Monday, May 19, 2014

When CSMA? Will Women Astronomers Outnumber Men in the Near Future?

You may have heard the "On Point" news article on May 12 on public radio about men vs women college graduation rates.  The basic point was that the percentage of men receiving college degrees in the US is less than 50% and falling.  This made me think about the effect on astronomy.

First, here are the college numbers.  The Census Bureau reported that 685,000 men and 916,000 women graduated from college in 2009, or 43% men and 57% women.  The numbers for men have been flat since 1980, while women are steadily rising.  The radio show was focused on the stagnation in the male graduation rates and what can be done about it. 

I considered a different angle:  will women soon have equal numbers to men in astronomy departments?   That would be a positive development from our CSWA (Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy) standpoint.  But, let's not jump to conclusions too quickly.  Here is a plot I made of fraction of women PhDs in astronomy vs year, with extrapolation into the future.  The data are from the American Institute of Physics.  Yes, there is a significant steady trend of increasing percentage of women receiving PhDs in astronomy.

A simple fit and extrapolation shown by the dashed line gives a rough idea of where we are headed.  If the trend continues with current slope, the percentage will nicely increase, but not reach 50% until mid-century.  Even that would not give total balance in the field since the fraction of women faculty members will lag behind the PhD numbers.  For example, while the percentage of women PhD recipients in astronomy was 23% in 2010, the demographics panel of the Astro2010 Decadal Survey found only 15% with tenured faculty positions.

So, in summary, women are surging ahead in college education, while men seem to be troublingly stagnant.  There is also an increasing fraction of women in astronomy, but it will take a long time to ever reach 50%.

Here is the link to the On Point archive of the show.  The host is Tom Ashbrook and his guests were Jim Kessler, executive at Third Way, Peg Tyre, education reporter, and David Autor, professor of economics at the MIT.

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