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Gender equality in astronomy is still a work in progress

18 July 2022

Participants in the 1992 meeting that produced the then-controversial Baltimore Charter for Women in Astronomy reflect on three decades of changes in the community.

Participants in the workshop that yielded the Baltimore Charter.
Participants at a 1992 Space Telescope Science Institute workshop drafted and signed the Baltimore Charter for Women in Astronomy. Credit: Photo courtesy of Meg Urry

Nearly 30 years ago, in December 1992, some 165 astronomers signed the Baltimore Charter for Women in Astronomy, a call for gender equality in the field. At the time, the charter seemed “powerful and radical,” says Meg Urry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University. Looking back now, she says, it seems “tame.”

The charter points out, for example, that “women and men are equally capable of doing excellent science,” that “diversity contributes to, rather than conflicts with, excellence in science,” and that the existing systems for recruiting, evaluating, training, and recognizing astronomers “often prevent the equal participation of women.” Five multipart recommendations suggest actions to improve gender equality. Those include having women participate in the selection process for new hires; publicizing demographics for astronomical organizations; broadening criteria for hiring, promoting, assignments, and awards to accommodate different career pacing; ensuring physical safety for astronomers, who may work alone in observatories; and ending sexual harassment.

The charter had its genesis at a place that, for many years, was notorious for being unfriendly to women: the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). Urry joined the faculty there in 1990, doubling the number of women among the roughly 60 faculty astronomers there.

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At the institute, says Urry, men were promoted, nominated for prizes, and handed projects. “The women were assumed to be not as good and were always underpaid.” The only other woman on the STScI faculty at the time, Anne Kinney, had sole responsibility for the faint-object spectrograph on the Hubble Space Telescope, recalls Urry. “She was on the hook 24/7, 365 days a year. She was busting her ass. But instead of her bosses recognizing that it was structurally impossible to do a good job, they told her she was not doing a good enough job.”

At a faculty meeting about hiring, Urry asked how many candidates were women. “The response from other faculty was hostile,” she says. “But when Riccardo [Giacconi] asked the same question at the next meeting, the answer was ‘Lots!’ ” (Giacconi was the STScI director. In 2002 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics.)

The idea to hold a workshop on women in astronomy came from Goetz Oertel, then president of AURA, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, says Urry. She adds that Giacconi supported the idea “enthusiastically” and suggested that the workshop produce a “Magna Carta” because “we needed to have an outcome.” She and Kinney, who is now deputy director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, were the main organizers of the resulting workshop at STScI.

Anne Kinney, Vera Rubin, Nancy Grace Roman, Kerri Cahoy, and Randi Ludwig.
From left: Anne Kinney (now at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center), Vera Rubin (1928–2016), Nancy Grace Roman (1925–2018), Kerri Cahoy (now at MIT), and Randi Ludwig (now at Dell Technologies) attended the 2009 Women in Astronomy and Space Science conference in College Park, Maryland. Credit: Jay Friedlander/NASA

It was a wonderful meeting, says Debra Elmegreen, professor emerita at Vassar College, who at the time was chair of the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS’s) Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. “Lots of men also came, which you need. They were sympathetic—like at the beginning of the #MeToo movement. Men saw issues they may not have thought about. And women suddenly felt they could make people aware of roadblocks. I think the meeting especially empowered younger women.”

“Seeing 150 women in one room was a huge positive outcome,” says Urry. “We were buoyed by that.” The attendees wrote the charter, and most of the 200 people present—including 35 or so of the men—signed it. But when attendees took the charter around to colleagues and to the AAS for endorsement, they often hit a wall. “Most places declined to endorse the charter,” says Urry. “The outrageous statement that no one could swallow was that ‘normally at least one woman should be on the short list for any position, paid or honorific.’” Today, she adds, the charter “would be endorsed in a heartbeat.”

Patricia Knezek, now a program scientist at NASA, was a graduate student at the time and wanted to attend the meeting, but her adviser nixed the idea because he didn’t want to pay. “Junior women like myself were dealing with these issues every day,” Knezek says. “At the observatory where I observed, there were pinups of Playboy women. And male students would rate female students based on their legs.” After the meeting, with posters of the Baltimore Charter hanging on office doors, she says, “we had talking points. The Playboy bunny calendars came down. That stuff went underground. We are still working on it.”

The situation in the US for women in astronomy has improved considerably in the intervening decades. “I saw things change after the Baltimore Charter,” says Elmegreen. A causal relationship can’t be proved, but there are more women in the field.

The percentage of first-year astronomy graduate students who were women grew from 25% in 1997­–98 to 40% in 2018–19; in astronomy departments, the percentage of women assistant professors jumped from 23% in 2003 to 41% in 2020, and of full professors from 10% to 19%. For comparison, in physics departments in 2020 just 25% of assistant professors and 13% of full professors were women. Data are from the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics Today.

The numbers are improving, “but we are not there yet,” says Elmegreen. “Something is still preventing the numbers from being representative of demographics.” She notes that fewer women than men enter the field and that slow career progression, salary gaps, and sexual harassment persist. “The sadness,” she says, “is that we still need to have a Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy.”

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Joan Schmelz, director of the Science and Technology Institute at the Universities Space Research Association, says she can feel the difference: “The percentage of women in astronomy is much higher now. And people who never would have bothered with things like stereotype threat, harassment, and unconscious bias now pay attention.” Schmelz was not at the Baltimore meeting, but she attended a follow-up gathering in 2009 in College Park, Maryland. Three other meetings for women in astronomy have also been held: in Pasadena, California, in 2003; Nashville, Tennessee, in 2015; and Austin, Texas, in 2017.

Schmelz notes that the “biases we remember for women in science in general still apply to women in leadership roles.” Those biases are breaking down, she says, “but you are always walking uphill, and the further you get in your career, the steeper the hill becomes. It’s a hard slog.” The Baltimore Charter, she says, “was the beginning of a slow revolution. It takes time to make cultural changes.”

The preamble of the charter states, “Our focus is on women but actions taken to improve the situation of women in astronomy should be applied aggressively to those minorities even more disenfranchised.” Alluding to efforts to raise the number of Black, Hispanic, and LGBT+ people in STEM fields, Kinney says, “We need to draw on the full brain trust of the country instead of ignoring a major fraction because of ethnicity or gender. It’s ambitious but important.”

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