Women and Strange Powers in Wallachia

If you are a British or American astronomer, you have done this many times. You are at a meeting and wander over to a table full of Italians. Or Germans. Or Brazilians, or whatever. They are happily chatting away, but as you sit down they switch seamlessly into English. We Brits radiate a strange field that induces a language phase transition as we approach. Germans do not have this power. Sometimes I am tempted to lean in and out and cause an oscillation. Anyway, we are privileged and rather lucky.

I am currently lecturing at the Opticon Awareness Conference in Bucharest, a kind of Euro-astro-summer-school. This year it is  specifically for students from South-Eastern Europe – Romania, Albania, Greece, Serbia, etc. Very fascinating. Anyway I spent my lunch preventing some Bulgarians and Macedonians speaking their own undoubtedly fine languages. As I walked back I caught up with fellow lecturers Francois Hammer and Alain Le Cavelier, and stopped them speaking French.

Although I have mentioned three male lecturers so far, there is actually a fair sprinkling of female lecturers at this summer school. Maybe not enough, but some. This contrasts rather 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 Nil.

The female:male ratio varies widely from country to country. UK is better than it was but not so good. Germany is poor. France and Italy have lots of women astronomers. Some of this seems to have been due to strong role models over my lifetime – Suzy Collin, Jacqueline Bergeron, Laura Maraschi, etc. China has lots of female astronomers; Japan extremely few. Is there a pattern here? Whats going on?

There is  also large variation across sub-disciplines in astronomy, which I see in personal experience. When I go to cosmology conferences, women are pretty thin on the ground. When I go to AGN conferences, it’s almost 50:50. Whats that all about? Is it a historical accident? Or something about the way those questions are researched? Herd fashion for aggressive males? Got to be a clue. Some women I know do have a foot in both those camps, so if they happen to be reading, do feel free to comment.

9 Responses to Women and Strange Powers in Wallachia

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    A good number of years ago, I was struck by the high percentage of female astronomers in Spain. It was explained to me (by a female Spanish astronomer) that this high fraction simply reflected the high esteem in which engineering was held in the country, making astronomy a “suitable” inferior subject for women. Depressing.

    • I’ve heard a similar explanation for the relatively high numbers of women in astronomy in Italy: It doesn’t pay much, a man can feed a family from it, so some jobs are taken up by women with rich husbands after their children are in school etc.

      • micol says:

        Phillip, no, again!🙂

      • Again, I’m just repeating what several people who work in astronomy in Italy told me. Since otherwise they tended to disagree, but agreed on this point, in might be significant. Maybe they were mistaken, maybe Italy has changed significantly in 15 years, maybe this was their experience but not yours (and at least one side generalized too far).

  2. micol says:

    Only woman that decided not to try to be a cosmologist can answer… When I decided to study astronomy, I decided that cosmology was what I wanted to study, and so I did, despite I was the first (or one of the first) female undergraduate student who asked a “laurea” thesis to the cosmology professor. Then I had to move to study galaxy evolution during the PhD, but it wasn’t a “gender” imposition.
    In any case, I also wrote in Peter’s blog that my impression is that many woman prefer to work without being on view, but maybe I should speak only for myself.
    In Italy I think the role model was Margherita Hack, not very famous as a researcher, maybe, but she was very often invited in tv shows, talking about everything (politics, religion, etc.). Let’s see what happens in the next years to the fraction of Italian woman in astronomy now that she’s dead.

  3. Japan has a very low number of astronomers, so in some groups there might be no women at all.

  4. Presumably, the reasons for different fractions of women in different fields within astronomy are similar to the reasons for different fractions of women in different sciences—physics, biology etc. Probably a combination of factors.

    However, one often has to do with small-number statistics here, so check the significance of any result before reporting it.

  5. Ross says:

    Coincidentally, I’d noticed this morning that our Gaia-ESO Survey community contacts were split very evenly 50:50 between male and female astronomers, which shouldn’t be surprising, but it is….


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