Well, I can say something about the US and Great Britain, at least. About the time that women were agitating for the right to vote and to get educational opportunities equivalent to men, they also started showing up in astronomy. In fact, in the early 1900s Harvard Observatory accepted and trained the first women astronomers, who immediately made major contributions to the field. Here are the most famous of them:
Williamina Fleming (1857-1911), worked with Edward Pickering at Harvard Observatory on a system for classifying stars according to their spectra, that is, the specific types of light waves they emit. She designed the spectral classification system used in the very important Henry Draper star catalog. If you ever see a star identified as "HD 3241", that's a number from the Henry Draper catalog, and Williamina classified it. She also discovered 59 nebulae, over 300 variable stars, and 10 novae - at a time when only 28 novae had ever been seen.
Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) expanded on the spectral class work of Pickering and Fleming, and developed the much more detailed system we use today. She, too, worked at Harvard Observatory, and was particularly interested in variable stars. She compiled and published a 10 volume catalog of over 300,000 variable stars which is still invaluable to astronomers studying variable stars.
Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921), who also worked with Pickering at Harvard, studied variable stars and in particular a special type of variable star called Cepheid variables. Variable stars get brighter and dimmer in a regular pattern over time. Henrietta discovered that in Cepheids there is a relationship between how long it takes the star to get bright, and then dim, them bright again, and how bright the star is. This means that astronomers can use Cepheid variables in other galaxies to figure out how far away those galaxies are (because brightness is also directly related to distance). After Henrietta published her results, astronomers suddenly found out that the universe was a LOT bigger than they had ever imagined.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979), who worked with Harlow Shapley at Harvard, discovered a relationship between a star's spectrum and its temperature. She studied variable stars as well, and was the first woman awarded the Chair in Astronomy at Harvard University, in 1956.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. 1943), who worked at Cambridge, discovered pulsars while working on her PhD thesis in radio astronomy. Pulsars are collapsed stars that are spinning very fast - so fast that as the star and its magnetic field whip through space, they emit pulses of radiation. In fact, the pulsar Jocelyn discovered had a period of about 1.3 SECONDS! That was so unusual that at the time some jokingly referred to it as "LGM", for Little Green Men - they thought the pulsar must be a beacon for space travelers, because it was so fast and so regular. Then Jocelyn quickly discovered three more pulsars in other parts of the sky. Theoreticians went to work to find an astronomical explanation for the signal, which they did: the spinning neutron star. Over 1000 pulsars are known today.
So much for history. And of course none of the men who trained and worked with these women would ever have dreamed of trying to take credit for someone else's work. In the sciences, as everywhere, taking credit for other people's work is considered very offensive. A scientist who does that soon finds out that no one wants to collaborate with him. And collaboration - sharing ideas and working together to solve problems - is what allows science to move forward. I've never personally known a scientists to steal credit, but twice in the past 10 years I have been at meetings where I heard a (male) scientist warn a prospective graduate student that a professor the student was considering studying with had done something like that in the past. The grateful students found other advisors to study with. That doesn't seem to be a male/female thing, though. It's an honest/dishonest thing.
Nowadays there are more and more women entering the field of astronomy. As many as men? Well, no. For example, in our Department of Astronomy, which includes both teachers as well as researchers, 9 of 54 faculty members are women. Of 24 graduate students, only 2 are women. These numbers are about proportional to the number of qualified applications we get. So in order to see more women become astronomers, we need to see more women study astronomy and more girls your age planning to study the sciences.
When I was working on my bachelor's degree in Astronomy, I frequently had courses in which I was the only woman. But this never seemed to bother the guys in the class or the instructors. I was just another student, fascinated by astronomy, and trying to understand how things work. Now I see women astronomers pretty much every where I go. In the group I work with Dr. Lucy McFadden studies asteroids and will be working on the Deep Impact project (a spacecraft that will chase down a comet and launch a probe into it). My boss, Dr. Michael A'Hearn, this year saw his most recent female graduate student awarded her PhD in astronomy and has just taken on a new female graduate student.
