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Gender gap in astronomical sciences

Aswin Sekhar*

doi:10.1038/nindia.2018.27 Published online 8 March 2018

The poor representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines is widely known1. Gender imbalance in higher academia is a matter of concern in most parts of the world.

In academia and research positions, women fare a tad better in first world countries compared to low and middle income economies2. However, recent statistics released by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a global body of professional astronomers and astrophysicists, paint a picture contrary to the situation in other STEM disciplines. The membership figures of the prestigious body reveal a greater gender imbalance in astrophysical sciences in scientifically advanced countries as compared to third world nations.

Out of a total membership of 12, 514, only 16.6 % IAU members are female and the rest 83.4% male – by no means a desirable ratio.

Interestingly, some Latin American, Eastern European and South East Asian countries do better in terms of gender parity in astronomical sciences. The countries which have the ratio of female astronomers (to male counterparts) greater than 25% are Argentina (38%), Bulgaria (37%), Honduras (50%), Peru (33%), Romania (33%), Serbia (30%), Thailand (36%), Turkey (26%), Ukraine (29%), Venezuela (31%) and Vietnam (38%). Countries from the west comparable to this list are Italy (26%) and France (25%).

Other prosperous western countries offering quality science education and outreach do rather badly in terms of gender parity in astronomy (although the absolute number of active female astronomers in these countries is much higher). Some notable examples are Australia (16%), Belgium (18%), Canada (14%), Denmark (14%), Finland (17%), Germany (12%), Iceland (0%), Ireland (22%), New Zealand (11%), Norway (15%), Spain (20%), Sweden (13%), Switzerland (11%), United Kingdom (13%), United States (14%) and Vatican (0%). These numbers clearly show that even in the most scientifically advanced and modern societies, astronomical sciences remain a male bastion.

In India, women astronomers form as low as 9% of the community. Importantly, India has never appointed a female chairperson to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), a female secretary to the department of space or a female director to a top observatory in the country. For other Asian neighbours – China (13%), Pakistan (0%), Bangladesh (0%), Sri Lanka (0%), Iran (10%), UAE (0%), Oman (0%) and Saudi Arabia (0%) – the numbers are equally gloomy.

Why doesn't astronomy attract women?

It is puzzling why the exciting world of astronomy remains less open or less attractive to women as a long term career (in comparison to other basic sciences) even in this day and age. One of the oldest sciences, logically speaking, it should be more evolved, accommodating and welcoming to members of all genders at all levels.

However, it hasn’t been so. A glaring example of gender prejudice in astronomical sciences was the exclusion of Jocelyn Bell Burnell from the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish and to astronomer Martin Ryle4 for the discovery of pulsars. Although it was Burnell who first detected and observed pulsars in 1967, Hewish and Ryle received the Nobel for the discovery.

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences, thanks to its role in timekeeping, calendars, seasons and navigation. In the early modern era, Indian astronomers were among the hand-picked intellectuals forming the inner circle of royal courts inaccessible to women.

As women’s participation in higher levels of fundamental sciences increased over the ages, more and more women have found their way into STEM disciplines. For instance, particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti, the present director general of CERN, is the first woman to hold the position. Astronomy, however, still seems to lag behind as compared to other basic sciences. It is quite unlikely to find a female scientist heading a top space agency (such as NASA, European Space Agency or ISRO) or for that matter, heading the editorial board of top journals in astrophysical sciences. Nature Astronomy, however, is an exception with a woman chief editor.

Can the astronomy community help?

Interestingly enough, the IAU president is a woman leading the IAU board with a good number of female and male astronomers in high positions.

Typically, full time IAU members are recommended by a national committee in their respective countries or workplaces. Undergraduate, masters or doctoral students are not part of this list. Full members are either senior faculty or senior postdocs.

The latest statistics show the inability of many western countries in retaining female staff for longer periods compared to their Latin American and east European counterparts. In other words, there is a bigger drop-out rate of female astronomy students in western and Asian cultures (in direct comparison to some scientifically active Latin American and east European countries) before they become senior enough to be inducted to IAU.

The issue merits attention and serious examination of the exact reasons or patterns behind the trend.

Since the IAU takes all major decisions regarding official nomenclature, definitions, terminology and naming of various celestial bodies, it is only fair that all genders on the planet have an equal say in the matter of the cosmos and outer space.


*Aswin Sekhar is an Indian astrophysicist and IAU member based at The Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics, University of Oslo, Norway.


References

1. Urry, M. Science and gender: Scientists must work harder on equality. Nature 528, 471–473 (2015)

2. Gender parity and human capital. World Economic Forum (2016) Report

3. Geographical and Gender Distribution of Individual Members. International Astronomical Union (2018) Table

4. Foster, P. Female physicist overlooked for Nobel Prize finally receives recognition as Woman of the Year. The Telegraph, UK (2015)