Do you look at the stars or fall by the wayside? How astronomy fails female scientists

It will take until at least 2080 before women make up just a third of Australia’s professional astronomers, unless there is a significant boost to how we nurture the careers of female researchers.

Over the past decade, astronomy has rightly been recognized as a leading push for gender equality in the sciences. But my new modeling, published today in Nature Astronomy, shows that it doesn’t work fast enough.

The Australian Academy of Sciences ’decade-long plan of astronomy in Australia proposes that women should make up a third of the senior workforce by 2025.

It is a worthy, though modest, goal. However, with new data from the academy’s Science in Australia on Gender Equality (SAGE) program, I modeled the effects of current employment rates and practices and came to a depressing, if not surprising, conclusion. Without a change to the current mechanisms, it will take at least 60 years to reach that 30% level.

However, the modeling also suggests that the introduction of ambitious, affirmative employment programs aimed at recruiting and retaining talented women astronomers could see the goal achieved in just over a decade – and then grow to 50% in a quarter-century.

How did we get here?

Before looking at how this could be done, it is worth examining how the gender imbalance in physics originated first. To put it bluntly: how did we get into a situation where 40% of astronomical doctors are given to women, yet they occupy less than 20% of senior positions?

On a broad level, the answer is simple: my analysis shows that women leave astronomy two to three times faster than men. In Australia, from postdoctoral status to assistant professor level, 62% of women leave the field, compared to only 17% of men. Between assistant professor and full professor level, 47% of women leave; the male departure rate is about half of that. Female departure rates are similar in U.S. astronomy.



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The next question is: why?

Many women leave because of absolute disappointment. Women in physics and astronomy say their careers are progressing more slowly than those of male colleagues, and that culture is not welcome.

They get less career resources and opportunities. Randomized double-blind trials and extensive research studies in astronomy and across the sciences show an implicit bias in astronomy, meaning more men are published, cited, invited to speak at conferences, and given telescope time.

It is difficult to build a solid research-based job when one’s access to tools and recognition is disproportionately limited.

Female astronomers receive disproportionately less telescopic time than their male counterparts.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The problem of loyalty

There is another factor that sometimes contributes to the loss of women astronomers: loyalty. In situations where a female partner offers a new job in another city or town, the woman more often gives up her job to facilitate the relocation.

Encouraging universities or research institutes to help partners find a suitable job nearby is therefore one of the strategies I (and others) have suggested to help recruit female astrophysicists.

But the larger task requires institutions to identify, address, and overcome inherent prejudice — a legacy of a conservative academic tradition that, according to research, weighs heavily on men.

A key me mechanism to achieve this was introduced in 2014 by the Astronomical Society of Australia. It has devised a voluntary rating and evaluation system known as the Pleiades Awards, which rewards institutions for concrete actions to advance women’s careers and close the gender gap.

Initiatives include longer-term postdoctoral positions with part-time options, support to return to astronomical research after career breaks, increase the fraction of permanent positions related to fixed-term contracts, offering only women permanent positions, recruiting women directly to professorial levels. , and counseling women for promotion to the highest levels.

Most if not all Australian organizations that employ astronomers have signed the Pleiades Awards, and show a real commitment to change.

So why is progress still so slow?

After seven years, we would expect to see an increase in women recruited to, and retained in, senior positions.

And we are, but the effect is far from uniform. My own organization, the ARC Center of Excellence in Celestial Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D), is on track for a 50:50 man-to-man ratio working at senior levels by the end of this year.

The University of Sydney School of Physics has made nine senior appointments over the past three years, seven of them women.

But these examples are extraordinary. In many institutions, unequal employment relations and high departure rates persist despite a large crowd of women astronomers postdoctoral level and the positive encouragement of the Pleiades.

Using these results and my new working models, I have shown that current targets of 33% or 50% of women at all levels are unattainable if the status quo remains.

How to move forward

I offer a raft of affirmative action to increase the presence of women at all senior levels in Australian astronomy – and keep them there.

These include creating multiple female roles, creating prestigious senior positions for women, and hiring in multiple positions for men and women to avoid perceptions of tokenism. Improved workplace flexibility is key to allowing female researchers to develop their careers while balancing other responsibilities.



Read more: Isaac Newton invented calculus in self-isolation during the Great Plague. He had no children to care for


Australia is far from unique when it comes to dealing with gender differences in astronomy. Broadly similar situations persist in China, the United States and Europe. An April 2019 article described similar discrimination experienced by women astronomers in Europe.

Australia, however, is well placed to play a leading role in correcting the imbalance. With the right action, it wouldn’t take long to make our approach to gender equality as global as our research.

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