Happily, it is no longer unusual to meet a female astronomer. I've met women astronomers who are observers, theoreticians, experimentalists, project scientists and managers at NASA. Are there still a few old dinosaurs around who think women shouldn't do science? One or two. Are we women going to sit still for that sort of garbage? Heck no!
2. How many women are in the astronomy field?
Surprising as it may seem, most of my astronomy classes are about 50/50 male/female and the same is true for undergraduates in the major in general, the numbers are about equal. But it does appear that as go higher up in education there is a drastic shift. Most of the graduate students here are men and we only have 2 female professors.
I cannot say that it is a bad thing to have so many male professors. My only problem would be that there is no real female role model, someone to pattern your career after. But I have been able to find male role models too. And as far as I can see there is not real bias or unfair treatment based on gender, the environment is always fair and pleasant. This summer I am even working with one of my male professors on a research project.
As for my opinion on being an astronomer, I love it!!!! I could (and often do) go on for hours to all my friends and family about different things in astronomy that fascinate me. I grew up loving math and science in general and in college I put those together in astronomy, especially in studying moons of other planets. I will definitely be working in astronomy for the rest of my life.
3. Do women have a tough time having to put up with all the males in the field? And what sort of education would be required? What would be the best schools to go to? I'm just curious as to what all is involved and I wanted a women’s perspective.
Before I answer your question, let me introduce myself. My name is Stacy Teng and I'm a senior at the University of Maryland. I'm not quite an astronomer yet, but am one in training. My main interest in astronomy is galaxies. I have not been in the field long enough to give you a complete picture of being a woman in science, but I will try to tell you everything that I know. This may be a long email... As you mentioned, there is a large men to women ratio in astronomy. As a student, I was not aware of some of the difficulties older members of our community felt when they were students. From my own experiences, my professors and fellow students have been very supportive of me. But it can be very hard sometimes when you're one of a handful of female students, if not the only, in a class of 20 or 30. You sometimes feel out of place. From stories that I've heard from graduate students, some of them have come across situations where they felt that they were treated differently than their male counterparts. They felt that others thought they were not capable of being astronomers. Personally, I think that women are every bit as capable as men, if not more, in astronomy and other fields. Some grad students feel that women are not given enough opportunities in research or enough encouragement from faculty. Of course, these are only a few cases that I've heard. By all means, I'm not trying to discourage you from becoming a female astronomer, but I do feel that I have the obligation to give you a complete picture. Since I don't have enough experiences of my own to point one way or another, the following URL is to an American Astronomical Society publication called "Status". "Status" is a report on the status of women in astronomy. I think you will find answers to a lot of the questions that you may have. Some of the things mentioned do not exist in just astronomy, but in other fields as well.
As far as education is concerned, how far you want to go in school depends on what you want to do with your degree(s). Let's discuss several options.
Option 1: work at an observatory/planetarium somewhere.
Option 2: teaching faculty at a primary or secondary school.
Option 3: research faculty at a university/college or a research institution.
Option 4: teaching faculty at an academic institution.
Option 5: apply your skills elsewhere.
If you don't want a desk job and sit in front of the computer all day, you might want to consider option 1. There you get to talk to the public and do some outreach work and educate the public on the wonders of astronomy. For most of those positions, you only need a bachelor's or a master's degree. If you like kids and want to teach at your local elementary, middle, or high school, you can get a bachelor's or a master's degree in astronomy and then get state certified as a teacher. If you want do either option 3 or 4, you would most likely need a Ph.D. A master's is sufficient for a teaching faculty position, but the university may only let you teach lower level courses. You can also do research with a master's. If you don't want to do any of those, a degree in astronomy will help you find jobs in other industries very easily. It shows that you have the ability to learn and astronomy is tough. Some employers do search for employees with strong physical science backgrounds.
