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Women in astronomy: Good news and ambiguous news

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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:

"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?


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