She's an Astronomer: Did we really need that series?
A long time ago when I initiated the She’s an Astronomer series I came up with the idea that it would be nice to ask everyone the same questions so that we get a overview of what lots of different (female) astronomers thought about the same issues. I deliberately set up a range of questions to allow the interviewees to focus on both the positive aspects of being involved in astronomy (and particularly the wonderful science Galaxy Zoo does) as well as any negative aspects of being a female in a very male dominated group.
And just in case there are any doubters out there I want to make it very clear that astronomy, both professional and amateur, remains very male dominated at almost all levels (and in professional astronomy, with declining participation the more senior the role). The UK’s professional astronomer group, the RAS has the following statement on the gender make-up of professional astronomers in the UK (admittedly now from 13 year old data):
“The 1998 PPARC/RAS survey for the first time enquired into the gender of members of the UK astronomical community. Women comprised 22% of the population of PhD students, which compares favourably with the 20% of students accepted for undergraduate places in physics and astronomy. However, only 7% of permanent university staff in astronomy are female. Of the UK IAU membership in 1998, 9.2% are female.”
and from our American friends at AAS, they provide a more recently updated table of Statistics which shows the encouraging statistic that in the US now about 40% of the PhD students are now women (but still only about 10% of permanent staff).
Statistics on amateur astronomers are a bit harder to find. You’d think our own Zooite database would help, but unfortunately we don’t track that kind of information. From experience though (as a speaker) I know amateur astronomers are an extremely male dominated group and disappointingly there has been very little change in this over the last few decades. This article in Sky and Telescope (which incidentally pictures one of the professionals we interviewed – Prof. Meg Urry) celebrates the improvement in the numbers of professional women astronomers since the late 70s, but reports that the situation hasn’t changed nearly as much in amateur astronomy: “According to Sky & Telescope reader polls, in 1979 only 6 percent of subscribers were female. By 2002 that number had grown to [only?] 9 percent.” And thanks to my friends on Twitter I found more recent S&T reader demographics which lists only 5% female readers as of January 2010. So that’s very disappointing. And in case you think such figures are somehow S&T only, my friends at the Jodcast tell me their mid 2010 survey of listeners resulted in a figure of 14% women (consistent with 9% women from 2007 within statistical uncertainty).
Anyway back to our She’s an Astronomer series and let’s see what the women who are involved have to say about all this. As it’s been several months now since the last post I’ll remind you that the questions we asked ranged from the personal (to give a bit of background) to more general. They were:
- How did you first hear about Galaxy Zoo?
- What has been your main involvement in the Galaxy Zoo project?
- What do you like most about being involved in Galaxy Zoo?
- What do you think is the most interesting astronomical question Galaxy Zoo will help to solve?
- How/when did you first get interested in Astronomy?
- What (if any) do you think are the main barriers to women’s involvement in Astronomy?
- Do you have any particular role models in Astronomy?
Also if you remember we interviewed 16 different women – which comprised all 8 of the professional astronomers (from students, to senior professor) who had been involved in Galaxy Zoo at that time, plus 8 of the Zooites.
The full list of interviewees was:
- Hanny Van Arkel (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and finder of Hanny’s Voorwerp). Hanny’s interview in het Nederlands.
- Alice Sheppard (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and forum moderator).
- Gemma Couglin (“fluffyporcupine”, Galaxy Zoo volunteer and forum moderator).
- Aida Berges (Galaxy Zoo volunteer – major irregular galaxy, asteroid and high velocity star finder). Entrevista de Aida en español.
- Julia Wilkinson (“jules”, Galaxy Zoo volunteer. Frequent forum poster.).
- Els Baeton (“ElisabethB”, Galaxy Zoo folunteer. Frequent forum poster, and member of most of the spin-off projects!). Els’s interview in het Nederlands.
- Hannah Hutchins (Galaxy Zoo volunteer, forum poster and co-creator of Galaxy Zoo APOD)
- Elizabeth Siegel (Galaxy Zoo volunteer, forum poster)
- Dr. Vardha Nicola Bennert (researcher at UCSB involved in Hanny’s Voorwerp followup and the “peas” project). Vardha’s Interview auf Deutsch.
- Carie Cardamone (graduate student at Yale who lead the Peas paper).
- Dr. Kate Land (original Galaxy Zoo team member and first-author of the first Galaxy Zoo scientific publication; now working in the financial world).
- Dr. Karen Masters (researcher at Portsmouth working on red spirals, and editor of this blog series.)
- Dr. Pamela L. Gay (astronomy researcher and communicator based at Southern Illinois University).