Some of the best schools to go to in astronomy are Berkley, UCLA, Caltech, U. of Arizona, U. of Chicago... and let me do a little plug for my school - U. of MD :) If you decide that you don't like big schools and want to go to smaller liberal arts schools, schools like Carleton, Oberlin, Agnes Scott have great astronomy/physics programs. When you're an undergraduate, you want to choose a school where they have a diverse program so you can figure out where your interests lie. A typical undergraduate curriculum includes basic astronomy classes, astrophysics theory, observations, advanced topics, a math curriculum that includes calculus, linear algebra, and a physics sequence that includes basic mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and more. Generally, it takes about 4 years to complete an undergraduate degree, then 6 years to get a Ph.D. (2 for a master's then 4 more for the Ph.D.), then a couple of years to do a postdoc somewhere and then find an academic/research position.
Astronomy is great. You get to travel to very exotic places to work and have conferences. They hold conferences in Rome, in Cancun, and other beautiful places. They have telescopes in Australia, Chile, the Canary Islands, Hawaii, and more. I have a friend who is doing a postdoc in Florence, Italy. I have friends who frequently travel to Hawaii to make observations. It's a great career choice, but you have to love what you do because scientists, in my opinion, are very much underpaid, but as long as you have a passion for what you do, you will be happy. I hope I haven't scared you away from a career in astronomy. We need more capable females in the field. If you have more questions, please don't hesitate to ask.
4. I was just wondering if I could get a girls point of view on the ups and downs, or if there are any for female astronomers?
I would say that the large majority of the time the ups and downs for girls and guys are the same. In general I find that women aren't treated any differently than men. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Sometimes women are discriminated against, however, this is not isolated to Astronomy at all. It's true of many fields, especially the stereotypical ones, math, engineering, physics, etc. But please don't let this discourage you from making a career out of any of these fields! If someone ever makes a sexist comment you have to realize that it's only because of their ignorance and has no reflection on you or your abilities! Of course, remember that this is a rare occasion. I think a lot of times women are discouraged from some fields simply by the fact that there aren't a lot of other women in them. But this is exactly why we need more women to stay in these fields. Also, sexism can be subtle and non-malicious, don't get discouraged! So, my advice is to be somewhat careful who you work for and keep an open mind, always assume the best of people until they prove you wrong. Also, if you find yourself in a situation where you're being discriminated against, get out, but remember that it's just the individual not an entire field. Life's too short to spend it miserable. But above all don't be too paranoid and reread my first three sentences!
Melanie E. Freed
5. I was wondering what kinds of jobs are available for students after they receive four year degrees whom are females. What is the female to male ratio for scientists?
My name is Grace Deming. I am an astronomer at the University of Maryland. Dr. Miller forwarded me your question about careers in astronomy since I am the Undergraduate Advisor for our department. Astronomy students are required to take astronomy, physics and math courses to complete the major. Basically you need an understanding of calculus and differential equations to solve problem involving physics applied to situations in space. Astronomers use physics and mathematics to increase our understanding of the processes that take place. For example, in order to send spacecraft to investigate Mars, we must understand the detailed structure of the atmosphere (which involves understanding atmospheric gases in terms of temperature, composition, and pressure).
In order to understand what happens near a black hole, mathematical models are constructed based on Einstein's theory of general relativity. These models can then be compared to observations made. In order to understand what happens when galaxies collide, we need to solve problems involving gravity and motions of stars. Also how the compression of gases will begin the star formation process as the galaxies tug and pull on each other.
Our graduates have found jobs in this area (Washington DC is a great market for astronomers) at the Hubble Space Telescope Institute. We have 2 graduates who are program coordinators (help the astronomers who get time on the Hubble Space Telescope plan/maximize their observations). At NASA Goddard Space Flight Center we have graduates who are employed by the government or independent contractors who do government work. Most of these jobs involve computer skills so that is an important consideration as they planned their education. There is also the opportunity to work on developing or building instrument for spacecraft. Many of our students do internships during the summer at Goddard or other institutions.
With a concentration of education course, it would be possible to teach math or science in many states. Assisting an astronomer at an observatory is another possible job for someone with a B.S. degree in astronomy. The jobs are always at the "assisting" level. For more independent research, graduate school is a must. With a M.S. degree or Ph.D. you are able to assume more responsibility. About half of our graduates elect to continue their education by attending graduate school.
