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Women in astronomy: looking back through the telescope

Recently, I shared a meal with a wonderful young woman named Scarlet, an astronomy student at Cornell University. She had come to this year's American Astronomical Society meeting in Rochester, N.Y., to talk to me about her interest in an astronomy career. We talked about everything from surviving physics classes to taking full advantage of the college dating scene.

During our talk, I looked over at this beautiful, talented, energetic young woman who was so ready to take on the challenges of science. I exactly remembered that wonderful feeling of wide-open potential, and I wondered what had happened to it. What had happened to me?

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Let's start by stating the obvious: A career in science is not easy for anyone. Astronomy is a competitive, high-pressure profession. At every step in a typical science career - going from graduate school to a post-doctoral research fellowship to a tenure-track position to a full professor - many people are weeded out.

And the cuts are not only made by judging the quality of an astronomer's science, but also how many papers he or she publishes, what kinds of collaborations he or she taps into, and - often most important - how much grant money he or she brings in. It's a profession that favors aggressive, politically astute, independent people. Still, both men and women find this attractive. Do they really have the same chance, if they're willing to play by the same rules?

Like it or not, men and women are socialized differently. This really hit me in the face when I began to study physics at Harvard. Now, I'm a natural extrovert, and I don't shy away from a good argument. But when I got to Harvard, I found the atmosphere of the science classes hard to handle. I was often the only woman in my class. No problem, I thought. I'd always gotten along well with guys. But I was unprepared for the level of aggression.

A typical study session involved a bunch of guys standing around a chalkboard yelling at each other. One student would start a problem, while the others would comment loudly that they were going about it all the wrong way and why didn't the group do it their way instead?

The guys seemed to relish this rough-and-tumble way of working, but I found when I took the chalk, I would freeze. They would start their usual taunts, and I just couldn't concentrate. I realize now that the guys didn't mean anything personal. They attacked anyone doing the physics problem. But like a typical female in a science class, I shrank to the back of the classroom and never said another word the entire semester.

One high-minded professor had noticed that all his female students (including me) were hiding in the back of the room and not raising their hands, so he sat us all in the front row and individually asked us questions about the lessons. I dropped the class.

Things are much better for women in science now than in the past, where they were often turned away from observatories because there weren't any women's rest rooms (true!).

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But still the basic problem for me is how to fit in with the guys, or more to the point, get them to accept me. I try really hard. I've gotten used to combative questions about my worth as a scientist, getting no praise from superiors, and having no one at work remotely interested in chatting about my personal life.

The last point is more painful than you'd think. Women routinely talk about their lives as a way of reinforcing bonds between them. When someone asks about your house or your husband, you feel they approve of you. Without that, I can't help but feel that my workplace is rather cold.

And there are also a thousand and one small stabs at my ego: routinely being mistaken for a secretary, being called "Michelle" in a meeting where everyone else is addressed as "doctor," and generally being dismissed and ignored by the big boys.

In the end, being a scientist, I know never to believe anecdotal evidence. I found an article by Meg Urry in a publication called STATUS, which is put out by the American Astronomical Society to address the special issues women face in astronomy and physics.

Here are the facts, according to Urry: Only about 5 percent of full professors or the equivalent rank of research astronomers are women. This makes some sense, because when those women were in graduate school in the '60s, almost no women went into science.

Today, almost 25 percent of astronomy graduate students are women. But unfortunately, the number of women in science takes a real beating right after graduate school. Women in grad school have only a 26 percent chance of landing that first job after they get their PhDs, as opposed to a 43 percent chance for their male colleagues.

The trend continues for each level of promotion. As Urry puts it, "the progress of women lags behind at all levels. Women are less likely to be hired, are less likely to be given tenure, and spend longer at lower levels than their male colleagues."

To make matters worse, this lag is happening at a time when the field of astronomy is expanding. In the last five years, the number of assistant professorships has increased by 50 percent, and full professorships by 20 percent.

Yet, I feel that I have never been deliberately discriminated against. I was never told that "girls can't do science." I was never sexually harassed by a professor, or had so much as an honestly unkind word from a co-worker.

I could never regret the wonderful career this has been. But think hard about this, Scarlet. You may never feel like you really belong.

*Michelle Thaller is an astrophysicist who works for NASA in Los Angeles.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society