Where Are All The Female Astronomers?

Hobbies are a way of life, an extension of who you are. They're also a method of expanding one's horizons by actively participating in discussion forums at meetings and learning new skills or techniques from those with a longer involvement in the activity. It's often difficult to identify exactly what draws a person into certain hobbies. Obviously the type of activity will dictate the type of individual it attracts, and invariably, if there's an imbalance, dominant gender groups evolve.

Given all this, there still remains quite a sizeable number of activities men and women can both participate in, on equal levels, so why aren't more people of the feminine persuasion involved in amateur astronomy? After all, it's a hobby that only requires your eyes, a few moveable limbs, and some basic intelligence – and everyones' got that right?
OK, well, almost everyone.

Is it that a lot of people consider astronomy a male activity, to which women just don't "belong"; it's simply not the "feminine" thing to do? Perhaps upbringing has a great deal to do with why women shy away from astronomy – and science in general. It starts at an early age, we learn the difference between what boys and girls are expected to do, and it flows on into adulthood. Our career paths are often moulded by who we are, rather than what we can do.

This is not to say that it's wrong for guys to like sports or fix cars or for girls to enjoy cooking. The problem is that we are told that we must perform these roles in order to fit in.  The danger is it restricts women from choosing roles that are traditionally 'male' such as engineering and science.

It goes back a long way

Gender roles also dictate how we are expected to act in public – men don't cry, men are tough, men are strong – girls are polite, girls are neat, girls are passive. Boys might be expected to 'fight it out,' rather than 'talk it out,' and girls might be expected to put up with bullying, rather than be assertive. Then there's technical side. It seems to me that a lot of women expect men to know about technical matters, as though it's in their genes, and tend to run in the opposite direction or get that glazed-over look when they think something is going to be technical or needs a 'hands on' approach.

I guess it goes way back to the caveman days – "men hunt, women nest"… so to speak. The bottom line is that stereotypes are destructive because they ruin creativity and limit our potential!
Years ago, I remember reading a comment from a woman who wrote into one of the popular astronomy forums about her experience in amateur astronomy. In the discussion she remembered when, as a young high school student, a female careers adviser visited her school.

She told the adviser she was seriously considering an astronomy related career. After a moment of silence, and with a steely stare, she was told quite curtly "Girls don't do that." She could choose between bank clerk, secretary, and teacher – after all, in those days women only worked while waiting for 'Mr. Right' to come along, and these were considered "suitable jobs".

She went on to add that visitors to her house nearly always assume that the telescope and the astronomy books are her husband's. After finding out it it’s her hobby they always look surprised and ask if she can follow it all. Ouch!! I can sense a lot of painted nails being sharpened as I write this.

Weighing up the progress

Times have changed from those days, thankfully for the better. Women are now recognised more for what they can do, not by how they look, and in most fields of endeavour, astronomy included, women are commanding a more dominant role. Some of the top positions at NASA are filled by women, and female astronomers now work side by side with their male counterparts at most of the major observatories around the world.

That's all very well for the professional field but it somehow doesn't translate into the amateur ranks. Survey results clearly show that astronomy is not faring as well as other scientific areas in making women feel comfortable. It's not like women aren't interested, they are! I've run courses in astronomy for beginners in my own area of Port Macquarie N.S.W. for 6 years and can tell you that more than half of the enrolments are female, of all ages.
Look around at most of the star parties you've been to. Think about who assembles and operates the various scopes. Then look in the background because that's where they'll be, the wife or girlfriend (Mum?) smiling at everyone while pouring him another cuppa.
Occasionally she'll get invited to peek at something he deems interesting before being relegated once again to background status as the blokes congregate and the conversation turns to things like absolute magnitudes, mirror cells, focal lengths, or 'super Plossls'.
Group astronomy field nights can be lots of fun and a place to meet new friends, but they can also be the loneliest place on earth when you feel alienated. In a lot of cases, granted not all, this goes for amateur astronomy clubs too. The reason women don't show up much at astronomy clubs is probably because no one likes to be the odd-one-out. The thought of possibly being the only woman at a meeting makes them feel uncomfortable. They feel like they’re being watched, even if they aren't.

It’s a problem not many astronomy clubs address or even think about, and they should. They could probably double their memberships if they only took the time to invite along, and make provision for, younger girls and women in their ranks. Comments Girls?  By David Reneke


Statistics on women in American space flight


From 1981 through 1998, NASA launched 94 space shuttle flights.

    57 flights (60.6%) had at least one female crew member
    37 flights (39.7%) did not have female crew members

From February 1995 to December 1998, NASA launched 28 shuttle flights.

    22 flights (78.5%) had at least one female crew member

All five flights in 1998 included at least one female crew member.

NASA has launched 12 consecutive missions with female crew members. The last mission to fly without a female crew member was STS-82 in February 1997.

In 1978, there were 28 astronauts, all male. With the arrival of that year's Astronaut Candidate class, 27 males and 6 females joined the corps:*

    women comprised 0.95% of the astronaut population in 1978
    women comprised 17% of the 1978 Class

Women currently constitute 22.9% of the astronaut corps*

    144 total astronauts
    33 total females

Women currently constitute 0.65% of the pilot astronaut category*

    46 total pilots
    3 female pilots

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