Thursday, September 1, 2011

How Things Have Changed (for the Better!)

The last issue of the AASWOMEN newsletter included a story from Katy Garmany illustrating how much things have changed for women in astronomy. I asked AASWOMEN readers for other examples and received to following contribution from Kathy Mead, editor of STATUS from 1995-98.

Kathy wrote: "When I first observed at NRAO on Kitt Peak in 1980, there were “Playboy” magazines *everywhere.* They were in the control room as well as in the trailers. Not just a current and couple of back issues, but piles of them. At first, I just tried to figure out how to act like I didn't really notice or care. Guys there read them right in front of me. Later, as I became more bold, I asked about them and was told that an observer had given a subscription to the observatory. To me, this sounded like a clueless justification. They could have declined the subscription. Even if there were zero women at the telescope, how is pornography appropriate in the workplace? Working with state of the art equipment should be enough to keep even a man's mind occupied for the work day. But hey, I wanted a career in Astrophysics, and that was the culture so I made up my mind to live with it. After a few years, the magazines disappeared. However, many years after that, after they built new lodging, I found a stash of them in a non-prominent place in one of the buildings."

Kathy’s story reminded me that pornography was common in the astronomical workplace in the 1980s, not just at Kitt Peak. The problem was so widespread that the Oct 1986 issue of STATUS had advice on how to get your male colleagues to take down their nude pin-up posters! I remember computer printouts (on the old green and white striped paper) of naked women in many places, mainly in the offices of the NRAO computer operators. I never saw a pile of “Playboys,” but after years of observing at Arecibo, one of my friends (a telescope operator) showed me the local collection – it was in a file drawer in the control room. All the guys know about it.

I remember precisely when things changed: it was after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings on Capitol Hill, and the federal government began taking the issue of sexual harassment more seriously. I had visions of word coming down from the observatory directors to get those posters off the wall. The pornography disappeared practically overnight.

From: Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]