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Astronomy’s gender gap shows influence of culture and history

Image: Royal Society of Edinburgh

The data suggest that astronomy is slowly becoming more equal, but some countries are doing better than others, says Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

When trying to understand women’s progress—or lack of it­—in research and academia, it can be instructive to compare our country with others. In this regard, astronomy and astrophysics are fortunate that the International Astronomical Union has for the past 20 years published membership data broken down by gender, age and nationality and updated each month.

The numbers reveal that there are about five times as many male members as there are female—worldwide, women account for 17 per cent of IAU members. This is up from 13 per cent in 2005, showing that most countries’ female fraction has gone up a little. But over the past 20 years, the global pattern has not changed significantly.

The ratio, however, is strongly dependent on age. For members in their 30s, men outnumber women by a factor of two to one. This gap grows steadily wider with age, reaching five to one at age 65 and 10 to one at age 85. There is no compulsory retirement age.

It appears, then, that women were even more seriously underrepresented in the IAU in the past. At younger recruitment stages it is now ‘only’ by two to one.

IAU members are nominated by senior astrophysicists from their own country. This is a male-dominated group and was even more so in the past. They might be more likely to nominate younger men than women. This could also mean that women tend to be nominated at older ages than men. Within this general pattern, however, there is significant variation between countries (see table).

Female membership is above average in South America and southern Europe. English-speaking countries are clustered below the average—just 13 per cent of the UK’s IAU members are women. Countries in north-western Europe are a little further behind still, with a noticeably smaller fraction of female members than those in southern Europe.

This suggests that the culture in a country is the determining factor of the gender balance of its astronomers.

Why this pattern of geographical variability? There are likely to be a lot of factors involved. The tendency for men to nominate men, for example, may be stronger in some countries.

Countries where young married people tend to live near their parents mean there are grandparents to help with childcare, releasing the mother to work. In countries where there is a large spread of income there will be more less-affluent women willing to be nursemaids, cooks and so on, again releasing better-off mothers to work.

Countries are also shaped by their histories. Russia lost many men in the world wars and in the 1918 flu pandemic. There were so few men left that women had to work, and the Soviet state provided nurseries to care for children.

In the UK, in contrast, the political and social emphasis at the end of the second world war was on wives’ role as homemakers, in part to free up jobs for men returning from the front. It took many decades for it to become acceptable for a married woman to have a career, and even longer for women with children to have one.

What has driven this long-term change in the UK? Women’s voices are being heard more. Senior men whose daughters go into the physical sciences have seen the world through their daughters’ eyes. The Athena SWAN project, started by a small group of senior women scientists, has now been taken up by funding agencies.

Data are being collected and scrutinised. We are learning more about unconscious bias, institutional sexism and other factors that disadvantage women scientists. Parenting responsibilities are now more equally shared.

But we still have a lot to do in this country. Gender stereotypes set in very young. We are still failing to make use of all our potential in the physical sciences and engineering, and of our innovative and entrepreneurial talents.

Women in astronomy

Female membership of the International Astronomical Union, for countries with more than 200 members.

Country Women Members %
Italy 26
France 25
Brazil 22
Brazil 20
Brazil 18
Global Average 17
Australia 16
Canada 14
United States 14
China 13 
UK 13 
Germany 12
Netherlands  11 

Source: IAU. Data as of 1 April 2018 

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight