Thursday, January 2, 2020

A Lack of Women in Amateur Astronomy in the US

By Rachel Freed

Rachel Freed is a co-founder and the President of the Institute for Student Astronomical Research (InStAR), as well as a seminar instructor, with a mission to incorporate true scientific research into secondary and undergraduate education. She helps to coordinate international conferences around the use of telescopes in education and is currently working on a PhD in astronomy education. She is also a faculty lecturer in the School of Education at Sonoma State University. She has a B.S. degree in Biology from UC Davis and an M.S. in Neuroscience from Northwestern University, where she studied neural transmission using confocal microscopy and electrophysiology.
Rachel taught high school chemistry and astronomy for 10 years and has conducted research on chemistry education, helping to design, build and evaluate an online formative assessment system for high school chemistry. She is involved in curriculum design and implementation and trains educators in the use of technology and remote telescopes for research. She has been an amateur astronomer for 20 years and is involved in public outreach. She is a public speaker with a focus on bringing telescopes to students around the globe as well as promoting changes in education that build on a child’s intrinsic motivations and interests.

I have been an amateur astronomer for 19 years and a member of five different astronomy clubs throughout the San Francisco Bay Area in California during this time. I also get to work in the arena of public astronomy and do a lot of education and outreach. For these almost 20 years I’ve been hearing the amateur astronomers say amongst themselves “we need to diversify, we need younger people, we need people of color.” And for 19 years it hasn’t changed much from what I am seeing. While there has definitely been an increase in women in professional astronomy, it’s still nothing close to 50-50 and over the last four or five years, there has been a lot of news about sexual harassment in the field. While I don’t know if this is a significant part of the problem in the world of amateur astronomy, there are certainly many subtle and not-so-subtle issues that contribute to this lack of diversity.

Attendance at conferences

I have been attending large amateur astronomy conferences for five years now, in addition to the previous 15 years of involvement within local communities. I am consistently surprised, year after year, at the extremely small percentage of women in attendance. I shouldn’t be surprised considering how few I see out and about at astronomy events, but I am, nonetheless, surprised and frustrated. For five years I have counted attendees at the Society for Astronomical Sciences (SAS) Annual Symposium in southern California, and each year there are about 5% women in attendance. This is one of the larger meetings of the amateur astronomy community within the United States, with a couple hundred attendees and about a dozen astronomy equipment vendors.


(Clockwise from top left) 2015 Society for Astronomical Sciences (SAS) Meeting, Ontario, CA: I was the only female in the room when this photo was taken. 2018 SAS Meeting: Four of the six women in the front row, who are not me, are an educator and her students whom I invited to the conference to present their research project at a workshop that I put on the day following the conference. SAS Symposium 2019 educators workshop: (Note: This was NOT organized by me.) The workshop had 16.7% women in attendance.

At the Advanced Imaging Conference in San Jose, California, there were less than 2% women in attendance in November 2019. Ironically, for both these conferences recently the professional astronomers invited to be keynote speakers have been women. Several of the speakers over the past four years include Dr. Stella Kafka, the Executive Director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), Dr. Jesse Christiansen, the Deputy Science Lead at the NASA Exoplanet Archive and a Research Scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, and Dr. Ann Zabludoff, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona and astronomer at Steward Observatory, to name a few. I realize that I look to these very few women as role models for myself in addition to for students.


(Left) Dr. Stella Kafka after her keynote talk at the 2015 SAS Annual Symposium. (Center) Dr. Jessie Christianson after her keynote talk at the 2018 SAS meeting. (Right) Dr. Ann Zabludoff after her keynote talk at the AstroImaging Conference in San Jose, CA. Nov, 2019.

The Role of Discourse within the Amateur Astronomy Community

One of the most obvious issues that keeps hitting me like a ton of bricks at these events is the language used which belittles women, albeit, perhaps unintentionally. I have heard so many times reference to “the wives” at these events, how the “wives” get in the way of the men buying all the astronomy equipment they want, or how the “wives” have to be placated so as to allow the men the time to do their astronomical observing and image processing. This is exemplified by the following quotes: “getting a new telescope cost me a kitchen remodel” and “we organized a ‘spouse’s excursion’ so the wives would leave the conference for a few hours so that we might have the time to shop the telescope vendor booths.” Often these comments are made jokingly, with an air of jovial camaraderie, even on the microphone on stage to the entire conference, without the slightest understanding of how off-putting this might be to women who are present with just as genuine an interest and investment of time in the field. I was recently struck by just how insidious this issue is as a young, male community college student of mine was in the audience. A vendor had reached out to me to offer to sponsor an eager young student to attend, and I invited him based on his interest and participation in my research seminar, as well as his volunteer work as a docent at our local observatory. And to realize that he was sitting there at the young age of 22, surrounded by a hundred or more men who he could potentially look up to as very accomplished amateur astronomers and astrophotographers, and then to hear this public degrading of women as an accepted discourse within the community was maddening. It really hit home how important it is to change the discourse, the language we use, to make it understood that this kind of language is unacceptable.

