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A Graduate Student’s Perspective on the Women in Astronomy II Conference


By Jane Rigby

Jane Rigby is a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Arizona. Her interests
include the star formation and metal formation histories of the Universe.

January 2004

The status of women in astronomy is changing fastest at the entry levels: there is a demographic swell of young women scientists. They are moving through the lower ranks; they worry about balancing
career and family; they hope for the opportunity to do good science and to be judged fairly on
that science. Here are highlights of the Pasadena meeting as seen from a graduate student's perspective.


1. The tidal wave of young women astronomers


In the meeting's first hour, I learned something amazing:

  • 35% of all AAS members under 35 years of age are now women.
  • 42% of AAS members ages 23-28 are women.
  • Of all Astronomy doctorates earned by women since 1960, half were awarded after 1995.

Compare these numbers to the fraction of Astronomy faculty who are women: 14%. Clearly,
the demographics of US astronomy are quickly changing; we are not far from gender parity at the
entry-level. The hanging question of the meeting is what will happen to this wave of young, talented
women scientists?


These encouraging demographics do not guarantee success: though business schools have had
>20% female enrollment for 25 years, only 0.6% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And although law
schools have had 50% women enrollment for years, only 14% of partners at major law firms are women.
Our field needs to do better than law or business at treating women fairly and retaining their talent.


These demographics place a clear burden on search committees: take note, your talent pool is
one-third women! If search procedures are fair, hiring should reflect the talent pool, and the tidal
wave should reach the more senior ranks. Statistics presented at the meeting show that this hasn't yet
happened; the fraction of junior faculty positions held by women has stagnated over the past decade.
If women aren't applying for particular positions, search committees need to ask why and actively
recruit women to apply. "It's a search committee, not a envelope-opening committee" was a
notable quote from the meeting.


2. Why should anyone care?


Isn't the status quo good enough? If few women do theory, or land tenured jobs, what's the problem? Aren't there lots of smart men willing to fill those jobs?


There are still adherents to this view, and plenty more who know they should support women in astronomy because it's politically correct. Both of these perspectives decouple the fraction of women astronomers from
the quality of science. Let me present an argument from the meeting, not a moral argument but a practical argument, aimed at the status-quoers.


Simply put, we need the best minds available to solve the problems of modern astrophysics. Twenty-five
percent of the U.S. population is Black or Latino, but only 2% of U.S. astronomers are; that's a talent loss.
Only 14% of astronomy faculty are women---another talent loss. If the talents of women and minorities
are systematically under-utilized, the science suffers.


Given that we still don't know the identity of 85% of the Universe's matter, and that we're even
more ignorant of dark energy, I find the status quo argument, that our profession's lack of diversity
doesn't matter, a bit hard to swallow.

3. Climate


Female astronomers do not advance as fast as their male counterparts, in part because their work
is judged differently and in part because professional women in the U.S. bear the weight of
family responsibilities (which includes caring for children as well as aging parents).


Women also leave astronomy at higher rates than men. Why? It's difficult to address this question,
because, as we learned at the meeting, the AAS and the American Institute of Physics do not survey people
who've left astronomy. If we want to know why people leave, we should be asking folks who left, not those who remained. Since one-third of astronomy Ph.D.s leave for other fields within eight years of obtaining their Ph.D., and since women tend to leave at higher rates than men, it seems that we should be keeping track. If this is an important question, we should lobby our professional organizations (the AAS and AIP) to study who leaves our profession, why, and where they find jobs outside astronomy.


Much of the meeting discussed why women leave astronomy, and if they stay, why they are often
undervalued as scientists because of their gender. These two issues aren't orthogonal and certainly
affect different individuals to varying degrees. Other STATUS articles will discuss why women scientists are often taken less seriously than their male counterparts; I'm going to focus on other questions of climate.


In varying forms, this question surfaced repeatedly at the meeting: why is astronomy so anti-family and
anti-life? Many talented people leave astronomy because of its perceived anti-family, anti-life attitude. If
growing numbers of astronomers want partners, children, a and life outside astronomy (as my male and
female grad student colleagues generally want, and many have), why is the culture so resistant to change?


A good quote from the meeting: "Academia was invented by monks, and it shows." It shows in our
attitudes, when we prize spending 16 hours a day in the office. Monastic assumptions also show up in
institutional policies (like the tenure system) which assume that most scientists either have no families, or
have a wife at home to manage family matters. How will these attitudes change as the fraction of
astronomers who are active parents continues to grow? Are the best astronomers really the ones who
never go home and are those the only excellent researchers? I hope to see active discussion about
these questions of mindset within our field.


Regarding institutional policies, I think answers are much clearer: many policies are outdated,
anti-family, and need to change. These reforms are almost embarrassingly mild: affordable on-campus
childcare; family leave policies to accommodate parenting and family crises (not just maternity leave);
tenure clock slowdown for new parents, without stigma; affordable health care for astronomers
(especially graduate students) and their families, including domestic partners. Such accommodations
are common to standard at Fortune 500 companies. Why are they so difficult to gain for academia?


Since family policies are set at the institutional level, a single department can't bring change. But family issues aren't exclusively women's––many male astronomers care about these issues, too. What if astronomers who value family and outside life joined forces to improve the climate? What if departments identified these reforms as critical to recruiting faculty and students? What if department leaders aggressively advocated reform on family policies to deans and presidents?


