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So how many are there?

05/11/2009

The decadal survey in astronomy and astrophysics is underway. Every 10 years or so, the National Research Council (NRC) organizes people from the US in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics to examine our direction for the next decade or two. Topics are science to be pursued, instruments/resources to build or run, and the current state of the profession. Interested people from the community submit their thoughts on the above and more.

An interesting paper (Zakamska et al., see the Astro2010 page) sent to the survey committee for consideration, titled “Challenges facing young astrophysicists,” was written by a group of post-docs at the Institute for Advanced Study. It lists several problems and possible (fairly general) prescriptions, but points out that astronomy departments have a higher percentage of women than do other physical science departments. As of 2006, women made up 17% of astronomy faculty compared with 13% in physics. Huzzah!

I just want to point out that there’s a statistics subtlety lurking in those numbers. From the American Institute of Physics (AIP), one can see that only 6% of full professors in physics departments are women, compared with 11% in astronomy. Some people get excited when they see that associate and assistant professors are 24% and 28% women, respectively, in astronomy; that’s sort of a lot! (These are 14% and 17%, respectively, for physics.) There’s also a trend for decreasing percentage of women with the higher the degree offered by the institution; top research universities that offer doctorates staff fewer women than do bachelor’s- or master’s- granting universities.

What does this mean? Should we rejoice that the younger generation, filling associate and assistant professorships, is increasingly female, and that this means eventually the tenured faculty will also see this increase? Not necessarily. The percentage of women IS increasing across the board (in 1998, only 8% of physics faculty, of all kinds, were women rather than 13%), but the main increase between 2003 and 2006 in women faculty in astronomy was in assistant professorships and “other ranks,” not full professorships.

This partly betrays the lack of positions in astronomy and astrophysics in general (a point which I hope the decadal survey will address), but it also might indicate that the women who have families and careers are being shuffled into part-time and non-tenure-track jobs. According to a study by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the percentage of full professors and tenure-track professors with recent doctorates who are women is increasing, which is indeed a sign that things are improving.

Another, international AIP study of women in physics suggests that women still face discrimination; specifically, a majority reported being discouraged about their choice to pursue physical sciences, 65% said that discrimination needs improvement, and 80% said that “attitudes about women in science need improvement (AIP study). A majority also cited cost and availability of daycare, travel with young children, and balance of child care in the family as areas needing improvement.

Some suggestions from a physorg.com article include “deferred start-up of tenure-track positions and part-time work that segues to full-time tenure-track work for women who are raising children, and courtesy appointments for women unable to work full time but who would benefit from use of university resources (e-mail, library resources, grant support) to continue their research from home.”

That’s a start; other needed changes include equalizing the effect that children have on men’s and women’s careers, improving flexibility during graduate school and postdoctoral phases, and many, many others. To summarize, a quote from a paper by Mason & Goulden, Academe Online, 2004, v. 90: “Women, it seems, cannot have it all while men can.” If you’re like me, that boils your blood a little – enough to do something about it.

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