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Lisa KewleyDirector, Center of Excellence for All Sky 3D Astrophysics, Australian National University
It will be at least 2080 before women make up only one third of Australia’s professional astronomers, unless there is a significant increase in how we develop the careers of women researchers.
Over the past decade, astronomy has been rightly recognized as the leading driving force for gender equality in science. But my new simulation, published in Nature Astronomy, shows it isn’t fast enough.
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In the Australian Academy of Sciences’ ten-year plan for astronomy in Australia by 2025, women are expected to make up one third of the senior staff.
A worthy, albeit modest, goal. However, with new data from the Academy of Science Australia’s Gender Equality (SAGE) program, I modeled the effects of current rates and recruitment practices and came to a dismal, if perhaps not surprising, conclusion. Without changing the current mechanisms, it will take at least 60 years to reach this level of 30%.
However, simulations also suggest that implementing ambitious, positive recruiting programs aimed at recruiting and retaining talented female astronomers could achieve the goal in just over a decade and then rise to 50% in a quarter century.
how did we get here?
Before considering how this can be done, it is worth examining how the gender imbalance in physics in general originated. Simply put: How did we get into a situation where 40% of PhDs in astronomy are awarded to women, but they still hold less than 20% of leadership positions?
In general, the answer is simple: my analysis shows that women are addicted to astronomy two to three times more often than men. In Australia, from postdoctoral to assistant professor level, 62% of women leave the industry, compared with 17% of men. 47% of women leave between the associate professor and the professor; the male dropout rate is about half. The departure rates of women are similar in US astronomy.
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The next question is why?
Many women leave out of frustration. Women in physics and astronomy say their careers are progressing more slowly than their male counterparts and that their culture is discouraged.
They receive fewer career resources and opportunities. Randomized double-blind trials and extensive research in astronomy and other sciences show an implicit bias in astronomy, which means more people are published, cited, invited to speak at conferences, and get telescope time.
It is difficult to create solid research work when access to tools and recognition is disproportionately limited.
There is another factor that sometimes contributes to the loss of female astronomers: loyalty. In situations where a woman-man’s partner is offered a new job in another city or town, the woman is more likely to quit to facilitate the relocation.
Thus, encouraging universities or research institutes to help partners find suitable jobs nearby is thus one of the strategies I (and others) have suggested to help recruit women astrophysicists.
But the bigger challenge requires institutions to identify, eliminate, and overcome innate bias – a legacy of a conservative academic tradition that research shows is male-centered.
A key mechanism for achieving this goal was presented in 2014 by the Astronomical Society of Australia. He has developed a voluntary rating and rating system known as the Pleiades Award, which rewards institutions for specific actions to advance women up the career ladder and close the gender gap.
Initiatives include long-term postdoctoral positions with part-time opportunities, supporting the return to astronomical research after career breaks, increasing the proportion of permanent positions versus fixed-term appointments, offering permanent positions for women only, recruiting women directly to professorships, and mentoring women for advancement. to higher levels.
Most, if not all, Australian astronomers’ organizations have signed up for the Pleiades Awards and are showing a genuine commitment to change.
So why is progress still so slow?
After seven years, we expect an increase in the number of women recruited and retained in leadership positions.
It is, but the effect is far from uniform. My own organization, the Center of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in Three Dimensions (ASTRO 3D), is aiming for a 50:50 ratio of women to men in leadership positions by the end of this year.
Over the past three years, nine leadership positions have been appointed in the University of Sydney Department of Physics, seven of which are women.
But these examples are outliers. In many institutions, unfair recruitment ratios and high dropout rates persist, despite the large number of female astronomers at the postdoctoral level and positive support from the Pleiades Awards.
Using these results and my new workforce models, I have shown that the current goals of 33-50% of women at all levels are unattainable while maintaining the status quo.
How to move forward
I propose a number of positive measures to increase the presence of women at all the highest levels of Australian astronomy – and to keep them there.
These include the creation of multiple positions for women only, the creation of prestigious leadership positions for women, and the recruitment of multiple positions for men and women to avoid the perception of symbolism. Increasing workplace flexibility is critical to enable women researchers to develop their careers while combining other responsibilities.
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Australia is far from unique when it comes to gender inequality in astronomy. In general, similar situations persist in China, the United States and Europe. A paper published in April 2019 describes similar discrimination faced by female astronomers in Europe.
However, Australia is well positioned to play a leading role in correcting the imbalance. With the right action, it won’t take long to make our approach to gender equality as world-leading as our research.
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