Case Study: Status of Women in Astronomy

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Case Study: Status of Women in Astronomy

Context: Our field is in the middle of a decadal survey where we review our progress and focus on priorities, and one of the issues being discussed under "status of the profession" is the status of women in the field. A fair number of articles have been put out. The current situation right now is somewhere between most physical sciences and the life sciences, and the rate of progress is certain but slow.

This one discussed this issue and two others (that would probably be less interesting to people here). I liked it a lot, I thought they gave a very good overview of where things are, and a lot of their suggestions are very realistic and some of them I have not seen or heard of before.

It's written by nine Princeton postdoctoral fellows. Their perspective would be of people in the field for 5-10 years, been in a few different places, their careers are going well but they still have some way to go.

I thought people would enjoy reading it. And before it's pointed out I asked a mod for permission to post this.


3. Status of women in Astrophysics

Much has been said (but more remains to be done) about under-representation of women in physical sciences in general and in astronomy in particular2. From our perspective, this is indeed a problem, and one worth continuing attention from the community, for the following reasons:

• First, there is now an understanding that women are under-represented not because of lacking intellectual capacity but because of social impediments. The additional hardship, whatever its source, is therefore “unfair” and should be eliminated.
• Second, there is a concern that talented individuals are being driven away from the science disciplines, and therefore the field loses as a whole.
• Third, there is a general perception that gender diversity is important and makes for a more pleasant working environment. For example, lack of female role models is a significant deterrent for young female scientists entering the field, reinforcing the second issue listed above.

Significant improvements in women’s career advancement have been achieved in the recent years, with astronomy clearly ahead of the curve among other physical sciences. Indeed, representation of women among faculty members is higher in astronomy than averaged over all of physics (17% in astronomy vs 13% in physics as a whole3) and has been on the rise in the recent years. The difference is even more dramatic among the younger generation (28% of assistant professors in astronomy are women, compared with 17% in physics). It is clear that somehow astronomy departments have created a significantly more women-friendly environment than departments in other physical disciplines. One possibility is that astronomy is benefiting from the historically higher representation of women, and the availability of role models leads to higher retention rates for young female scientists. On top of that, the astronomical community benefits from being educated on the issue of gender biases (e.g., through the work done by the American Astronomical Society), and many professionals have been involved in programs designed to improve participation of women – and these programs are working. While these are encouraging trends, many problems remain. In particular, progress is significantly slower at top-ranked departments (among the top 20 physics departments, only 12% of assistant faculty are women, compared with the 17% for the field as a whole4). Very few full professors are female (6% in physics and 11% in astronomy). Forty-three percent of all physics departments have no women at all on their faculties5, which is a very serious problem considering that many astronomers start by receiving their undergraduate education in physics.

Furthermore, many astrophysicists are employed by physics departments not only in small colleges, but also in major PhD granting institutions. Therefore, the statistics for astronomy departments in the previous paragraph are misleading for astrophysics in general. Many factors that present obstacles for women’s participation in sciences have been identified, including hidden gender biases in hiring and evaluation (Urry 2008 and references therein), as well as discouragement of female undergraduates linked to the aforementioned lack of female role models (Xie & Shauman 2003). One major obstacle academics of both sexes frequently face is the tension between having a family and maintaining the competitive curriculum vitae necessary for attaining a desirable academic position. This issue has become particularly acute for women in astrophysics, as the standard duration of the postdoc position gradually creeps from three to six or seven years. The conventional wisdom has been to have children later in life after tenure has been achieved. While this may have been possible for previous generations, for most families this goal is now unrealistic. However, having children during graduate school or a postdoc presents its own set of challenges and puts undue strain on families. Both the academic and biological clocks are ticking, and frequently the biological clock precipitates one or both partners leaving academia.

We would like to postulate, based on our own experiences and anecdotal evidence, that this is one of the most significant issues driving women from the field. For example, one of us, on her recent trip to a highly ranked astronomy department, had an informal meeting with female graduate students, who at that time were nearly 50% of the graduate students in the program. Despite their (unusually) high representation in the graduate student population, every single woman at this meeting identified balancing family and career as a daunting problem potentially threatening her future participation in the field. Sociological research supports our assertion:

• Mason & Goulden (2002, 2004) study the effects of having children on science careers and the effects of having science careers on establishing a family, and conclude that there are significant gender differences. “Women, it seems, cannot have it all while men can.”
• Urry (2008), while underscoring that the availability of child care is not the only factor affecting status of women in sciences, acknowledges that “Childbirth has the effect of removing women from full-time work, to the long-term detriment of their careers. It is certainly true that there are too few high quality child care options available[...]”
• Xie & Shauman (2003) find that “Short-term slowdowns [such as maternal leave] can have a very significant negative effect on a career overall.”

