Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Does Astronomy Education Research have a glass ceiling?

Saeed Salimpour
By Saeed Salimpour1,a and Michael Fitzgerald2

1Deakin University, Burwood, Victoria, Australia
2Edith Cowan Institute for Education Research, Edith Cowan University, Joondalup, Western Australia, Australia

The challenges associated with gender equity and equality have been the topic of much research over many decades. In the context of science, the issue of gender is even more pronounced, this is marked by efforts to engage more women in science, or more specifically STEM. However, the research has mostly centred around scientists and science research. This brief article highlights findings from a study which explored the issue of gender in the context of Astronomy Education Research (AER) – a rapidly growing field of research drawing in, not just astronomers, but also researchers from different fields, e.g., education, psychology, evaluation.

Michael Fitzgerald
The study used the iSTAR database (International STudies of Astronomy education Research) (, link to summary paper). Over the years, iSTAR has grown to contain, or link to where appropriate, more than 1800 publications. These have drawn from major literature searches throughout the mainstream astronomy, astronomy education and science education journals, major conference proceedings and thesis collections. We presented the current status of iSTAR, at the recent RTSRE & iNATS conference in Hilo, Hawai’i, a recording of the talk is available here, and to see a fully referenced expanded version of this article, a pre-print of the article is available here.


There are only 119 authors who have published in the AER literature more than three times with only 30 authors having 6 or more articles in AER specifically. Most authors publish in multiple domains, including Physics Education Research, General Science Education and mainstream Astronomy.

The results for the following discussion are visually represented in Figure 1. In terms of number of articles published by first authors, there were 3 women in the top ten authors in the past 10 years, 4 women in the top ten authors in the last 5 years compared to 3 women in the top top ten over all time. When we limit the publications to only peer-reviewed articles, we find that 26.5% of the first authors are women over all time, while in the case of first authors over the past 5 years, this increases to around 57% women.

Considering the number of total publications per author, in the top 50 all time, there were 20 women, in the past 10 years there were 21 women, and in the past 5 years, there were 23 women. Comparing this to first authors for any publication, there were 17 women authors all time and in the past 5 years, there were 21 women. In the top 20 authors, all time, there were 6 women authors and in the past 5 years, there were 10 women. Again, both statistically insignificant but also lacking the statistical power needed to see significance.

We found that in the case of the top 10 authors in terms of h5-index using Google Scholar, 3 were women, whilst in the case of Scopus, 4 were women. This is in comparison to all-time h-index, where only 2 women were in the top ten for either database. The discrepancy between the two citation databases indicates that women seem to have published more frequently in recent years than men in the more restricted list of high impact journals in Scopus.

Dissertations are the third largest contributor to the iStar database. We found that over the past 5 years, nearly 56% of theses published were by women, whilst over the past 10 years, just over 50% were by women. In 2006, just over 80% were by women. Over all time, we found that just over 40% of all dissertations in the database were by women, with the earliest dissertation by a woman going back to 1942.
Figure 1: Key statistics from iStar.


Like many other landscapes,  there is still a discord in gender distribution in the highest levels. It is interesting to note that in the case of dissertations in the past 10 years, we see that nearly 52% of the dissertations published were by women despite lower than parity frequencies in all other considered measures that are measuring performance in later-career related indices. This distribution coincidentally mirrors the data released by the Department of Education and Training, Higher Education Research Data, 2014 in Australia. Wherein, the distribution of women and men post-PhD starts to diverge with the proportion of men holding more senior positions in academia increasing significantly beyond the typical entry level (B) position.

Figure 2. The leaky pipeline of academia.
Image credit: The Conversation, adapted from Department of Education and Training, Higher Education Research.

This is potentially the first analysis of gender in the context of AER publication and as such there are no explicit theories known by the authors for the discord between women and men in AER. Furthermore, to our knowledge, most of the studies that focus on the gender equity are from the perspective of practicing scientists or students rather than science education practitioners or researchers. Despite this, the reasons for the discrepancies could be similar to those identified by studies of gender equity in science. However, within the scope of this investigation, we do not posit a explanation for these differences but rather present the data as a point of comparison to other similar fields. Over time, it does seem that women are slowly becoming more represented in the AER literature, although we do not have the statistical power to suggest it is a real effect.

We are in the process of preparing an in-depth review, and will address the various limitations in this preliminary study. To keep informed about this article and other iSTAR information, please sign up to the newsletter here, or email the author.