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The Postdoc Perspective on the Women in Astronomy II Conference


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.

January 2004

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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