Monday, November 19, 2012

Where are the women astronomy professors?

Entwives en Hiver by kaiorton

Guest-post by John Johnson, professor of Astronomy in the Caltech Department of Astrophysics. His research is on the detection and characterization of exoplanets. This post is a re-post from his blog.

I'm going to start off this first post on this topic with a simple axiomatic statement: Women and men are equally capable of being successful astronomers. There is no inherent difference in mental capacity, creativity, ability to learn, or any other factor that plays into the success of an astronomer.

Given this axiomatic starting point, it stands to reason that the fraction of women on the faculty at the top astronomy institutions should reflect the fraction of women earning PhDs. A quick glance through the "People" pages of the websites for Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley and Caltech astro departments (hereafter referred to as the "Big-4") shows that 31% of the graduate students (with gender-identifiable names) are women. Granted, there may be some errors on the various webpages, and I wasn't able to identify the gender of every student. But as a quick sanity check, I do have access to the student records over the past 10 years in Caltech astro. During this time (2001-2011) there have been 47 PhDs, 14 of them women, or 29.8%. So 30% is a pretty solid number for the fraction of women graduating with astronomy PhDs over the past decade (records going back to 1991 show about 27% over the past 20 years).

However, among the active (not retired), tenured or tenure-track faculty at these four institutions, only 12 out of 76 professors are women, or 15.7%. Thus, there is a factor of two decrease in the number of women between grad school and the tenure track. On the one hand, this is really good compared to physics. Take Caltech Physics as an example, where only 3 of the 49 faculty are women (6%). On the other hand if we stay focused just on astronomy, it is clear that there is a major leak in the pipeline.

Why should we care that the pipeline is leaky? Well, if women and men are equally capable of success and we are only drawing from the male side of the pool, then we are trading a non-negligible number of highly talented women for less-talented men. For any institution that prioritizes "excellence"---as all of the Big-4 claim they do---this is a major problem. This leak results in some number of junior faculty not getting tenure, while individuals who would have succeeded in those positions fall out of the hiring pool.  


It is for this reason---and many other compelling reasons---that excellence without diversity is an empty concept. Sadly, I've witnessed first-hand the prevailing attitude that excellence and diversity are orthogonal concepts: one can only increase diversity by giving up on "excellence." Indeed, I've heard a faculty member at one of the Big-4 institutions say, "It is not our responsibility to fix the world's woes. We must focus on astronomy." Well, if one truly believes that men and women are equally capable, then this notion is pure hogwash. If we are losing talent from the female side of the PhD pool then we are hampering our efforts at achieving true excellence, and it is our problem to solve no matter the institution.


Anonymous said...

What is the fraction of women hired on tenure track during the same time period as the statistics of the graduating students? If 30% of hires over the last 5 years are women, the fraction of total women in tenure or tenure-track will still be lower since the fraction of women was probably less than 30% when these hires started.

Anonymous said...

Some of us are at the "lesser" institutions. Research has consistently shown that women have to be substantially more qualified than men to even be judged as EQUAL. So when the competition is men that are on the short list at a Big 4 institution, it's basically impossible for women to compete.

Jennifer Hoffman said...

@Anonymous #1:

The NSF conducts detailed yearly studies of the gender and ethnicity distribution of scientists at various early-career stages. Their reports indicate that the fraction of Ph.D. degrees in astronomy and astrophysics that went to women in 2001-2010 were as follows:

2001: 19%
2002: 20%
2003: 28%
2004: 32%
2005: 33%
2006: 35%
2007: 34%
2008: 24%
2009: 38%
2010: 38%

On the other side, the AIP reported in 2008 that the fraction of astronomy faculty who are women was 17% in astronomy-only departments and 12% in physics/astronomy departments.

The good news is that a 2005 study by AIP (using data going back to the 1970s) suggested that women were, on average, being hired into physics and astronomy faculty positions at rates equivalent to their proportion in their Ph.D. cohort. (This also suggests that women were not receiving preferential treatment in the hiring process.) But the methodology of this study obscures the fact that the situation is very "clumpy." In its three surveys of astronomy departments and institutions, the CSWA found that the representation of women varies widely with department and over time. Indeed, John's "Big 4" tended to have lower representation than average in those surveys. This is a concern because the visibility and prestige of the "Big 4" go a long way toward defining what is normal and desirable for our profession, as well as providing the public face of astronomy. In addition, the CSWA surveys found that due to small-number statistics, it is easy for the percentages to vary widely over time, even in a single department.