- Anna Manning (Masters’ Degree Student in Astronomy at Alabama University working with Dr. Bill Keel on overlapping galaxies)
- Dr. Manda Banerji (recent PhD and author of the machine learning paper)
I’ve been wondering for quite some time if the group agreed with each other on anything, and if we can come up with any interesting conclusions by looking at the different answers to each question. As some of you know I’ve been a bit distracted (little things like having a second baby, and getting some exciting Zoo2 results out), but I have now collated the answers to two of the most general questions (“What do you think is the most interesting astronomical question Galaxy Zoo will help to solve?” and “What (if any) do you think are the main barriers to women’s involvement in Astronomy?”) and plan to present my summary of the responses in upcoming blog posts.
I was going to chicken out and start with the science – the less controversial question (and where there was the most agreement), but thinking about it, perhaps it’s better to get the negative out of the way first, so I’ll leave the exciting science answers for next time and instead start with:
What (if any) do you think are the main barriers to women’s involvement in Astronomy?
Here there was a lot of disagreement, but some interesting trends with the level of formal education/career progression in the field (unfortunately in the sense that there were more perceived problems the longer a person had worked in astronomy).
For the most part the Zooites focussed on the problem of presenting science (to both girls and boys) as a boring/hard subject in schools (and to a lesser extent in the media). Our youngest interviewee, Hannah (who is working on her IGCSEs as a home schooled student) summarized the general view most clearly “because it’s taught so badly at school, it shuts down any interest”, and Alice (a science writer and former science teacher) agrees: “I think poor education is a far worse barrier than gender”. Gemma (a postgraduate student in engineering) muses that perhaps it’s because: “maths and science are [not] presented in an interesting way for girls at school and they are perceived as hard, rigid, dusty disciplines”. And Julia (an amateur astronomer with a degree in Economics) finishes it off by saying that she “think[s] that the media is partly to blame for propagating this myth by getting it badly wrong when presenting some science programmes and portraying maths as something we all hated at school”.
There were some positive views from the Zooites though. Hanny (a Dutch school teacher) expressed a her view that if you’re determined enough you’ll make it: “I can’t think of something that would’ve stopped me to be honest”, and there was a view expressed by the volunteers with more life experience that things were improving with time, for example Julia says: “I think things have improved slightly since [I was at school] but the popular myth still exists that maths is hard and science is stuffy and boring” and Els (a secretary in Belgium) says: “as you can see with the Galaxy Zoo community there are lots of women involved of all ages and backgrounds. So I think we’re getting there, eventually.” Aida (a stay home Mom in Puerto Rico, originally from the Dominican Republic) agrees saying “now I see that the universities [in the Dominican Republic] are full of women studying and that makes me so proud. There are no barriers now for us”.
And our ever resourceful Zooites provided some suggestions for improving the first formal introduction to science. Gemma says it best “if people could see more clearly at a young age how many cool things you can do with maths and science and the sense of achievement you get from problem solving, that they aren’t dry subjects that you learn by rote and that there are still many interesting things to discover, I’m sure a lot more people would be interested, be they women or men.”
From the younger members of the professional astronomers there was really good news in a generally positive feeling that the days of really strong barriers/discrimination are over. Anna (a Masters student) told us that “A female office mate and I were discussing how we don’t think there have been any obstacles for us”, Manda (a recent PhD recipient) says; “I don’t think astronomy is any longer a male dominated subject” and that “today [the many barriers which were around 10-20 years ago are] much less of an issue”, Carie (another recent PhD recipient) says that “I’ve never personally felt any discrimination as a female Astronomer,” and Kate (who recently left professional astronomy after completing her PhD and a first post doctoral position says: “I was always given enormous encouragement from my peers and never felt discriminated against.”. We even hear that (again from Anna) “A male office mate brought up that he believes it is easier to be a woman than a man in astronomy”. Unfortunately the picture coming from the more senior astronomers is not so rosy, and our most senior professional Prof. Meg Urry even explains that this was a shift in opinion for her as she remained in the field: “As an undergraduate and graduate student […] I frankly didn’t expect any problems and I didn’t notice any.”, but “30 years in physics and astronomy have shown me [..] the huge pile of female talent that goes wasted every year.” and that “When I see young women today with those attitudes” (i.e.. that there is no problem), “I find myself hoping that in their case, it will be true” (although she carefully adds that “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be oblivious, as I was – it probably kept me from dissipating energy fighting the machine”). Unconsciously addressing the view of Anna’s male peer that it might be easier for the women than the men now, she describes that even 30 years ago she was being told that “as a woman, I would benefit (the implication was, unfairly) from affirmative action” and concludes “When people say this today, as they often do, I have to laugh. . I sure do wish it were true [..]”
Many of the professional astronomers focussed on the problems the career path poses. Carie explains the situation: “An astronomer must spend much of her 20s and 30s moving from institution to institution, completing a graduate degree and a couple of postdoctoral positions before finding a permanent position.” and Kate (who gave up on professional astronomy because of her dislike of the career path) says: “I don’t think the academic career path suits women particularly well. […] I personally wasn’t keen on the post-doc circuit of moving about every few years…”, Manda agrees saying: “the need to move around frequently for postdoc positions often means people have to make very tough choices”, and Karen (that’s me – and I’m a fairly senior postdoc now) says: “to remain in a career as a researcher is very difficult for both men and women, and I believe slightly more so for women” and I suggest that this career path “doesn’t seem optimized to retain the best researchers – merely the most persistent or flexible”, but Manda points out that “in my experience there are many men who worry about this too and many women who don’t so I don’t think this is a barrier that is specific to women by any means.”
