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Women in Canadian Astronomy: A Ten Year Survey

by Michael A. Reid and Brenda C. Matthews

January 2005

We have conducted the first comprehensive study of the relative representations of men and women in Canadian astronomy. We find that, during the period studied (1991-2000), women were significantly underrepresented at all levels of Canadian astronomy, but that the trend is toward greater equality. We find that the ratio of women to men is highest among graduate students, declines slightly among postdocs, and reaches its lowest level among professors. This is consistent with the representation of women in American astronomy. Because we did not receive responses from several larger departments in the country, our sample size is biased toward medium-sized and smaller departments and represents only about half of the population of Canadian astronomers.


The under-representation of women in astronomy is a longstanding problem. Although women make up half or more of the general population, they constitute only a tiny fraction of professional astronomers. Moreover, studies in several countries have shown that their representation declines at each level of the academic hierarchy. For example, see studies from the U.S. (Urry 2000), the former Soviet Union (Izvekova & Suleymanova 1993) and the European Southern Observatory (Grebel 1993). Attempts are being made in scientific communities around the world‚and here in Canada‚to remedy this situation by both equalizing the opportunities for men and women and by creating programs which specifically facilitate the hiring of qualified women into faculty positions. In Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) offers grants called University Faculty Awards (UFA‚s), which provide salary supplementation and teaching relief to newly-hired female (and aboriginal) faculty in the natural sciences and engineering. Other programs, both formal and informal, attempt to encourage girls and women to pursue careers in math and science. In several other countries, most notably the United States, detailed statistics are kept by government and professional bodies which allow the annual assessment of the status of women in astronomy. In the United States, both the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and National Science Foundation (NSF) gather such data nationally, and several institutions, including MIT, IPAC, STScI, and Caltech, have collected statistics and conducted surveys locally. Such statistics are essential tools to assess the success or failure of programs such as the UFA‚s and to locate the cracks in the educational system through which women may fall. Yet no Canadian body‚governmental or professional‚ collects such statistics. (The relevant statistics gathered by NSERC do not distinguish between physicists and astronomers.) Inspired by our colleagues in the AAS‚s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and working under the aegis of the Graduate Student Committee of the Canadian Astronomical Society (CASCA), we decided to begin the collection of such statistics in Canada. This paper presents the results of our first attempt at such a survey. We begin with a description of our method , describe the response we received, present our analysis of the results, and conclude with our plans for continuing data-gathering.

Survey Method

We contacted the chairs or directors of 23 Canadian institutions where astronomy research takes place, including all universities known to employ researchers in astronomy or space sciences, as well as the two major independent astronomy research facilities (CITA and HIA; see Table 1.) We asked them to fill out a survey which inquired about the number of men and women in each institution whose study, work, or research involved astronomy in a significant way. These data were requested for each of the years in the interval 1991-2000. For each of the ten survey years, we asked respondents to report on the number of people of each gender in seven categories: full professors, associate professors, assistant professors, postdocs, Ph.D. recipients, M.Sc. recipients, and other astronomy researchers (due to ambiguities in our definition of the term and irregularities in the responses received, we have not used the data on other astronomy researchers in this article). Survey recipients were asked to fill in the tables and return them in the selfaddressed stamped envelopes provided.

A few caveats must precede our discussion of the results. First, we did not include undergraduates in our study because, at most Canadian universities, there is no clear distinction between undergraduate programs in physics and astronomy. Second, we can say nothing about the retention of women during graduate studies: our survey only inquired about the number of graduate degrees granted, not about the number of students entering graduate studies. Third, our study does not account for astronomers in private industry and those teaching at (three year) colleges: we believe the total number of people in such positions to be very small, in comparison to the total number of academic and government astronomers in Canada. Finally, due to the small size of the Canadian astronomy community, we are forced to work in the domain of small-number statistics. We are assessing possible methods of designing subsequent surveys to address the first two of these issues.

The Response

Of the 23 institutions polled, we received responses from 17 (see Table 1). Unfortunately, some of the larger departments declined to participate in our study, meaning that our sample is biased toward medium-sized and smaller universities. A few of the institutions which declined to participate cited as their reason the difficulty in reconstructing ten years worth of records, particularly on a year-by-year basis (one institution sent us cumulative totals for the whole decade, which we deemed unsuitable to the present analysis and have hence excluded). We appreciate all of the feedback we received and have taken it all into account in planning continuing survey efforts. In order to extract a meaningful trend from our sparse data, we have averaged over two five-year intervals. The first important result to emerge is that the representation of women improved at all levels of education and employment between the two periods, 1991-1995 and 1996-2000. Assessing the true significance of this improvement is complicated by the small-number nature of the statistics. We are especially interested in tracking the representation of women in and their progress through the educational system. Hence, we have separated the statistics into two sets: the first includes data from all of the participating institutions, and the second includes only data from degree-granting institutions (that is, it excludes CITA and HIA). As can be seen in Table 2, the trends do not differ much between the two groups.

Figure 1 shows a different representation of the data, wherein professors, postdocs, and students are treated as undivided groups. As can be seen in the top panel of Figure 1, for the period 1991-1995, the percentage representation of women fell with each step up the academic hierarchy, declining from 12% among graduate students to only 4% among professors. Greater balance was achieved in the following five years, however, as can be seen in the lower panel of Figure 1. During that period, the percentage representation of women rose to 17% among graduate students and remained at that level among postdocs. The representation of women among professors improved slightly from 4% to 6% (the difference is accounted for by the hiring of only two new female professors, while the number of mean number of male professors held constant). While it would be premature to extrapolate a trend from a time series consisting of two points, these data are consistent with trends seen in the United States, whereby the increasing representation of women at the lower levels of academia leads to a 'trickle up' effect (potentially complicated by a 'leaky pipeline' effect whereby the retention rate of women at the higher levels of academia is chronically lower than that of men; see the article by Fran Bagenal in June 2004 issue of STATUS). To verify that trend, it will be necessary to continue collecting data for many more years. Anecdotal evidence and informal polling indicates that, since the final year included in our survey (1999-2000), the percentage representation of women has continued to rise at all levels. Among professors, the continued improvement seems to derive largely from promotions and UFA-aided hires. We hope soon to be able to formally confirm this continuing positive trend in the representation of women.

Future Plans

We intend to maintain this project, collecting data at more frequent intervals and refining our survey questionnaire and information gathering techniques. We are consulting with the AAS in the United States, hoping to benefit from their long experience of conducting similar studies. In designing follow-up surveys, we will take into account the suggestions made by those institutions which declined to participate. We hope that the publication of these results, as well as the more frequent administration of our survey, will help secure the participation of all eligible Canadian institutions.

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