You asked about "ratios." Approximately 50% of our undergraduate majors at Univ. of Maryland are women. Among graduate students you can expect about 20-40% women. Since we are talking about average incoming groups of first year graduate student that range from 4-10, the percentage varies from institution to institution. If these answers make you think of other questions, please email me again.
6. I was wondering what it is like to work in a field that is dominated by males?
My name is Zoe Leinhardt I am a graduate student in astronomy at the University of /maryland. I think what I notice most is not blatant sexism or harassment but instead the lack of female role models. In our department the graduate students are split almost 50/50 female/male. However, we have one female postdoc (out of 12), three female research faculty members (out of 9), and one tenured female faculty (out of a total of 16). In general this increases my drive to do well academically and become a role model for young women.
Zoe Malka Leinhardt
7. I would like to know what it is like to be a female astronomer. What are the "good" and "bad" things about being an astronomer?
First, let me give you just a bit of background about me. I started my college career at a community college in Minnesota, and finished my bachelor's degrees at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, NM (home of the Very Large Array radio interferometer). I did my master's degree at the University of Maryland, and have worked for three years as a support scientist at NASA/Goddard. I now work half time as a support scientist, and the rest of the time as a graduate student on my PhD thesis.
I think we've all heard the "horror stories" of women in science who are not taken seriously by their peers or are treated differently from the male students. For me, however, those are just stories. I have not experienced any type of discrimination (that I know of) because I'm female. In fact, there have been times that I have experienced advantages being a female in astronomy -- for example, I won for a scholarship only open to women majoring in science.
My experiences in school and at work have been positive. I studied with the guys in my classes as equals (and often I knew more about the subject than they did :-) In my current work, I'm not treated any differently because I'm a female -- my ideas are taken as seriously as anyone else's. In my position at NASA, I see many female astronomers who have risen to positions where they are well respected in their fields.
Don't let the horror stories scare you away -- I can't say that your experience will be as positive as mine, but I can say that things are changing, and the horror stories are becoming a thing of the past. Even though the statistics still show that men are more likely than women to go all the way to a PhD, those numbers are changing, and if we can get more women into the programs who are strong students and curious about science, we can continue to change those numbers.
That's my pep talk about being a woman in science. You also asked about the good and bad things about being an astronomer -- the answer to this question, I believe, would be the same even if I was male. The best thing about being an astronomer is that I am doing something I love. I've always looked up at the night sky and found the stars and planets to be magical. Now instead of just looking at the stars, I am contributing to the body of knowledge of our universe. That's exciting! Oh, and I still find the night sky to be magical -- understanding what's out there has not taken any of the wonder away.
I suppose the one bad thing about being an astronomer is that it takes a lot of work to get there. There is a lot of schooling involved -- 4 years in college, 2 years to get a master's degree, and another 4 years to get a PhD. It's not an easy road, but it's definitely worth the trip!
I hope you continue your interest in astronomy -- we'd love to include you in the ranks of accomplished female astronomers!
8. This question is directed to female astronomers. We are very interested in pursuing the field of astronomy. We were wondering how difficult it is to become an astronomer, as well as what types of classes should be taken to work towards this. This also lead us to wonder, do you find that you are treated differently because of your gender, if so, how? Are there many women that you work closely with, or are they mostly men? When did you start considering going into astronomy? What made you decide it was what you wanted to do?
My name is Dr. Melissa Hayes-Gehrke. Let me tell you a little bit about myself, which will help answer some of your questions.
I first got interested in astronomy in grade school. I was from a pretty small school and so I read every astronomy book in the library. I found out later on that many of them were way out of date! But it was still really interesting.
In high school, I also got interested in chemistry. When I went to college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I actually planned on going into chemistry. However, my freshman chemistry class didn't really click with me very well, and I didn't enjoy it. So I ended up double-majoring in physics and planetary science. Why did I decide on astronomy? I'm fascinated with "what's out there": all the things we don't know, on a range of subjects. Is there water on Mars? Are extra-solar planets common? How old is the universe? Do aliens exist? I can't work on all those subjects at once, but the overall interest drew me to it. I also like to observe the sky. I have a small telescope myself, and I have had the opportunity to observe at a 2-m telescope in Arizona for my doctorate. I think it's amazing to be able to take pictures of objects we can't see with our eyes! One of my biggest goals: I like to teach, and I think teaching astronomy is tremendous fun, because everyone is interested in it.
