The Postdoc Perspective on the
Women in Astronomy II
By Beth Holmes
Beth Holmes is a National Research Council Research Associate at the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory. She received a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Florida in 2002 and an
S.B. in Physics from MIT in 1995. Her current research interests include modeling asymmetries
in planetary debris disks and applying her models to upcoming SIRTF data.
Sitting on the lawn at
the edge of the lily
pond outside Baxter
Hall at Caltech, I was
among a group of graduate
students and postdocs
talking about the Women in
Astronomy II conference
(WIA II) during the meeting's
lunch break. I started to
notice some common
themes as our conversations evolved on that sunny
June California afternoon. As young scientists
attending WIA II, we were struck by the differences
in perspective that older women scientists and
younger women scientist had. Could some of these
dissimilarities help account for the leaky pipeline?
One difference was the acceptance the older
women had for the idea of a period of postdoctoral
research in one's career. In contrast, some of the
younger women felt that the astronomical
community should try to lessen the postdoctoral
period since it can be very disruptive to a scientist's
family life. Often in these situations, it is women who
end up giving up their careers when two partners are
faced with multiple moves across the country in
pursuit of postdoctoral positions. Does the existence
of a long postdoctoral period help contribute to the
leaky pipeline? Obviously, minimizing the postdoctoral
period would involve a community wide change.
Another question that arises is whether the
postdoctoral period is longer now than it was in the
past. Today many young scientists have more than
one postdoc before obtaining a permanent position
or leaving the field. Is this more than in the past?
Could this account for the different views of the
older and younger women?
Another difference was that many of the older
women scientists focused on how much less
discrimination there was against women now than
when they first entered the field. While the younger
women we talked to were very appreciative of the
trail blazing of the older women, they weren't entirely
convinced that discrimination had been eradicated.
Occasionally some of us faced situations in which we
wondered whether we were being treated equally. In
addition, some of us faced awkward situations at
work when a male colleague acted inappropriately.
As young women scientists, we were still interested
in talking about these situations and figuring out how
to deal with them, whether the situations were
subtle and left us guessing or were clear cases of
harassment or discrimination.
Another issue that was discussed was the role of
the scientist in the family. We were interested in how
women dealt with this issue in the past, but we were
also willing to explore new options. The workplace
has become, in many cases, more flexible than in the
past. Women have the option to work at home or to
use day care. Taking time off from a career doesn't
seem to be an option for astronomy. However, there
are some fellowships that specifically target women
scientists who have taken a career break to raise a
family. Another related issue is the feasibility of
situations such as job-sharing or employing a trailing
spouse. Some institutions, notably my Ph.D.
institution, actively recruit spouses because they
know it makes them attractive to couples dealing
with the two-body problem. Lastly, today men are
investing more time in child care than in the past. So
far, these options have been individual choices but
maybe its time they get looked at in a larger study.
We want to explore the family-work parameter space.
Many of these issues, especially the ones involving
family, affect women (and men) on a very personal
level, so it is important to continue exploring these
issues and searching for creative solutions. A core
group of the Los Angeles-area women who attended
WIA II are planning meetings of young women and
men in astronomy to talk about women's issues in
astronomy. Perhaps you could consider starting a
group in your area.
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