In astronomy, gender equality is still a work in progress.


In astronomy, gender equality is still a work in progress.


Around 165 scientists signed the Baltimore Charter for Women in Astronomy, a demand for gender equality in the field, in December 1992, almost 30 years ago. The charter was "strong and radical" at the time, according to Yale University professor of physics and astronomy Meg Urry. She claims that looking back, everything appears "tame."

For instance, the charter notes that "women and men are equally capable of doing excellent science," "diversity contributes to, rather than conflicts with, excellence in science," and that the current systems for selecting, assessing, training, and recognizing astronomers "often prevent the equal participation of women." Five comprehensive recommendations offer ideas for improving gender equality. These include allowing women to participate in the hiring process, disclosing the demographics of astronomical organizations, enforcing physical safety for astronomers who might work alone in observatories, and ending sexual harassment. They also include broadening the criteria for hiring, promoting, assigning, and rewarding positions to account for different career trajectories.

The Space Telescope Science Institute, a location long known for its hostility toward women, served as the charter's birthplace (STScI). When Urry joined the faculty there in 1990, there were half as many women among the faculty's 60 astronomers.

According to Urry, men were given projects, nominations for awards, and promotions at the institute. "Women were consistently underpaid and thought to be less competent than men." According to Urry, Anne Kinney, the only other female faculty member at STScI at the time, was alone in charge of the Hubble Space Telescope's faint-object spectrograph. She was accountable all the time, 365 days a year. She was kicking her behind. Instead of seeing that doing a decent job was structurally impossible, her superiors informed her she wasn't doing a good enough job.

Urry inquired about the proportion of female applicants during a faculty discussion about hiring. She claims that the other faculty members' reaction was hostile. The response was "Lots!" however when Riccardo [Giacconi] posed the same query at the following meeting. (The director of STScI was Giacconi. He shared the 2002 Physics Nobel Prize.)

Goetz Oertel, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy's (AURA) then president, is credited with having the idea to host a workshop on women in astronomy, according to Urry. Giacconi recommended that the group develop a "Magna Carta" because "we wanted to have an outcome," she continues, and he supported the proposal "enthusiastically." The primary organizers of the ensuing workshop at STScI were she and Kinney, who is currently the deputy director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Debra Elmegreen, professor emerita at Vassar College, who at the time served as chair of the American Astronomical Society's (AAS) Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, recalls the meeting as being great. Many males also arrived, which you require. Like at the outset of the #MeToo movement, they were sympathetic. Men spotted problems that women might not have given much thought to. And women suddenly believed they could warn others about obstacles. The meeting, in my opinion, particularly empowered younger women.

According to Urry, "seeing 150 women in one room was a major positive outcome." We felt encouraged by that. The charter was written by the attendees, and the majority of the 200 attendees, including about 35 men, signed it. However, attendees frequently ran across resistance when presenting the charter to coworkers and the AAS for approval. According to Urry, "most localities declined to support the charter." "Normally, at least one woman should be on the shortlist for any position, paid or not," was an outlandish claim that nobody could stomach. The charter "would be endorsed in a heartbeat" today, she continues.

When she was a graduate student, Patricia Knezek—who is now a program scientist at NASA—wanted to attend the meeting, but her advisor rejected the notion because he didn't want to foot the bill. Knezek claims, "Junior ladies like myself were dealing with these situations every day. "Playboy woman pinups were present at the observatory where I conducted my observations. And male students would evaluate female students based on their legs. "We had talking points after the meeting, which featured Baltimore Charter banners hanging on office doors, she adds. Calendars with Playboy bunnies were taken down. That information disappeared. We continue to work on it.

In the subsequent decades, the situation for women in astronomy in the US has significantly improved. After the Baltimore Charter, "I witnessed things shift," claims Elmegreen. It is impossible to demonstrate a causal link, yet there are more women working in the field.

Women made up 40% of first-year astronomy graduate students in 2018–19, up from 25% in 1997–98. In astronomy departments, the proportion of female assistant professors increased from 23% in 2003 to 41% in 2020, and that of female full professors from 10% to 19%. For instance, just 25% of associate professors and 13% of full professors in physics departments were female in 2020. The American Institute of Physics, which is the publisher of Physics Today, provided the data.

Although the numbers are rising, Elmegreen notes that "we are not there yet." "Something is still stopping the figures from being demographically representative," She points out that fewer women than men enter the sector and that sexual harassment and delayed career advancement are still prevalent. She laments the fact that a Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy is still necessary.

The Universities Space Research Association's director of the Science and Technology Institute, Joan Schmelz, claims to have noticed a change: "There are now a lot more women working in astronomy." People who previously would not have bothered to pay attention now do so when stereotype threats, harassment, and unconscious bias are involved. Schmelz did not attend the Baltimore meeting, although she did go to a subsequent gathering in College Park, Maryland, in 2009. There have also been three additional gatherings for women in astronomy, in Pasadena, California (2003), Nashville, Tennessee (2015), and Austin, Texas (2017).

The biases we recall for women in science generally still apply to women in leadership jobs, according to Schmelz. These prejudices are dissipating, but as your job progresses, the hill gets higher, she continues, so you are continually moving forward. It's a struggle. She claims that the Baltimore Charter "was the start of a steady revolution. Cultural changes take time to implement.

"Our focus is on women but steps done to enhance the condition of women in astronomy should be implemented aggressively to those minorities even more marginalized," the charter's preamble declares. Kinney quotes President Obama as saying, "We need to rely on the complete brain trust of the country instead of neglecting a substantial fraction because of ethnicity or gender," in reference to initiatives to increase the number of Black, Hispanic, and LGBT+ people in STEM disciplines. Although ambitious, it's significant.

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