One of your questions: what classes should you take? MIT did not have an actual "astronomy" major, so that wasn't an option for me. Even if a college does have an astronomy major, it may not be your best bet. You need to think about what your ultimate goals are, which can be intimidating when you haven't even graduated from high school yet! You need to think about whether you want to get a bachelor's degree and then look for a job, or whether you want to get a master's or doctorate, and then go to work.
If you want to get your bachelor's degree and then get into the astronomy field, then you will probably be successful with an astronomy major OR a physics major. If you have your bachelor's, you can do things like: work in a planetarium, be a support scientist at a telescope observatory (like Kitt Peak or the Space Telescope Science Institute) or astronomical research center (like NASA or JPL), teach astronomy (or even physics or math) in grade school or high school, to name a few jobs.
If you want to get your master's or doctorate, you may want to major in physics (and take astronomy electives) or double major in physics and astronomy. This is because attaining a higher degree requires a lot more rigorous, in-depth knowledge of the physics behind astronomical objects. Most graduate schools feel a physics major is better-suited for that. If you go to graduate school, it's also more time in school: another 2 years for your master's, and about 4 years after that for your doctorate. That's a lot of time in school! However, once you're done, you can do almost anything: get a top job at a research center (like NASA or JPL), teach at a university, work at high levels at a major observatory, and help build instruments for major ground or space telescopes.
There is also a big advantage to majoring in physics for another reason: if you decide you don't want to go into astronomy (or physics) for a job, you're well-qualified for lots of other jobs. If you have a physics degree, potential employers know that you can work hard, you can think critically and quantitatively, and you can reason through problems. You probably will acquire a lot of computer knowledge along the way. Many physics majors go on to computer programming jobs, jobs in finance or the stock market, or jobs in research in other fields that aren't necessarily physics.
So in short, I would recommend that you take lots of physics, and possibly major in it, even if your first love is astronomy.
Another question: is it hard to become an astronomer? I won't kid you -- physics is hard. Since my physics classes taught me the real fundamental concepts, I found them the hardest. My astronomy classes built on those, so they were a little easier. You do need to be willing to commit to doing the work. Wherever you go to college, be sure to get to know your teaching assistants and go to them for help. They are there to help you, and usually no one bothers to see them. They will help you with homework problems or study for tests so that you can understand the course material. My understanding of concepts improved greatly once I started taking advantage of my TAs' office hours!
If you decide to continue to graduate school, you need to be willing to commit a lot of time. The classes will continue to be difficult, but most of the time you'll be working on research for your master's or doctoral thesis, which can be a lot of fun. You'll generally have pretty flexible hours, but the pay will be just barely enough to live on. If you want your master's or doctorate, you need a lot of perseverance. However, it can be done!
Last question: am I treated differently because of my gender? I have never noticed that I have been. I think this is for three reasons: first, I get along very well with men in general; second, I'm not very easily offended; third, I've been lucky in where I've been.
When I was at MIT for my undergraduate degree, about 30% of the undergraduates were female. Even with such a low female population, I never noticed that I was slighted by professors or other students. If a professor was rude, he was rude to everyone. I lived in a co-ed dorm, and most of my close friends were men. (There were many women living there also, I just had more in common with the guys.) In fact, I met my husband in that dorm! MIT has a very accepting atmosphere and was actively trying to recruit more women, so I think that helped the overall feel to the college.
I was a graduate student at Boston University. Approximately 2 of the 15 faculty in the astronomy department were women. However, about half of the graduate students were women. Again, I never felt like I had any additional problems because I was female.
I'm now teaching at the University of Maryland. There are a number of women faculty members, but not nearly half of the faculty. Many of the graduate students are female; in fact more than half might be. I have not encountered any problems here, either.
