Astronomy as an even playing field

Astronomers have a new plan to achieve gender equality in their field.
By | Published: February 2, 2005 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
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February 2, 2005
The American Astronomical Society (AAS) unanimously endorsed a new set of recommendations to improve the status of gender equality in astronomy. The Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) presented the recommendations, titled Equity Now: The Pasadena Recommendations for Gender Equality in Astronomy, at the AAS’s 205th annual meeting in January.

Equity Now is centered around four principles: (1) Women and men are equally talented and deserve equal opportunity; (2) Full participation of men and women will maximize excellence in the field; (3) The measure of equal opportunity is outcome, i.e., gender equity will have been attained when the percentage of women in the next level of advancement equals the percentage in the pool; and (4) Long-term change requires periodic evaluation of progress and consequent action to address areas where improvement is necessary.

Even though, according to the Pasadena recommendations, “women occupy fewer than 15 percent of the astronomy tenure-track positions,” the future looks promising. “Currently more than 50 percent of AAS members in the age group 18-23 are women,” says Patricia Knezek, chair of the CSWA and an astronomer at WIYN observatory in Tucson, Arizona. The document’s main goal is to push for an equal environment in the field so the 50-percent-women bracket continues along the academic track.

The “classic” academic track is a progression through undergraduate and graduate school, followed by one or two post-doctorate positions, ending with a research position, whether as a university faculty member or an astronomer with an observatory. There is a “loss of well-qualified female scientists in proportionally larger numbers than men at every stage of the career path,” says Knezek. This fall off of women in astronomy is what the Pasadena recommendations aim to erase.

The AAS established the CSWA in the 1970s to monitor the status of women in astronomy and recommend changes to create gender equity. In 1992, a conference titled “Women in Astronomy” was held in Baltimore, Maryland. This meeting led to the Baltimore Charter, which outlined steps to achieve gender equality in astronomy. The AAS endorsed the Baltimore Charter in 1994, recognizing “differences in the institutional structure of astronomical organizations.”

In 2003, a follow-up conference was held, “Women in Astronomy II: Ten Years After,” in Pasadena, California, to review changes and progress since the Baltimore Charter. Equity Now evolved from the initial strategies outlined at the Pasadena conference, which were released to the entire AAS membership for review. The CSWA incorporated the community input into the final document and presented it to the AAS Council.

“We see a wonderful pool of women graduate students,” says AAS President Robert Kirschner. “We look forward to the day when they are living out their dreams as astronomers.”