I have recently been organizing astronomy research seminar workshops for educators and students in conjunction with the SAS symposia and the annual NorthEast AstroImaging Conference (NEAIC) in Suffern, New York, and other venues, hoping to bridge the gap I see between the large amateur astronomy community with their vast collective experience and expertise as well as access to equipment and the education community, which struggles to find access and guidance in bringing astronomy experiences to their students.


(Left) Three young women present their research at the InStAR Workshop following the Annual Symposium of the Society for Astronomical Sciences (SAS), June 2018. (Right) Participants in the InStAR Workshop I organized and facilitated for educators and student researchers in conjunction with the SAS Symposium in 2018.

This year I invited some high school and community college students to one of these workshops and to attend the conference, and a young woman who was just going back to school to study astrophysics, left a conference half-way through, utterly disgusted by the comments she kept hearing from the attendees as they joked with each other about wives impeding their hobby.

I am regularly approached by the few women at these events and thanked profusely, and often in hushed tones, for my work in trying to promote a safe environment for girls within amateur astronomy and outreach as well as being a role model, as there are so few. It can be intimidating to speak out about this when we are in such a small minority. For example, when there are only three of us women and a hundred men in a room, standing up and exclaiming “stop belittling women in every conversation” as we’d like to seems impossible. There may come a time when my frustration gets the better of me and I do this, but so far I find myself balancing on a fine line between wanting to be a part of the community, wanting to work WITH the community to make it more accessible for women, and feeling like I also have to work against the ingrained attitudes, the expression of these attitudes, and the lack of awareness about these attitudes.

An Assumption: Women are not viewed as scientists or knowledgeable about astronomy

Then, of course, there is simply the way that we are viewed and treated in society at large as women in science. I have been a docent at a local observatory for the past 11 years and something that will always stand out as an example of this is the following story. A member of the public came in and asked some questions about astronomy to my friend who was standing next to me who is also a docent there and happens to be a male. This person asked my friend a question and he responded “Oh, you should ask Rachel. She’s the scientist and she knows those things.” The person asked his question to me, I answered, and he asked a follow-up question, not directed to me, but rather again directed to the male standing next to me. My friend again responded “Oh, you should ask Rachel. She knows these things.” This was not an isolated instance. If I am standing next to a man and someone comes to the observatory they will invariably ask questions of the man, rather than of me. Most of the other women, the few that exist, who are members of astronomy clubs and do outreach describe the same experience. Recently a fellow female amateur astronomer described to me how she went up to a telescope vendor to buy some equipment and was asked if she was buying it for her husband? These sorts of assumptions are deeply ingrained in our society and are discouraging to younger women entering the field and offensive to those of us who are a part of the community.

Fortunately, within professional astronomy there are a growing number of inspiring women providing an example for young girls interested in astronomy of what is possible for them.

Astronomy can be an expensive hobby

I love being an amateur astronomer and sharing my passion with the public, both children and adults, anyone who will listen, really. I see the enthusiasm that astronomy brings to pretty much everyone I interact with. In addition to the deeply ingrained societal factors and discourse issues mentioned above, the discrepancy in salaries between men and women in the United States must also be considered as a factor. As unbelievable as it is, women still make $.80 on the dollar on average compared to men in this country. When I think about how much money I did not make over the course of my career so far simply because I am a woman, it is extremely infuriating and I’d like to count the cost of it in terms of astrophotography and telescope equipment. I have a specific example from my first three years after graduate school when I was teaching at a private school in Silicon Valley. We were not “allowed” to talk about our salaries amongst ourselves, the teachers. However, we did and it soon became apparent that the men were making significantly more on average than the women, despite having fewer years of teaching experience and fewer advanced degrees such as teaching credentials, masters degrees, and PhD’s. This soon became a legal issue for the school and they were forced to rectify the situation which resulted in me getting a $14,000 per year raise. Just to make the same salary as equally experienced and educated male teachers! What could I have bought in terms of telescopes and astrophotography equipment with the $42,000 I did not earn in those three years because I am a woman? If over the course of the 20 years of my career so far I had earned an extra 20% what could I have purchased with that? Not to mention the childcare I could have afforded over the past 13 years as a single parent so that I could go out and do some star gazing and astrophotography and have some time to process my images of galaxies and nebulae. Looking back over the past 13 years, through volumes of photographs I’ve taken, the amount of time/money I have had to devote to astronomy, or rather the lack thereof, stands out in stark black and white contrast. In the screenshots shown below, representing snapshots in my life, M101 stands out like a beacon of something I was dreaming of but could not do. Some may argue that it is a choice we make - family versus other things. I argue that had there been equality between men and women over my lifetime, this would not be a “choice” I would have had to make, but rather something attainable on par with men.