As I said, in some ways I think I have been lucky because I have always been at pretty open and accepting schools. I have certainly read about women at small, very traditional colleges where there is a lot of discrimination toward women, especially by older professors. I would suggest that when you visit colleges for your undergraduate degree that you do your best to talk to some of the female students in your major and find out their feelings on the subject. You may find out there's one professor to avoid. Or you may find out you want to avoid the whole school. Talking to the students who experience it is the best way to find out.
Wow, I was just realizing how much I wrote! I hope I haven't made the whole astronomy process seem too intimidating. I had a lot of fun in college and graduate school, even though I was working hard on my classes. I've never noticed any differences in the way I was treated compared to the men around me. I'm happy to be where I am now.
As you're thinking about college, I have two major pieces of advice for you:
1) Don't be afraid to change. If you pick a major and find out you don't like the classes, change majors. No one says you HAVE to choose what you want to do for the rest of your life in your freshman year. If you get into a class and you don't like the professor or TA, see if you can change to another section. If you don't get along with your dorm-mates or apartment-mates, try to switch dorms or apartments.
2) Take advantage of the opportunities. When you're working on classes, take advantage of the office hours of your TA or professor so you learn the material better. Besides your classes, take advantage of the other things a college has to offer: clubs for lots of different hobbies, chances to be parts of projects (that may have nothing to do with your major), get to know people from lots of different places. You're only going to be in college for a few years, so enjoy all of it while you can.
9. Is it more difficult being a woman in astronomy, than being a man?
My immediate answer to your question, "Is it more difficult being a woman in astronomy, than being a man?" is, I don't know I've never been a man. I am an experimentalist, and this is one experiment that I'm not willing to carry out.
I will say that in any scientific or technical field we are taught to think critically. Everyone's ideas are subject to critique. But the purpose of the critique is to discover the truth and understand how the universe works. So, whereas, all of my ideas are critiqued, they have to be, that is part of the process.
When I write a paper and submit it for publication, it is reviewed and I have to respond to the reviewer’s comments. I used to feel terrible when I received a review back from my colleagues (an often you don't know who is making the comments). When I was younger, I took it personally. In time I realized that it was my ideas that were being criticized and not me personally. It is important to separate the two. And you have to believe in the cause, to understand how things work or how things came to be the way they are.
I think it is probably difficult for both men and women in science to withstand the critique. But it is part of the process. And when you have communicated your ideas effectively and are right, it is an extremely satisfying feeling. That is making a contribution to science.
10. Can you describe your experience as a woman in the astronomy field?
This is a good question. I will try to relay my experiences as a graduate student and then here at the university, because I think both have relevance to your question.
I should say that I began studying astronomy in 1970. I think it is a little bit different today at the University of Maryland than when I attended the University of Illinois. By that I mean, now there are more women studying astronomy at both the undergraduate and graduate level nationally. For 2 years I was the only female graduate student in my department. I have to admit that the "guys" always accepted me, but then again, I was married to one of them.
I had two instances during graduate school when I felt uncomfortable being female. I was the only woman taking an electricity and magnetism physic class. The professor clearly had an attitude toward me, which discouraged me from coming to his office hours after the first visit. Second, when I had to decide whether or not to continue graduate school toward a PhD, there wasn't much support and I was at a position in my life where I think I needed more encouragement. So I finished with a Master's degree and for the most part, it has worked out fine for me. I am doing what I love--teaching college astronomy and doing research on what makes astronomy/science "hard" for some people.
Today here at the University of Maryland there are 21 women out of 39 graduate students. There seems to be more support when a minority group reaches a critical mass. The female graduate students here do encourage and help one another.
Our department has 19 teaching faculty, but only 3 women (1 associate professor--this is a mid-level rank, and 2 Instructors--lowest level). There are some universities that have better percentages. I wish things were different here, because I think it is a little discouraging for the upcoming generation of astronomers, both men and women, not to see more women professors. Maybe in another 10 years there will be more women at all ranks at all universities.
I have never had a problem working with the men here at the University of Maryland. Most of them are younger than I am, so I think they are used to seeing more women participating in sports, working at a variety of jobs that used to be considered "men-only", and doing science. I don't know, but I would bet that they encountered more women in graduate school than I did. As younger astronomers replace the older ones, I think instances of discrimination will fall at all levels.
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