Welcome to Astronomy (unless you’re female)

I’m here on campus preparing to attend a series of receptions at the start of Freshers’ Week to welcome new students to the University of Sussex. Over the next few days I’m going to be involved in a lot of events aimed at helping all our new undergraduate students settle in, before teaching starts properly. There’ll also be events for our new postgraduates, at both Masters and Doctoral levels.

Every year the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) funds an Introductory Summer School for new postgraduate research students in Astronomy. It’s held at a different university each year and is a long-running tradition. I attended such a School at Durham University way back in 1985, long before STFC was invented! We organized and ran one at Nottingham while I was there and last year the corresponding fixture was held at Sussex University, though that was before my time here and I wasn’t involved in it at all. This year, the Introductory Summer School was held at Queen Mary, University of London (often abbreviated to QMUL).

I spent eight happy years at Queen Mary (from 1990-98) so it pains me to have to criticize my friends and former colleagues there, but I really feel that I have to. Look at the programme for the Summer School. You will see that 18 (eighteen) lecturers were involved, covering virtually all areas of current research interest in the field. There is not a single female lecturer among them.

Yesterday I blogged about the invisibility of LGBT astrophysicists, but this is a glaring example of the problems facing female scientists embarking on a career in the same discipline. What message does a male-only programme send to aspiring female astronomers and astrophysicists? The lack of female speakers probably wasn’t deliberate, but was clearly thoughtless. Discrimination by omission is real and damaging. I mean no disrespect at all to the lecturers chosen, but looking through the topics covered I could easily have picked a female alternative who would have done just as good a job, if not better.

I think this is a scandal. I’ll be writing a letter of complaint to STFC myself, and I encourage you to do likewise if you agree. It’s too late to do anything about this year’s School, of course, but STFC must make sure that nothing like this happens again.

49 Responses to “Welcome to Astronomy (unless you’re female)”

  1. I’ve not been following this for STFC summer schools, but SF conventions, where I’m often called to organise the science programme, have been looking seriously at achieving gender parity on panelitems in the last few years. As well as ensuring the visibility of female speakers, I’ve found this is a useful discipline for making sure that you don’t just get the usual suspects to appear, making for a more interesting programme as well as one with greater diversity.

    I think the SF world is a few years ahead of astrophysics on this, but your comments are a useful reminder to apply similar principles for acinetific meetings.

  2. Peter,

    please make sure you raise this issue with QMUL and with the organising committee of the summer school, as well as with STFC. We do provide the funding, but we try not to interfere in the organisation of the school too much, and we were not involved in the selection of speakers for this year’s school.

    John Womersley

    • John,

      Yes I appreciate that STFC doesn’t get involved in the organization of the Summer School, but perhaps some guidance might be issued in future? Although, frankly, that shouldn’t really be necessary.

      I will take it up with the organizers at QMUL too!


  3. Does it matter that there are no women speakers at this year’s STFC summer school?

    Yes, I think it matters a bit. It matters because young women in science need role models to allow them to believe (rightly or wrongly) that there is room for women in science. This might lead some women to continue to endure through the extremely difficult careers system enough for one or two more to succeed to a permanent lectureship (even if the odds are heavily against any individual scientist succeeding, female or male).

    It also matters because an invitation to speak at such an event might raise the profile of a woman astronomer slightly, helping a little bit to advance her career. This might help marginally in an attempt to get promotion or to get a permanent job in the first place.

    I shall not comment specifically on what might be happening at Queen Mary, though I have my own particular set of experiences about the place unconnected with gender issues.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about issues surrounding the role of women in science. The House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology is undertaking an inquiry into Women in STEM Careers. I provided written evidence in attempt to explain the background, particuarly the wholly dysfunctional careers system for early-career researchers,and to explain how this might disadvantage women specifically. I’ll pursue these issues further when I am questioned at an oral evidence session next month.

    • Bryn

      Interesting – I look forward to seeing you on the video stream of that session!


    • Yes. I presume I’ve been asked to give a broader perspective of the careers system. I did make it explicitly clear that I’m a man!

