SCIENCE

Female Astronomers Just Can't Seem To Catch A Break

Jarring new study shows it's tough for women to get telescope time.

13/10/2016 1:13 AM AEDT | Updated 18/10/2016 11:44 AM AEDT
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Antennas of the European Southern Observatory's Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array ALMA facility on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes.

Gender bias may or may not exist elsewhere in the cosmos, but a jarring new study echoes previous research showing that it remains a problem for female astronomers here on Earth.

The study found that female astronomers are less successful than their male counterparts at lining up critically important observing time on major telescopes, in this case those operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

More than 13,000 proposals to use ESO telescopes were submitted by about 3,000 male and female astronomers during the eight-year period the study examined. Only 16 percent of the proposals by female astronomers were accepted.

For proposals from male astronomers, the acceptance rate was 22 percent.

What exactly explains the disparity?

Dr. Ferdinando Patat, head of observing programs with the ESO in Garghing, Germany and the study’s author, said he thought “the problem resides in the [astronomy] community, not much in the selection process.” 

He explained: Professionally employed (senior) astronomers enjoy greater success than astronomy students and postdoctoral fellows in having their proposals approved ― because their proposals tend to be better. And only 34 percent of the female astronomers who submitted proposals held senior positions, as compared with 53 percent of males.

That gender disparity isn’t too different from the one that exists in the wider astronomy community, Patat said.

But Patat acknowledged that the finding could also reflect a conscious or unconscious bias against women among the experts who reviewed the proposals. They were predominantly male.

The notion of bias certainly resonates with Dr. Meg Urry, a Yale University astrophysicist who has spoken out previously about gender disparities in astronomy. She compared the new research to a 2014 study showing that female astronomers are less successful than their male counterparts at getting observing time on the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Both studies show a gender bias, almost certainly unconscious,” she told The Huffington Post in an email. “This shouldn’t surprise us, since social scientists have been reporting experimental results for many years that show everyone ― men and women ― have these same kinds of unconscious biases. We expect scientists to look like Einstein or like the professors we all had ― mostly white men ― just as we expect our presidents and Supreme Court justices to be male.”

What will it take to eliminate the sorts of disparities spotlighted by these studies?

“Get astronomers to acknowledge there is a bias,” Urry said in the email, pointing out that there could be racial and other disparities as well as gender disparities. “Research shows that people who are aware of bias are less likely to act on it.”

Urry said some orchestras have addressed the problem of potential bias by conducting “blind” auditions, in which the musician is hidden from view so those judging his/her performance are able to consider only the music produced.

Unfortunately, she said, astronomy is such a small field that “people know who is doing what” even if steps are taken to hide the gender of the astronomer submitting a proposal or applying for a job.

For Patat, one key will be to address the difficulties female astronomers have in reaching senior positions.

“We need to work so that the female/male fraction is closer and closer to 50/50,” he told HuffPost in an email. “This is very hard to achieve, and starts with the education. In general, female students are culturally oriented (by families, teachers, society) towards the humanities rather than towards sciences.”

Women who do obtain senior positions find themselves in a “difficult environment,” he said ― one in which, for example, it’s hard to take maternity leave without risking job trouble. 

So it seems that difficulty getting telescope time is far from the only obstacle facing women in astronomy and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Recent research has shown that female scientists, engineers and mathematicians face everything from pernicious stereotypes about women’s scientific abilities and a lack of appropriate role models to the difficulty obtaining letters of recommendation and sexual harassment.

“People like to talk as if the playing field is now level ― and I think that’s partly because people wish it were ― but the evidence shows otherwise,” Urry told Science magazine. “Until we solve some of these problems, we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back and say we’ve gotten there.” 

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