Women in astronomy share isolation Men still dominate top jobs in the field

September 10, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

About 200 women astronomers came to Baltimore this week and found they have a lot in common: a feeling of isolation in their male-dominated discipline, some colleagues more interested in romance than their research and perceived discrimination in landing top jobs.

For Sally Oey, a 28-year-old graduate student in astronomy at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the NASA-sponsored conference, called "Women at Work: Workshop on the Status of Women in Astronomy," helped build her confidence.

"I feel like it's OK to be in this position and be a feminist, that it's OK to try to work for change," she said. "And that I should work for change not just because it's what I want, but because it's the right thing to do."

The two-day conference, held at the Space Telescope Science Institute on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, ended yesterday as participants from the United States and Europe worked on writing a "Baltimore Charter" that spells out the goals of the conference.

The meeting, organized by astronomer Meg Urry, was supported by NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, the Computer Sciences Corp. and the institute, the center for research with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Since the 1960s, the number of women in entry- and mid-level science positions has been rising nationwide. But Dr. Urry said that in astronomy, as in other sciences, there is a "glass ceiling" keeping women from reaching top teaching and research positions.

Ethan Schreier, associate director of operations for the institute, conducted an informal survey of the 28 universities and four research institutions with major astronomy programs.

The results, which he presented to the conference Monday, show in general that the more senior the astronomy job, the less likely that a woman will hold it.

Of more than 600 graduate students at the 32 institutions surveyed, he said, 24 percent were women.

But women make up only 18 percent of postdoctoral fellows, 20 percent of assistant professors, 11 percent of associate professors and 6 percent of full professors.

Dr. Schreier blamed the small number of women at the top on infrequent turnover in those tenured positions and the shortage of senior women to fill what few openings occur.

Dr. Urry said discrimination is at least partly to blame, especially in the failure of more women to land their first astronomy jobs after graduate school. Among male graduate students, about half find work in their field, she said. But among women, only about a third wind up as astronomers.

One reason, she suggested, is that women suffer from subtle forms of bias, such as being excluded from the tight-knit groups formed by male astronomers.

"Decisions get made, contacts get made, collaborations get set up in social settings," she said.

At other times, female graduate students find themselves at the center of unwanted attention.

At astronomical conventions, she said, "you have colleagues who ask you about certain clusters of galaxies, and in the next sentence, they ask you out to dinner." After a while, she said, women start to doubt that male astronomers take their work seriously.

Ms. Oey, a fifth-year graduate student in astronomy, said that while her experience as one of 11 women among 35 students in her department has been good overall, "being a feminist, and being someone who is not afraid to call myself a feminist, is really isolating."

When other astronomy graduate students gather, she said, "the men will kind of start talking to each other. When a woman will say something, she will be kind of quickly overlooked."

During a recent laboratory procedure supervised by a senior faculty member, she said, a male graduate student butted in and performed a task she had been assigned. She never confronted him, worried she might be considered oversensitive or a complainer.

"I don't think he thought about it," she said, "but I'm still upset about it now."

Sheila Tobias, a political scientist and the author of "Overcoming Math Anxiety," said "scientists are the last elite" to resist the advance of women in the workplace.

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