      I’ll have to remember to brush up nicely that morning.

  4. Peter, out of curiosity, what was the male:female speaker ratio at the Nottingham PPARC summer school that you organised? I remember enjoying the school immensely, and it was a great start to my PhD…but I honestly don’t recall. So either it was great and it gave my career some kind of subliminal impetus, or it was terrible and made no difference, or I was simply too busy building my peer network (via the medium of beer) to notice…..

    • That’s a very good question, but I honestly don’t remember! We didn’t have an female astronomers among the staff in those days (back in 2000) but I can only remember one or two of the speakers. I think we had Yvonne Elsworth doing helioseismology and Norna Robinson doing gravitational waves, but I wouldn’t swear to tha! At my age it’s dangerous to rely on your memory! I’m sure we didn’t have as many as 18 altogether either.

      I don’t think there were any female speakers in Durham in 1985 either, but I may be wrong there.

      Of course the number of women in faculty positions has grown substantially since 2000, and even more since 1985.

  5. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Hi Peter,

    I must admit I didn’t do very well on this either last year when I organised the School at Sussex last year, with only 2 women on the main programme. Hidden behind that was the surprising (to me anyway) stat that out of 8 invites to females, only 2 accepted, whereas only a single male invitee declined (out of 17). Yet none of the reasons I was given for declining seemed to relate to gender; indeed most commonly it was that the invitee had already committed to be away at a different meeting in that week.

    So even though I had believed I was being very attentive to this issue, I didn’t get the outcome I wanted. Looking back, I think I learned it is not enough to ensure a suitably balanced list of invitees, because once someone declines a slot to talk on a particular subject within the programme, you often have very little flexibility in finding a replacement within that limited topic area.

    all best,


  6. At NAM2012, we had 2 female speakers for the 8 plenaries. Luckily both accepted – there were no women on the alternate list – something we were well aware off!). 25% is still not great. And neither of the two were from Europe. There are suggestions that the fraction of female STFC PhD students is declining. Is this correct?

    • The conference I went to in Durham earlier this summer had a much better gender balance..and was very interesting from a scientific point of view. These facts are not unrelated.

  7. If I look at your faculty page http://www.sussex.ac.uk/physics/people/peoplelists/group/faculty I see that there are only 6/36 women, i.e. about 17%. Having 0 woman out to 20 speakers is consistent with the previous percentage at 2sigma level, am I wrong? I mean, the problem is probably already (and still) in the first percentage.

    • I think I’ll use this as an example of all that’s wrong with frequentist statistics!

      But it is true that the proportion of female astronomers in faculty jobs is low. The proportion of A-level physics students who are female is 20% so the problem starts even earlier.

      • Of course it was a joke, but anyhow I think that 17% is too low. In my institute we are 41% (but mostly at the lower level).

      • Having taught a couple of courses in Italy over the years, it struck me that the proportion of female astronomy students is very much higher there than in the UK.

      • Yes, now I’m in complete agreement with you: the problem starts earlier, but since I didn’t feel any “social” hostility when I decided to study astrophysics, it’s difficult to me to identify the origin of such low numbers.

      • There are two problems in the UK. Few girls do physics after the age of 16 (half of all schools here have none). And there is a high ‘attrition’ rate: women are more likely to drop out of the academic career path. Especially the transition from the postdoc circus to faculty positions seems more difficult for women.

      • Well, I’m not saying there is not such a problem in Italy. I told you about my astrophysics institute, if we consider the overall percentage at INAF (the Italian Institute for Astrophysics) http://www.ced.inaf.it/anagrafica/tot-dipmf.php (in italian, sorry, but perhaps understandable) the situation is a bit worse. Considering universities the number is even lower, and it also depends on the topic: there are much more women in astrophysics than in physics, more in galaxy evolution (if I consider my collaborators I would say that men are disadvantaged!) and stellar astrophysics than in cosmology. I also would like to say, but this is just an impression – no frequentist or bayesian debate here – that women more often work “in the dark”. Sometimes this can be a choice, testosterone might also have some relevance.

