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Women Gain Ground in Astronomy

A new study of members of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) shows that women may dominate the next generation of US astronomers. The results of the study, announced in late June at the Women in Astronomy II conference at Caltech, show that nearly 60 percent of astronomers ages 18-23 are women, a significant increase over those ages 23-28, of which about 40 percent are female, according to Reuters. These numbers drew loud applause from the 200 women and men who attended the conference, the Pasadena Star-News reported.

“It represents a change in our field,” Dr. Kevin Marvel, deputy executive director of the AAS, told Reuters. “What this doesn’t tell us anything about is the career status of women. It doesn’t tell us if they’re getting hired with the same frequency as men.” Dr. C. Megan Urry, a Yale astrophysicist and key organizer of the conference, added: “This shows real progress for women astronomers, but differential attrition of women at key stages – from graduate student to postdoc, for example, or from undergraduate major to graduate student – remains a serious concern,” as reported by Reuters. “There’s a problem getting women into faculty jobs,” said Dr. Lynn Kominsky, an astrophysicist at Sonoma State University, told Reuters. “Basically, there are one or two women who get the best jobs, and past that, women aren’t considered seriously.”

University of Colorado sociologist Elaine Seymour spoke to the conference about conditions that force women to leave astronomy for other careers more often than men. Some of the most serious problems are grueling schedules, a lack of mentoring, and a lack of support for people trying to balance a career in astronomy with the demands of family life, Sky and Telescope reported. Other problems include the trend toward short-term positions, as well as women receiving less than their share of credit for excellent research and fewer invitations to speak at conferences. Nonetheless, Rachel Ivie of the American Institute of Physics’ Statistics Group reported at the conference that the percentage of women in the field has been steadily increasing since 1958, according to Sky and Telescope.

Sources:

Reuters Science 6/30/03; Pasadena Star-News 6/27/03; Sky and Telescope 7/2/03

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