My conclusion: the climate is changing for the better, but we still have work to do to a) even out the distribution of women across institutions; b) get away from the "small-number statistics" regime; and c) ensure that women are proportionately "visible" to the public and to students as representatives of the field.

NSF data from . AIP data from and . CSWA data from .

John Johnson said...

Jennifer: Thanks so much for these additional data. The proportion of women PhD students at Caltech has remained relatively flat at ~30% over the past 20 years, but I suppose that's not necessarily representative of the field as a whole.

I agree that the Big 4 set the norm for the rest of the field. This is primarily because they produce roughly half of the professors at the rest of the top-25 astronomy institutions!

Anonymous #1: Excellent point. At Caltech, the fraction of women hired onto the tenure track since 2000 is 1 out of 5. At Berkeley it has been 2 out of 7. At Harvard: 2 out of 8. Princeton: 2 out of 6. Overall it looks like 25%.

So in light of Jennifer's numbers that indicate somewhat less than 30% PhD generation rate since 2000, the proportion of women hired into junior positions looks a lot better than when the numbers are averaged over the entire faculty.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that alot of schools seem to have only one woman on their short list. Often this woman doesn't make the cut, likely because of the case that Anonymous #2 points out. But, some schools end up wanting a male hire more and are willing to hire their spouse/significant other as a tag along researcher/professor. Also, I've noted that in some cases a woman is hired as a way to also get a qualified man... some type of piggy back strategy where the dept makes the argument for two hires... where the man is usually the top choice and they say they'd like to help with diversity by also getting this great (but presumably less great) woman. I wonder out of the percentage of women faculty hired, how many were put in one of these categories. If many are hired in this way, this only perpetuates the problem in that the hired women are thought of as still being less than their male colleagues.

Anonymous said...

This is somewhat tangential, and maybe should be addressed somewhere else, or in a different post, but I am a little horrified by the statement:

"the Big 4 ... produce roughly half of the professors at the rest of the top-25 astronomy institutions!"

What does that say to those who got (or are seeking to get) their PhDs somewhere else? That it is that much less likely that they will get a faculty job*?

Obviously "the big 4" are considered so for good reason, but it seems very much out of proportion.
I wonder what a big 4 graduate who is now resident at a "smaller 21" institution thinks as s/he mentors graduate students. Is there confidence that they will have as bright a future as the advisor did? This screams pyramid scheme to me.

*Im not suggesting bias or favoritism or anything other that reacting to the statistic. It just seems like something that needs to be digested by the community.

Anonymous said...

"I wonder what a big 4 graduate who is now resident at a "smaller 21" institution thinks as s/he mentors graduate students."

Well, if it's like at my former institution, the advisors blatantly tell there students that they are not good enough.

Yes, it's very worrisome for us non-big 4 graduates. Particularly since the politics starts early, preventing many qualified people from even getting a real shot at going to a "big 4" school (not that everyone wants to ...).

Anonymous said...

Jennifer rightly points out the need to look at the percentage of PhDs going to women an appropriate number of years back. I wrote an article in STATUS on this issue in 2004
What I noted then - and I suspect has not changed - is that while that statistics averaged across the nation are not so bad, there is a huge variation between institutions - with some institutions recruiting women faculty well above their graduating rate with others lagging way, way behind. And it's not obviously "top" vs. "other" colleges.
An issue I have noticed recently is that government labs are recruiting women scientists and giving them civil service jobs long before they would get a tenured position at a university. This is perceived as a better path to security. Whether this is real or not is not the point. My concern is that we are then losing women teachers and mentors at educational institutions.

Anonymous said...

The "big-4" have produced a large fraction (probably not quite half) of the total PhD graduates simply because they have larger programs. Also note that the current faculty represents the PhD graduates produced some time in the past (many in the 70s-80s), when the "big-4" produced an even larger fraction of PhD graduates. So non-big-4 PhD students should not be too concerned with whether or not they will get a faculty job. If they want a faculty job, they should primarily be concerned with what will ultimately land them such a job: excellence in research and teaching.