      • When I was an undergraduate, the gender balance of Astronomy students was much better than Physics students (and definitely above 20%). So yes, the gender balance is poor for A level students doing Physics, and this is a problem, but I don’t think it directly translates into the poor gender balance in professional Astronomy. Maybe women preferentially choose Astronomy over Physics at university compared to men. Maybe a larger fraction of men don’t go on to university, or choose different degrees. It would be nice to see statistics on all this before we pass on the blame.

        I have seen and read about a lot of misogynistic behavior in Astronomy – regardless of what the initial gender balance is, people’s attitudes are making it worse, and we need to tackle this issue.

      • Phillip, from what you say I must deduce I’m not Italian and I’m not working in Italy. First of all, we are not living as in 1950. I have a permanent position since 8 years, I receive a monthly salary of 1850 euros; so, you are right about the payment of academic jobs (but I don’t think that women that need to earn for their family will choose to be researcher), but compared to salaries for other jobs I can tell you I’m quite happy, because I do something I like and I fought to obtain. About the traditional family roles, you probably asked to some men, since it is not what I see here and now. In general, there can be some difference in this attitude between cities and country, or north and south, but I don’t expect and don’t see many differences among researchers.

      • Phillip, the theory you report about italian women in astrophysics looks pretty like deferents and epycicles, but, anyway, it is an interesting point of view. Maybe I’m biased myself, but if you say that women can have an academic career only because men are no more interested to this kind of job (“since the positions don’t pay enough for men to support a family, more are available for women”), the underlying assumption is that if men were interested, they would occupy all the positions (because they are better than woman?). But I’m sure you didn’t mean this, probably you meant to say that women feel that the access to the academic career is open for them, and start studying what they like. In this sense I agree. Btw, in the 1950’s society women simply were at home with (many) children, now Italy has a very low birth rate (lower than Denmark, for instance); many things changed since then, even though they are not very visible from abroad.

    • I only know from your subsequent comment that this was meant as a joke (which, to be honest, was in poor taste). It really did not hit me as a joke the first time I read it, and it sounded much more like the traditional kind of attitude that is causing gender balance issues in the first place. Read it again, and try and think about how it would sound to you if you were in the under-represented group.

      We need to forget the notion that the number of speakers/lecturers should be ‘statistically’ representative – if we expose students to a better gender balance (even if it is not consistent with random sampling), we will in turn improve the gender balance. You say the problem is in the first percentage, but part of the cause is the second percentage (i.e. the fraction of women speakers), so one can’t easily decouple them.

      • Tom, the joke was the computation of the 2sigma consistency between the 0/20 speakers and the percentage of women in the faculty list I linked, of course I don’t think this is a meaningful way to address the problem, sorry if it wasn’t clear. Having said this, I must tell you that I’m a woman and a researcher in astrophysics. Maybe the fact that you assumed that I’m a man is an example of the prejudices we both would like to get rid of.

  8. I am generally not a fan of positive discrimination, however I do agree that role models are a special case, in that if no positive discrimination is ever applied to get female/LGBT/coloured/other-minority role models, the low percentage of that minority in the field in general is likely to persist, because people from that minority don’t think of that field as an option for them.

    That said, I think you have to be very careful when positively discriminating, even for sensible reasons, not to create an atmosphere where it can be said that someone is on the programme “just” because they are female (or whatever), which can very quickly and easily lead to them being seen as a “token” and not taken seriously, which can actually be more detrimental than having no women present at all. Consequently, while I am all for those in positions to create role models baring this sort of thing in mind, I think public policies of gender parity, or similar, can be extremely harmful.

    As Dave comments at the very top, this has been a “thing” in SF fandom of late, where I have been quite outspoken about the harm that I think positive discrimination can do (see http://efanzines.com/JourneyPlanet/JourneyPlanet13.pdf if you want to know more, page 47 for my article, but there are many others on the same topic for anyone who is interested). I do, however, agree that this is a different situation, and although I would still be against any sort of publicly announced gender quota of any sort, someone somewhere should probably be paying more attention than to let this sort of thing happen, and it’s certainly a bit disappointing…. There are certainly enough very good female astrophysicists out there to make it possible to include a few without any token women needed!

