Women in astronomy: Good news and ambiguous news
Ten years ago, astronomers met in Baltimore to assess the status of women in astronomy. Out of that meeting came a generally raised consciousness of the issues facing women in scientific careers -- and a document that came to be called the Baltimore Charter. The preamble of the Charter begins with these statements:Skip to next paragraph
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"Women and men are equally capable of doing excellent science." "Diversity contributes to, rather than conflicts with, excellence in science." "Current recruitment, training, evaluation and award systems often prevent the equal participation of women." "Formal and informal mechanisms that are effectively discriminatory are unlikely to change by themselves. Both thought and action are necessary to ensure equal participation for all." "Increasing the number of women in astronomy will improve the professional environment and improving the environment will increase the number of women."
The Baltimore Charter was endorsed by the American Astronomical Society, the leading professional astronomy organization in North America. The AAS then formed a committee to track and evaluate the progress of women in the field. So, in June 2003, members of that committee and other astronomers gathered to discuss what, if anything, had changed in the last decade. Have women made significant inroads in the past few years, or were there still subtle (or not so subtle) factors discouraging women from pursuing astronomy careers?
Leaders of the original committee were quite interested in the idea of a "leaky pipeline." In other words, once women entered school with the intent to become astronomers, was there some step in the process where women left the field in disproportionate numbers to men? It doesn't take a scientist to see that there are precious few women at the highest levels of academic science. But is that because of discrimination, or just the fact that there were fewer women entering the field in the past? And are women really being promoted at the same rate as their male colleagues?
After a decade of watching trends and statistics, there appears to be both good news, and well, ambiguous news. The good news is that there has been a marked increase in the number of women in all levels of professional astronomy. In 2001, women were awarded 22 percent of the doctorates in astronomy, and made up 14 percent of college and university faculty. The most striking good news presented at the conference: the number of young women entering the field. In the youngest age bracket of the AAS (ages 21-23, or people just entering graduate school), women now outnumber men. When this statistic was presented at the conference, the audience broke into spontaneous applause, causing the presenter to remark that he had never seen such enthusiasm before for a bar chart.
The statistics show that the number of women holding senior positions in academic departments agrees fairly well with the number of women who earned doctorates in astronomy, say, 25 years ago. Anecdotally, it just doesn't seem that there are as many women at high levels as there should be. But if there is a leaky pipeline, it's not blaringly obvious.
But the devil, as they say, is in the details. And no one knows how to pick through details like scientists. One of the more interesting details is that more than half of women astronomers, compared to a much smaller percentage of men, choose non-tenure track jobs, the sort that are often called "research associates." This term describes a variety of jobs, which makes it hard to analyze what's really happening in this career sector.
Some people work at universities, but their research is paid for by external grants, and not directly supported by university funds. Others in this non-tenure track group might work at national observatories, or do work contracted by NASA or the National Science Foundation. In any case, there is a growing number of scientists, disproportionately female, who are doing excellent research and mission support work, but will never receive tenure, the traditional definition of success in academic science. But more important than gaining the prestige of tenure, if this trend continues, women will be under-represented in positions of academic and political power. At universities, fewer women will be in the position to influence policy, advise the administration, and keep the momentum going for positive change for the status of women in science.