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Gender Inequality and Cultural Change

By Catherine Pilachowski and Anneila Sargent

Catherine A. Pilachowski studies the chemical composition of stars and star clusters in the Milky Way. She served for more than 20 years on the staff of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, and now holds the Daniel Kirkwood Chair in Astronomy at Indiana University in Bloomington. Dr.
Pilachowski is President-elect of the American Astronomical Society.

Anneila I. Sargent is Professor of Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, and Director of Caltech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory and the Caltech/JPL Interferometry Science Center. Dr. Sargent’s research has concentrated largely on understanding how stars form in our own and other galaxies, and how extrasolar planetary systems are created and evolve. Dr. Sargent is the current President of the American Astronomical Society.

A Preface to the accompanying article by Alice Huang

January 2002

CULTURAL change happens slowly. The Committee on the Status of Women in
Astronomy was formed more than 20 years ago, following two “decadal” studies that
summarized the status of women in our profession. Looking back at the statistics from these studies, and
those from the proceedings of the 1992 Women in Astronomy conference at Space Telescope Science
Institute, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that progress is not just slow, but downright glacial. Add
to the statistics all the anecdotal reports of biased or discriminatory behavior that we still hear today and
conditions today don’t seem very different from those that prevailed in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

Nevertheless, change has occurred. Gender inequity may still exist, but today most
people recognize it for what it is. Professionally, it is now unacceptable, and the problems
of an inhospitable workplace are being addressed at all levels. At the more personal
level, support networks have grown out of our recognition of the importance of working
together and thanks to technology of the internet. No woman need be isolated
in her own institution. We are learning to empower ourselves.

In the accompanying article, Alice Huang, former Dean of Science and Professor
of Biology at New York University, and now Faculty Associate in
Biology at Caltech, discusses strategies that can be effective in the professional arena. Most
importantly, these are not confined to advice on coping with the workplace but describe
how women who have achieved a degree of success in their careers can make enormous
contributions to improving conditions for those who follow. Among the physical sciences,
astronomy stands out as having a high percentage of women in senior or high profile positions.
There is an unusual opportunity here!

Senior women in particular have already been helped by other women, as mentors, as
role models, or as colleagues. We all share a responsibility to help those who come after us.
Make every effort to be a good mentor yourself.
Take advantage of your own success to help bring more women into positions of
visibility in your own institutions and in the broader community, as invited speakers, as
prize winners, as members of important committees. Huang’s advice is sound and wide-ranging. We
encourage all of you to read what she has to say and to think hard about how to incorporate
her ideas into your lives and into your careers.

Yes, change occurs slowly. But each one of us, by taking on the responsibility for making
changes happen, can also make a difference.

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