    • I’m against positive discrimination too. I’m not advocating that in the post and it’s neither necessary nor desirable. I’m just saying organisers should realise that subconscious bias is very real and very damaging.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The phrase “positive discrimination” is Orwellian. it’s not positive for someone who is passed over because someone else from a minority who is less able gets the job. Whether such practices are ever appropriate is not what I am discussing, but the terms that are used do a fair amount to set the debate and I wish to protest against this one.

      • The form of discrimination you mention is actually illegal. I agree that the best qualified person should get a job regardless of any other consideration.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        That’s most interesting and I’m very glad to hear it. Which law passed when, please?

        If that’s illegal then what exactly does (so-called) positive discrimination involve? I’d love an example or two.

      • Anton,

        It might he helpful to read this article from the Times Higher about the difference between positive discrimination and positive action:


        Equality legislation used to be spread over a number of Acts of Parliament, but these were all replaced by the Equality Act of 2010, which is described here:


      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Yes, will read them Peter. Thanks.

    • The way I handled the ‘gender parity’ issue for the science programme at Olympus was not to look for token women but to look outside the range of usual suspects and bring in new people, or people not usually used in te science track who are still well qualified. I agree completely that tokenism is damaging, but looking for new faces and voices, of whatever sex/gender/colour, who are well qualified but not well used is better for everyone. This is what I’ll be doing or the LonCon science programme as well.

      As to QMUL, there are plenty if female, well qualified astrophysicists they could have asked. I could even provide a list. Looking at the list of speakers, they do seem to have picked a fair number of obvious candidates, so my suspicion s that the lack of any of the excellent female speakers out there was more cock up and laziness than conspiracy. But that s how a lot if these problemscome about.

  9. Phil Uttley Says:

    As a rule of thumb when making a speaker list I will look at the balance and correct it by asking ‘do I know a female astronomer in this field who is at least as well respected as this person’. Mostly the answer is yes, but it is a useful corrective to just inviting people you know or who immediately come to mind, which can lead to unconscious biases. It isn’t positive discrimination: this would be choosing people who aren’t as good, just because they are female.

    Regarding the issue of gender balance within faculties, I think you also have to correct for age. Do we want to reflect the current balance which builds in the earlier gender-bias in terms of the older faculty, or do we want to be reflecting the changing balance in the younger faculty which is what many of our PhD students are aspiring to be, presumably? This also goes for the age-ranges of speakers – it’s often good to go for up-and-coming people rather than the established names. Having said that, I see the QMUL speaker list aren’t exactly all old fogeys… 🙂

  10. It would be offensive to women to choose a lecturer based on their sex – male or female.

    • You don’t get a 20-80 ratio among faculty unless there is a real bias against the 20. If doesn’t matter whether the bias is deliberate or cultural.
      Why would it be offensive to correct a bias against half the population? I would not be against a mandatory 50% for the Rutherford fellowships. In astronomy we could do it.

      There has been no improvement at undergraduate level since the 1990’s. Therefore, if nothing is some there will be no improvement at faculty level for another 20 years.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        “You don’t get a 20-80 ratio among faculty unless there is a real bias against the 20. If doesn’t matter whether the bias is deliberate or cultural.”

        I’d welcome clarification of what you mean by ‘bias’, but I think it DOES matter whether the difference arises from discrimination in appointments or from other factors. If discrimination then that is unacceptable, we all agree. But if from some other cause then the only way to change it would be to violate the sensible laws that Peter has mentioned, higher up this thread.

      • Albert. I disagree with your premise. The proportion of female students doing A-level Physics is 20%,and that’s the same proportion of Physics students at University in the UK. The way to improve things is to tackle that bias.

        I would be adamantly opposed to quotas in the Rutherford Fellowships and, as I said before, that would also be illegal.