However, another problem posed by the research career path is the balancing of duel careers, something which preferentially hits women scientists as I explained: “because of the current gender imbalance, a higher proportion of female scientists than male scientists are married to other scientists” and as I know from personal experience “the balancing of two careers as junior academics at the same time is something which is really very difficult and stressful”. Carie agrees: “there are numerous problems to consider if both partners are academics, a common situation for female astronomers”.
Worries about combining a life in research with having a family are also mentioned several times. Carie says that if you’re “thinking about starting a family, it can be very difficult [..]”. and from Vardha (another senior postdoc): “I think that it must be difficult for women to have children while pursuing an astronomical career, since both tasks are quite time demanding.” Alice is the only Zooite to mention the demands of family, but points out that for many women (herself included) “Having a family one day is important enough to me that I would choose that over a career if I was forced to pick one or the other. ” Of course as Vardha says, “there are many women in astronomy who prove that it is possible [to do both]” and in fact we have two examples of professional astronomers with children who were interviewed (that’s me and Meg), although I did say that “having children while a postdoc [was] a difficult choice to have had to make” (and would add that the impact on my staying power in the field is yet to be determined as I do not have that sought after permanent job yet). Alice mentions three more female astronomer role models with children (Cecilia Payne-Gaposkin, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and Vera Rubin) and says in particular that a blog post on Vera Rubin was “very encouraging on that front” (i.e. the ability to balance astronomical research and having children), but then Manda says that “There are very few female astronomers in very senior academic positions and even fewer who have chosen to have a family”, and goes on to comment that “This does sometimes make me doubt if I can pull off both having a successful academic career as well as a family because there are so few examples of women who have actually achieved this!”
Our most senior professional astronomers (our two Profs: Meg and Pamela) both have comments about the sometimes poor climate and the still prevalent (but usually subtle) discrimination. Pamela says that “I think a lot of academia is still very much an old boys network”, and describes examples of subtle discrimination which just make the women feel they don’t belong (for example “too few women’s bathrooms”, “equipment [..] designed for tall, flat chested, heavy object lifting men” etc.). Meg says that 30 years in the field have shown here that “Fewer women are sought after as speakers, assistant professors, prize winners, than men of comparable ability”. Going back to the school years, Zooite Julia says that “Girls just weren’t encouraged to take sciences”, and Aida recalls how when she was at school (in the Dominican Republic) “girls were supposed to marry young and be housewives”. And not to depress you further, but some of our 16 interviewees had some horrible stories of less subtle discrimination to share. Meg has “seen talented women ignored, overlooked, and sometimes denigrated to the point where they abandon their dreams”, Pamela recalls the common assumption that “since I’m in a physics department, [..] I must be a secretary”. And I remembered that “It was hard to be a teenage girl who was good at maths/science and I spent a lot of time learning to hide it”. From the Zooites, Alice mentioned Cecilia Payne-Gaposkin and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell who she comments were “both treated outrageously unfairly” and has some sad stories of her own to share too.
But moving back to the positive I’ll say again that there was a real sense that things are improving – just very slowly. Pamela (who remember is based in the US which has the worst maternity leave policy of any developed country and poor health care for most people not in stable jobs) concludes her comments with the statement that ” I suspect it will take at least a generation (and major reform to things like maternity leave and health care) for real change to take place, but I believe the change has started.”. I agree saying ” I hope eventually society’s perception of women in science will change […], but I think this will be a very slow process.”
And finally as encouragement for all the girls and women out there interested in astronomy as a career I’m going to reproduce almost the whole last paragraph of Meg’s answer with some helpful suggestions for getting around the problems which remain.
“[..] let me keep it simple: there is discrimination, and it is done by all of us, men and women both, quite unconsciously for the most part. There is a large body of research in the social science literature (which, unfortunately, natural scientists rarely read) documenting the natural tendency of all of us – people raised in a society where men dominate leadership roles in most fields – to undervalue women. I hope young women don’t experience what I did – and there’s a good chance they won’t – but every young woman or under-represented minority scientist should learn about this “unconscious bias” so that, should they ever find themselves getting discouraged or feeling inadequate as scientists, they will correct for the effect of a harmful environment and recognize their own considerable achievements and talents. Or just call me! I’ll be happy to try to reassure them. It’s probably not them, it’s that they are trying to do science in an environment that is unwittingly toxic.”
So that’s why I thought we needed a blog series showcasing the women of Galaxy Zoo. Next time – all the fun science which after all is the reason we all tough it out when we have to!