Women and Astronomy

Referring to professional astronomy, an article back in the May 1992 Sky & Telescope noted "...survey results clearly show that astronomy is not faring as well as other scientific areas in making women feel comfortable." Is that still true? Perhaps, but in the last few years there seems to be an increasing number of women astronomers represented on science-related TV presentations, such as the PBS Nova series. LCAS has several women as members; some have been part of the club for a long time and have contributed mightily, each in her own way. On the amateur level, it's often difficult to identify exactly what draws a person into certain hobbies, but why aren't more people of the feminine persuasion involved in amateur astronomy? (Comments, ladies?)

This question came up in a discussion on an Internet e-group, and Glynis van Uden, an amateur astronomer in the Netherlands, shared her experiences. We exchanged e-mail and she gave me permission to print her remarks in NightTimes. Here is what she had to say:

"I think that upbringing has a great deal to do with why women shy away from astronomy (and science in general). At an early age we learn the difference between what boys and girls are expected to do. At least, that was the case when I was young (I'm 43 now) and from what I see at my children's school it doesn't seem to have changed much (not that I'm the perfect parent!). Centuries ago, when a careers officer visited my school and I told her I was seriously considering an astronomy-related career, she told me very curtly "Girls don't do that." I could choose between bank clerk, secretary and teacher (and, presumably, careers officer). After all, in those days women only worked while waiting for Mr. Right to come along and these were considered suitable jobs. (I don't mean to disparage any of these professions. I think teachers are invaluable, but I'm just not cut out to be one.) Her remark hit me like a slap in the face. For years I hardly mentioned my hobby to anyone, for fear of being considered some kind of social deviant. It wasn't until I went to university that I decided to "go public" and joined the astronomy society. To my relief there were two female astronomy students in the group.

So I think a lot of people consider astronomy a male activity, to which women just don't "belong"; it's simply not the "feminine" thing to do. Visitors to our house nearly always assume that the telescope and the astronomy books are my husband's. When he says it's my hobby, they are always surprised and I often get asked if I can follow it.

Then there's technophobia. It seems to me that a lot of women expect men to know about technical matters, as though it's in their genes, and tend to run in the opposite direction or get that glazed-over look when we think something is going to be technical. I know I was anxious about using a telescope at first, because I was worried I wouldn't be able to sort it out. And I did spend many hours cursing it and myself when I first got it.

The reason that women don't show up much at astronomy clubs is probably because no one likes to be the odd-one-out. The thought of possibly being the only woman at a meeting makes me, for instance, feel uncomfortable, so I'm not in a club. I'd feel like people were watching me and what I do all the time, even if they weren't. Obviously there are other factors involved, my own character being a major one. Someone else might have had more self-confidence and determination and said "I'll do it anyway". In the end, we make our own choices. Sometimes we choose to do what we really want, other times we choose not to rock the boat, and I'm sure men do that, too.

These are just a few of my thoughts on the subject. I have no idea how much they contribute - if at all - to the small number of women in amateur astronomy. I do know that a lot of people are missing out on a wonderful pastime."