      • We should remember here that there are biases in the Rutherford Fellowship programme: talented candidates cannot themselves choose to apply for a fellowship and need the nomination of a university department. I argue that which researchers get supported by departments is subject to a lot of biases, conscious and unconscious. This will include biases in favour of potential candidates who are similar to established academics, and that can mean unconscious biases against women given that a majority of academics are male.

        Fellowship schemes should place no restrictions on who may apply, and require no approval from universities at the time of application. Issues such as the number of fellowships that can be held at any one institution and signing up to regulations about appropriate financial practice should enter only after an offer of a fellowship has been made.

      • Very good comment Bryn. I agree completely and have seen this effect at work. Fellowships shoukd go to te best people, not to the best people whose face fits in the different departments.

        This is something STFC must change.

      • My comment about fellowships was based on my own experience.

        I once heard a research council chief executive stating very clearly that the only route to a permanent university job was by getting either an advanced fellowship (now repackaged as Rutherford Fellowships in astronomy) or a Royal Society University Research Fellowship. Only one of the university departments I worked in supported me in applications for such fellowships (and that, unluckily, came too early in my publishing record for me to be in with a serious chance). At one time, as a fixed-term lecturer, I was one of my research group’s best hopes in the Research Assessment Exercise but could not apply for an advanced fellowship because of the lack of a department to nominate me. That brought my scientific career to an end.

        I am a man, but I am convinced that unconscious or accidental selection acts against women more than men in academia.

  11. Jade Powell Says:

    I complained about the lack of female lecturers at the summer school on the feedback forms that they gave to us. I think some of the other PhD students sent an email complaint to the organisers at Queen Mary.

  12. Several students raised it on their feedback forms and I emailed Queen Mary afterwards (some others may have done that too). It has also been brought to the attention of the RAS and the intention is to raise it with STFC, though we aren’t sure who we should be contacting there.

    I think the general impression is that it was a genuine mistake, but that is sort of the point, it shouldn’t be an afterthought. Our suggestion is that ensuring gender balance should be part of the requirements when a University takes on running the summer school. If it is included in the remit then it won’t get forgotten.

    It has also been suggested that the timing of the school doesn’t help as there are a lot of conferences running in September and that can make finding speakers harder. So perhaps it should be in the first week of October. I don’t know how practical that is.

  13. Philip, in general I agree, but you do need to define equal opportunity. If you advertise for a position in a field (e.g. cosmology) with a lower fraction of female applicants, is that equal opportunity? It seems to me the problem is so deeply embedded, and there has been so little progress for the past two decades, that it is now past the stage where the ‘fault is at schools – nothing we can do about it’ attitude is acceptable. Quota would work – why not? What else has worked?

    • I meant that there are more women in certain areas of astronomy than in others. In my experience, stellar astrophysics have more, cosmology less (but that may vary from place to place). If we advertise for a cosmologists, we are likely to get fewer female candidates than we would in some other areas. For an astrochemistry faculty position some 8 years ago we had a 50/50 split. Has not happened since.

    • Other than resenting the implication that just because I’m female means I can’t be a macho dude ;), I concur with Philip’s most recent comment…. If less than 50% of the applications are from women, to insist on hiring 50% women, regardless of merit, would be highly unfair to the men applying, and in my opinion such preferential treatment isn’t doing the women any favours either.

      The only caveat I would put on that is that if part of the role includes acting as a role model or otherwise being in a position to encourage more young women to enter the field (and hence attempt to address the issue of the number of women applying to / being considered for this sort of position in the first place), it may be that a woman is more suited to that role, so it would not be inappropriate to hire a woman preferentially. The summer school which was the original topic under discussion would certainly seem to me to qualify as an occasion when, even if there wasn’t an over-abundance of women applying / being considered, because of the lack of women currently in the field as a whole, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to purposely look to select a few with the aim of hoping to correct the male/female balance of the field in the future.

  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    There’s a Guardian article written today about this:


    (Versatile chap, that Imran Khan…)

  15. […] starkly with the recent STFC summer school, where 0/18 lecturers were female. Well, Peter C already blogged that one. Anyway. I suppose its Rumania One UK […]

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