We firmly believe that a significant improvement in women’s participation in sciences can be reached if and only if there is a significant improvement in availability of child care and in policies and attitudes regarding parental leave. While a few simple low-cost adjustments may provide some relief, a qualitative change in the situation will require financial investment. Some individuals within the astronomical community (sometimes with support of funding agencies) have been highly effective in public outreach programs encouraging participation of high-school and undergraduate female students, as well as in organizing meetings and publications to educatethe members of the profession about the status of women. However, improvements in child care and parental leave policies cannot be easily achieved through individual contributions, but are well within reach of funding agencies – as long as these issues are put on the high-priority list for the profession. With its relatively high participation of women and high interest in elimination of gender biases, the astronomical community is in an excellent position to provide a head start in this area, and such changes would benefit not only women in astronomy but men and women across all academic disciplines. The specific concerns regarding child care and parental leave are the subject of the next section.

4. Child care and parental leave While it is not practical to expect the nature of the academic hierarchy to change, there are some steps that could mitigate the strain felt by academics attempting to juggle careers and children. We recognize that the lack of high-quality child care is a problem on a national level, which does not pertain solely to astrophysics. The current reality is that this issue is not on the federal political agenda, so it is not tenable to expect federal funding or government programs to solve this problem. Thus, the solutions we propose will not be free of cost either to the individuals or the institutions, but we encourage the community to seriously consider the advantages of making these types of investments. Some institutions are already considering important policies to make academic careers more family-friendly. The following is based on proposed additions to the University of California’s family policies (Mason & Goulden 2004) that we highly endorse. We hope that collectively, institutions will make policies like these more the norm than the exception.

1. A flexible part-time option for academics – including tenured and tenure-track faculty, as well as postdocs and graduate students – that can be used for limited periods as life-course needs arise.
2. A guarantee to make high-quality child-care slots available to academics.
3. An institutional commitment to assist new academic members with spousal-partner employment and other family-related relocation issues.
4. Re-entry postdoctoral fellowships that are designed to encourage PhDs who have taken time off from their careers to provide care to others to return to the academy.
5. Discounting of family-related resume gaps in the hiring of faculty.
6. Establishment of school-break child care and summer camps and of emergency backup child care programs.

While we recognize that not every institution will be able to offer these benefits, we expect institutions that do adopt such policies to enjoy a competitive advantage6 in hiring and retaining the best and brightest academics in the country, particularly women faculty. One of the most profound difficulties for academic families is the need to find good quality child care. Challenges faced by parents in academia include scanning the local area for appropriate facilities, adding themselves to waiting lists of often more than a year-long duration, being forced into contracts requiring more than eight hours of child care per day – every day, and frequently commuting long distances because local child care options are full by the time parents receive an appointment at an institution. We estimate that several weeks of valuable work time per child are lost in negotiating this clumsy process. A low-cost solution that every institution can implement on a short time scale is to maintain a registry of recommended child care providers and a program to help employees coordinate child care sharing. One essential ingredient of this solution would be to alert subscribers to the various registration deadlines and to provide updates on the remaining number of available slots. An intermediate-cost program that would assist young academic parents is a system of cheap on-site 24-hour “emergency care”, which in practice would be limited to a few days per employee per year. More costly solutions include setting up an actual child care facility. As academics, we do enjoy certain flexibility in our profession, and therefore such a facility (or facilities recommended by the institution) should afford flexible part-time options, rather than a binary full-week-or-nothing policy.

Several institutions that we know of have started implementing such programs very recently (unfortunately, too recently for us to have benefited from them), but the availability of these services remains extremely scarce. The situation for graduate students and postdocs is particularly dire because they are often not eligible for benefits offered to faculty members and have much less financial leverage. As more women – and men with working partners – enter the sciences, the availability of child care will continue lagging behind the demand unless special effort is made to address the issue. Another challenge facing academics with families is the ever-ticking academic clock. Gaps in the curriculum vitae can make a candidate ineligible for junior faculty positions and certain fellowships. We propose that exceptions be made for individuals who have taken time off to raise children. The European Molecular Biology Organization offers special grants for young scientists who have taken time off to take care of the family7. American Physical Society offers a small year-long grant for women returning to active research after time off8. The astrophysics community should seek funding to establish similar programs.

Coming back into active research after time off is a very difficult enterprise, and therefore every effort should be made to help graduate students and postdocs maintain their careers while they are tending to their families. The leave, delay, and extension policies governing soft-money positions should be formalized. The rules should be established, followed, and widely circulated so that individuals are aware of options other than leaving the field. Graduate students are particularly vulnerable, because while some advisers are quite understanding of familial responsibilities, others may not be. Young researchers on soft-money positions should be granted unpaid leave or part time status on demand, while maintaining the available benefits. Extensions of these positions beyond the original contract date should also be considered when the individual chooses to start a family.

This type of benefit is widely available in Europe, but is nearly non-existent in the United States. Most importantly, the community must be educated that young researchers should not be penalized for taking a reasonable time off when applying for their next position. Tenure reviews can also be extremely harsh on academics raising young children. Many institutions now offer extended time for tenure review for both male and female parents, and we believe that this policy should become the norm of the profession. Finally, financial contributions to child care and parental leave benefits should be added to the authorized expenses covered by infrastructure grants from funding agencies. Child care and parental leave are as valuable as computing and equipment costs in providing the necessary infrastructure to facilitate a researcher’s ability to conduct research.

remind remind's picture

Very interesting thanks 500_apples.