Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What does an astronomer look like?

As part of our public outreach, astronomers often visit schools to talk about space and science. One common exercise when dealing with younger students is for the teacher to ask students draw a picture of what they think an astronomer looks like before the astronomers come to the classroom. The vast majority of these portraits look something like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew (pictured above) -- male with glasses and labcoat.

This misconception is carried not just by children, but by many adults, too. Most astronomers don't wear labcoats (unless we are working in the lab on an instrument that requires a labcoat), and not all of us wear glasses. But, more importantly, not all of us are male.

Science, especially physics and biology, is often viewed as a male-dominated career. In some ways this is true, although women have made vital contributions to astronomy for centuries. A lot of the work of the famous 18th-century English astronomer William Herschel was assisted (and often directed) by his sister Caroline, and many vital astronomical discoveries of the 20th century were spearheaded by women.

Unfortunately, women still lag behind men in reaching the highest positions of astronomy. Although women make up over 30% of the graduate students in astronomy, but only around 15% of astronomy professors are women. This is despite the fact that the astronomical community has been trying to address this inequity for nearly 30 years. While some advances have been made, women still do not have appropriate representation in the advanced stages of the career.

What is the reason for this discrepancy? I don't know. Although change is slow in the academic world (due to the slow turnover of jobs), the pace of observed change is still lagging far behind where it should be. The American Astronomical Society's Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy continues to work to better the standing of women in astronomy. It is my sincere hope that the imbalance can be corrected sooner rather than later.


  1. Anonymous9:25 AM

    what do you wear you havent answered that

  2. Anonymous9:26 AM

    what do you wear exactly

  3. Anonymous3:34 PM

    so you never answered on what you wear

  4. I wear clothes. Usually a shirt and slacks.