A couple of screenshots from my Flickr page, each with an image of M101 I took at the Robert Ferguson Observatory on April 19th and again on July 11, 2010. M101 stands out like a beacon of the unattainable, specifically for women.

Something that strikes me as a combination of all of the above issues is a conversation that occurred about 3 years ago - yes, in 2016. I was at a workshop with about 20 advanced amateur astronomers and community college instructors learning how to do exoplanet photometry with small telescopes. At dinner, I was the only female with about eight men and the discrepancy in the numbers of men and women in amateur astronomy arose as a topic of conversation. It’s important to note that most of these men owned their own observatories with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment in them. I began to describe some of the issues I have faced as a woman in the field and was utterly shocked by a “solution” proposed by one of the men, in all sincerity and trying to be helpful. He said, “What if at our local club star parties, once a month, we provided childcare so that the women could come up for an evening and look through the telescopes?” The outrage at this “solution” still wells up in me when I think about it three years later! So many responses raced through my head at the moment, but they can be distilled down to the main point of “Oh my God - do they think that letting a women look through their telescopes once a month, is somehow equivalent to having so much free time and so much money to be able to create your own astronomy paradise?!” Just as an exercise, consider a teaching job as I’ve had at times making, say $60,000/year. Had I been a man over the past 20 years of my career I would have earned an extra $300,000! And by the time I retire, another $300,000! And had I not been the mother of my two children, but rather the father, than chances are good I would have done a significant amount less of the past decade of child-rearing. Not that I begrudge my children my lack of time to devote to a hobby. In fact, I am so grateful that my daughter has been accompanying me on trips to observatories for the first 12 years of her life! She loves science and sharing the wonders of the night sky through the telescope at public outreach events with me. Perhaps, this is one place where change begins.


(Left and center) My daughter at the observatory at age 2 and age 11.(Right) My daughter teaching astronomy at a public outreach event, October, 2019.

The beginnings of solutions

I am happy to report that I do see signs of change, most significantly in the past year. For example, a number of amateur astronomy organizations have reached out to me asking for advice on how to diversify and incorporate younger people into their programs. At the annual Symposium of the Society for Astronomical Sciences in 2020, there will be some student-centered programs, informed by research-based educational practices. At the Texas Star Party, one of the larger amateur astronomy events held each year in the United States, there will now be a student-centered component to the week-long observing and astrophotography event, with mentorship and guidance provided by the experienced community. At the NorthEast AstroImaging Conference in New York in the spring of 2020, there will be the 2nd annual Student Astronomical Research Workshop, incorporating students into the larger Community-of-Practice, the advanced imaging community. And last month I was asked to help out the Board of Directors for the Advanced Imaging Conference, along similar lines, thinking about and enacting plans to increase access to and diversity within the community. It feels as if we may be at a turning point, where important steps are being taken on a larger scale to address the lack of equity within the large amateur astronomy community in the United States. And there are wonderful examples where gender equity is a central tenant, a goal to be adhered to. The annual international conference on Robotic Telescopes, Student Research, and Education (RTSRE) science organizing committee makes sure that there is gender balance in speakers, which provides important role models for the variety of students who attend the conference. It is these sorts of conscious actions that can help move a large community towards inclusivity and hopefully make equity the normal, de facto state of things for upcoming generations.


Keynote speakers at the 3rd annual Conference on Robotic Telescopes, Student Research and Education (RTSRE), December, 2019. Fifty seven percent were women.

Perhaps times are changing.

5 comments :

  1. I once was invited to give a talk about a book that I HAD AUTHORED. After the talk, I was at the table selling and signing books, and a guy asked me the price. I told him, and his response was, "For that I could get a lap dance." REALLY!? Dealing with this BS should NOT be an added "price of admission" for women to enjoy the universe.

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  2. The men I have met in the hobby have been nothing but encouraging to me and my daughters. There are always going to be condescending jerks but I find they are that way regardless of the target's gender.

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  3. Back when I was an editor at a prominent astronomy-related magazine, we used to talk at our editorial meetings about the big discrepancy in gender representation at the amateur meetings. I distinctly remember hearing one of the fellow editors joke around that maybe we needed to have pink telescopes available to women.

    It really wasn't that funny then and it certainly isn't now. When I'd go to astro club and amateur meetings to give talks, I always noticed how few women were there; I was always well-received, but I did hear some of the same comments the author notes about how the men were having to placate their wives or girlfriends in order to buy telescopes. Still hear it today, from time to time. Still not funny.

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  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. I agree that there is a significant lack of diversity of women, youth and people of color in amateur astronomy clubs. I want to help change this mindset.

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