4. Mentoring


For over a decade, about half of the entering graduate students at my department have been
women -- commendable! Thus, we're well above"critical mass" -- female students don't feel alone as
women. Still, graduate school can be humbling and hard. Each student copes differently, but many fit a
pattern: they start doubting their abilities, they blame themselves, and they lose perspective on their
progress. In my experience, such students are more often women. Whether male or female, these
students desperately need good mentoring––advice from senior grad students, post-docs, or faculty.
(Mentoring may be less effective from research advisors, since students don't want to admit
problems to their supervisor.)


The Pasadena meeting stressed the importance of mentoring junior faculty and acknowledged difficulties
making this work. In a breakout session, I learned several ways to build unsuccessful mentoring
programs at the grad student level. Simply assigning a new grad student a more senior mentor often fails,
it seems, as the students are reluctant to share concerns with a stranger, and well-intentioned
mentors assume everything's fine.


Rarer were examples of grad-level mentoring programs that work. Two key elements seem to be:

a) introduce new grad students to many potential mentors (especially senior grads and post-docs) as
soon as possible.
b) encourage a forum where common grad problems can be discussed.


For example, at Steward Observatory, the students organize a round-table lunch for the incoming
grad class. One by one, the older students introduce themselves and give a piece of advice they wish
they'd known earlier. New students learn the unwritten rules, and meet the other students as
potential mentors. We also have lunch discussions (organized by a professor) on career topics like how
to apply for post-docs and how to give good talks. Perhaps we should also hold discussions on a wider
range of topics (like time management strategies and balancing career/family).

These are good starts, I think, but what more should we be doing?


5. What's missing?


The meeting organizers commendably covered many topics in considerable depth. Intending zero
criticism, in order to suggest strategies for future progress, I need to discuss some limitations of the meeting.


First, there was almost no discussion of the status of women in non-U.S. astronomy. Such a
discussion would be fascinating, given the range of cultures that support astronomical research. I would
like to hear more about the recent special luncheon session on Women in Astronomy held during the
IAU 25th General Assembly, and about other discussions on this topic.


Second, I worry that, by focusing only on the status of women in astronomy, we don't see the larger
context: the problems of "otherness". In a field that traditionally belonged to white men, how do the
experiences of women compare to the experiences of astronomers who are ethnic minorities, who are
gay, who were born in the developing world?


Not to say that these problems are identical; they're not. For example, failing schools alone make
it much harder for Black, Latino, and Amerindian students to become astronomers. But I think these
diverse groups share experiences and face many of the same obstacles to equity. As astronomers, we
want to value diversity, but it's easier to deal with people who are like us. Without meaning to, we
over-value scientists who are like us (or young versions of us). Given this, minorities have harder
times getting ahead, feel isolated, and leave the field at higher rates than the majority.


Maybe this is more than we can chew; perhaps we should concentrate on one group at a
time. But as individual small groups, frankly, we're ignorable. And our field emphasizes the unification of
seemingly different problems! I wonder how well we would understand core collapse supernovae if,
deciding that the combined mysteries of Types Ib, Ic, and II were too much, we had concentrated our
attentions only on Type Ib SNe.


For example, I overheard several groups at the meeting wondering why there was no discussion of
how the issues of women in astronomy relate to issues facing lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender (LGBT)
astronomers. Some of my older readers may find this question inappropriate, but astronomers my age
generally see it as an obvious question of workplace diversity and fairness. Below are two obvious examples of how considering these groups together identifies strategies to improve the climate for women.


As one example, it is still legal in 37 states to fire, refuse to hire, or refuse to promote based on sexual
orientation. This helps keep LBGT astronomers and staff silent. "As long as it's dangerous to your career
to be a lesbian, then any opinionated, outspoken woman astronomer, gay or not, can be labeled a
lesbian and thus marginalized or silenced," (- a female full astronomy professor). When labels
commonly used against strong women ("too bitchy", "too masculine", "a real ball-breaker", "a dyke") lose
their power, then and only then all women will feel safer speaking up.


As another example, do you remember the call to reform institutional policies regarding families?
Well, existing policies which are 'family-friendly' (like providing health insurance benefits) often exclude
LGBT spouses and their children. Therefore, if female astronomers and their allies seriously attempt
to reform the anti-family climate of academia, they will have strong allies in LGBT faculty, students, and
staff, who feel these pressures more acutely.


Conclusions:


Young women are becoming astronomers in ever-increasing numbers. As a profession, to
maximize the scientific contribution from these women, we need to notice whether they are being
treated fairly and support them in the following ways:

  • Monitor whether our institutions are hiring women fairly (in accord with the talent pool
    demographics), especially at the post-doc and junior faculty levels.
  • Search for and mainstream better solutions to the two-body problem.
  • Lobby, with allies, for reform of institutional policies regarding families.
  • Improve mentoring of young astronomers, with the aim of especially reaching women
    and minorities.
  • Remember that women are not the only "outsider" groups in astronomy, and search for
    common ground and common solutions

Lastly, women astronomers should remember that many male colleagues are strong supporters of equity---
they want women astronomers to succeed. We need to welcome these allies to our discussions and encourage their participation, as we work to encourage diversity and create fairer work environments. If we dedicate ourselves to the quality of astronomy research and fairness in our profession (as the AAS bylaws boldly ask of us), the next few decades may be an amazing time to be astronomers.

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