment now and then to share the challenge and joy of our profession with those just starting out. You may make a difference!



(1) CSWA, Weekly Electronic Issue 6/16/99; CSWA STATUS June 1999.
(2)The National Science Foundation noted (NSF 99-339, April 6, 1999) that the numbers of Ph.D. recipients in the United States have been declining between 1994- 1997, physics is down by 11 percent; chemistry is
down by 6 percent; however, astronomy is up by 37% to 197 Ph.D. degrees in 1997. The latest figures show
that 160 Ph.D. degrees were awarded in academic year 1999 of which 20% went to women (http://caspar.nsf.gov).
(3) Valian, V. 1998, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, MIT Press.
(4) Doctorates Awarded from 1920 to 1971 by Subfield and doctorate, Sex, and Decade, National Research
Council, March 1973; Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities Summary Reports, 1972-
1984, National Research Council; tabulated in Professional Women and Minorities, Commission on
Professionals in Science and Technology, 1986, p. 142.
(5) Career Development for Women in Academic Medicine, Fried, L. P. et al.,1996, JAMA, 276, pg 898.

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