Friday, September 5, 2014

On the number of women hired

In my previous post I provided an update on the number and percentage of women hired in tenure-track professor positions over the past year. In 2014, women were hired into 40% of available positions, representing a remarkable 16 out of 40 hires. I would argue that this is the mark of progress and strong evidence that the previous dearth of women astronomy professors in past decades was not because women are somehow inherently inferior to men. The lack of women previously was due to a number of societal and institutional barriers that barred women from equal opportunities in astronomy. 
The women of the Harvard-Smithsonian CfA in 2013. Women have made major strides in astronomy!
However, there is another way to look at the underrepresentation of women in astronomy in the past: look at it instead as an overrepresentation of men. Take for example the number and breakdown of PhDs awarded by the Harvard Astronomy program in the 1980s. From 1980-1989, Harvard awarded 41 PhDs, but only 4 of these went to women (9.8%). Why did men have such a lopsided advantage in earning PhDs in astronomy from one of the top US astronomy institutions? 

One could come up with a list of reasons why women didn't apply for grad school, or why women dropped out, or why women simply weren't interested in careers in astronomy because, say, they prioritized family over career. But given the number of women competing at the top levels and pursuing fruitful careers in astronomy today, it's difficult to place the blame on women for why they were underrepresented in the 1980s.

I find the most compelling explanation for the disproportionate number of men in the 1980s is fairly simple. The answer is that men had a large number of advantages that affirmed their place in the astronomy community. During the 1980s men enjoyed an implicit affirmative action program geared toward the advancement of men at the expense of women. 

Fortunately, since the 1980s a number of the key provisions of the aforementioned male affirmative action program have been disabled, and new affirmative action programs have been put in place to incentivize equal consideration of women and men in hiring, and to affirm a place for women in our field of study. These programs work and the proof is in the numbers. In 2014 40% of the new hires last year were women! Also, over just the past two years, I know of three women who earned tenure at major astronomy institutions. 

While I'm excited about the 40% number, my excitement is greatly tempered for one key reason. Looking at my spreadsheet of recent hires and focusing on the women who were hired in 2014, something quite striking stands out to me. Of the 16 women hired in 2014, only 3 were non-white. To break things down further, only two (2) were Latina and zero (0) were Black. Indeed, over the past four years, only one Black woman has been hired into a tenure-line faculty position according to the Astronomy Rumor Mill, which makes for a total of six (6) five (5) Black women astronomy professors (or tenure-line researcher) in the US*.

For some reason, the rising tide does not lift all boats. 
The women of the Harvard-Smithsonian CfA in 2013. Look carefully and critically: 64 out of 72 are white women
and zero are Black. Why do white women have such an advantage over non-white women in astronomy?
A couple years ago, I would have looked at these numbers and asked, "Where are all the Black and Latina/o people in astronomy?" However, just as there was a different way of looking at the small number of women in astronomy in the 1980s, there's another perspective on this question: "Why is it that white women have such a distinct advantage in getting astronomy professorships?"

The answer to this question can be found in many different peer-reviewed journal sources, as well as a host of college text books and long-form articles. Among the ones I have read over the past year include When Affirmative Action Was White by Ira Katznelson, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, and Seeing White: An Introduction to Privilege and Race by Jean Halley, Amy Eshleman and Ramya Mahadevan Vijaya, the Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Segregation Now... by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Seeing White, in particular, lays out a very clear case for the persistence of institutional racism in modern culture and its adverse affects on non-white people, and how racism provides powerful advantages for white people as a group. Since astronomy is a human institution that exists within larger culture, there is no reason at all to assume that these explanations do not extend to the culture of astronomy in the US.

When we say that women have made major gains over the past few decades, it is important to include one important modifier: White women have made major gains. Women of color remain underrepresented at levels below that of white women in the 1980s. Black women in particular are well below their percentage of the US population (<<1% in astronomy vs. 12.6% of US women).

To answer Chanda Prescod-Weinstein's question: Yes, you are a woman in astronomy. But sadly the tendency is to overlook you and other women of color when we tout the gains of women in astronomy. We cannot talk about the success of women in astronomy without noting the deficit of non-white women in astronomy. Further, the CSWA can only fully meet its charge by recognizing the groups of women who are being left behind as the tide rises, and taking action to correct this major inequity among women in astronomy.


* I used Astronomers of the African Diaspora as a reference for the number of Black women professors. The site is out of date (it doesn't list me), and I didn't count Beth Brown who sadly passed away, and Jarita Holbrook who is no longer employed in the US (bad move, Arizona). If I missed one or two, then the number of Black women astronomers is still epsilon compared to the number of white women professors.