Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sexism the Other Way Round

Today’s guest blogger is Gerrit Verschuur. Gerrit is a semi-retired radio astronomer who continues to study interstellar neutral hydrogen structure. He is the author of eight popular astronomy books and co-author or editor of three text books. He has also found the time to get his name on over a dozen patents. He claims that his primary accomplishment is that he is married to Joan Schmelz (me!).

Organizations, People and Strategies in Astronomy (OPSA, Vols. 1 & 2) presents a compilations of 49 chapters designed to reveal the way astronomy is practiced all over the globe. Or, to frame this in words used by its editor, it is a continuation of a former series in which scientists and non-scientists describe their experience on ’non-purely scientific matters, many of them of fundamental importance for the efficient conduct of our activities.’ While fascinating material, it is not a target for a book review for CSWA. What is interesting is what it does not do.  

First, it is striking that 41 chapters have lead authors that are men, or 84%, not surprising perhaps given the international nature of these two volumes. More interesting, from the point of the Women in Astronomy readership, is the lack of any chapters dealing with the issues central to the work of CSWA; harassment, prejudice, glass ceilings, leaky pipelines, and the subtleties of unconscious bias. In fairness, one chapter summarizing data from the UK shows that while 34% of post-graduate astronomy students are female, only 7% share the highest academic level of professor. Another chapter discusses the plight of African-American minorities in the field. But there is nothing that could remotely be described as chapters on the barriers faced by women in astronomy, worldwide. This caused me to send an email enquiring about this oversight to the editor in France.

A prompt reply noted that several chapters in earlier volumes of a related series entitled Organization and Strategies in Astronomy (OSA), touched on the matters in question, although a web search of OSA’s chapter titles suggests that only a chapter dealing with women in the IAU might be relevant.

One comment in the return email struck a chord that led me to delve more deeply into the issue. The editor stated that he was aware of the work of CSWA but that some in Europe looked ‘with some caution on an approach that occasionally has flavors of “sexism the other way round.”’ He admitted that the issue of cultural barriers and balanced access to astronomy careers deserved a long debate that he felt should be ‘much broader than just sex-oriented.’

My concern is that OPSA assumes, by omission, that women around the world do not experience the problems that the CSWA has highlighted in regard to the USA. While in many other countries no parallel movements may exist, that does not mean that elsewhere women are always treated as equals. And therein lies a clue to what the statement of ‘sexism the other way round’ may be based upon. If we look at a bigger cultural picture, this becomes a little clearer.
For example, last year the European Union adopted a rule that states that by 2020 Boards of large corporations should be 40% female, a move indicating that the role of women in European countries is less than equitable. Can science be far behind?

This brings me to commenting on a remarkable organization in the United Kingdom called Athena Swan. Its Charter for Women in Science ‘recognizes commitment to advancing women's careers in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) employment in academia. The Charter was launched in June 2005. Any higher education institution which is committed to the advancement and promotion of the careers of women in STEMM in higher education and research can apply for membership.’ It goes on to state that ‘The beliefs underpinning the Charter are: (1) The advancement of science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine is fundamental to quality of life across the globe; and (2) ‘It is vitally important that women are adequately represented in what has traditionally been, and is still, a male-dominated area. Science cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of the whole population, and until women and men can benefit equally from the opportunities it affords.’

What is striking is that many universities and academic departments in the UK have lined up to meet Athena Swan’s exacting standards that will allow an institution to earn a Bronze, Silver or Gold rating. Such ratings are determined through site visits by Athena Swan representatives and they are an indicator that the institution has taken steps to remove barriers to women in the STEMM fields. At least one major organization, the National Institute for Health Research, will no longer make research grants to academic departments or universities that have not attained either Silver or Gold status. Judging from the list of universities and research centers that are now members of Athena Swan, its role on the national scene is being taken very seriously.

One final point about OPSA; of the 8 chapters whose lead authors are women, five deal with issues related to public outreach and education, one tells of experiences in an astronomy library, another on astronomy in philately, and the eighth one is the chapter on African-American minorities in the field.  This distribution is in itself a comment on the role of women in astronomy, worldwide. None were the primary authors of the more science-oriented chapters ‘on issues of fundamental importance for the efficient conduct of our [astronomical] activities.’

I suggest that this distribution of authorship may be a prima facie case of unconscious bias and indicates that all is not as we well as we might wish for on the international scene.

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