Sunday, 20 September 2009

Please come along to the new "She is an Astronomer" forum

A couple of months ago, Karen Masters, who's running the She's an Astronomer project on the Galaxy Zoo Blog, forwarded me an interesting job advert. It was for what seems to be my truest profession: you got it, moderating a web forum. Don't worry, I'm not leaving Galaxy Zoo, I'm just taking on something new too: a discussion forum for the "She is an Astronomer" project, part of the International Year of Astronomy.

This project is a worldwide one. It has representatives in Argentina, China, Lesotho, and Hungary, as well as more obvious places such as various European countries, Australia, and the USA. Their front page states their main reason for requiring a project:
Approximately one quarter of all professional astronomers are women. In some countries there are no female astronomers, whilst in others more than half the professional astronomers are female. The drop in numbers towards more senior levels suggests that scientific careers are heavily affected by social and cultural factors, and are not determined solely by ability.
Besides promoting equality in society, and encouraging more women not to be put off from an astronomical career, there's another point which is a nice slap in the face for any objectors: training a talented woman only to put her off at a more senior level is a waste of the men's resources, too. As an aside, when, at age 16, I transferred from a single-sex school to a mixed comprehensive, it was a great insight to see how differently boys approached ideas and problems. While an anecdote has little bearing on the statistics of thousands, I do believe that as much diversity as possible gets the best jobs done - otherwise scientific thinking gets stuck in a rut.

The website aims to collect and share good data for analysis, and to raise issues which women find are concerns in their career in astronomy to find ways to tackle them. It also supports women giving astronomy talks - and has just set up a forum for anyone interested to share their experiences and exchange ideas and good practices. It is chaired by Dr Helen Walker, and there is a lovely article about her successfully getting this project set up here.

So I sent off my application, and on the day of the annual Royal Astronomical Society picnic, Dr Quentin Stanley told me that Hanny and I had both been chosen because of our work on Galaxy Zoo! Even more shockingly, apparently my work as a moderator is known to people outside the zoo . . . so I'm sometimes told, anyway. I was high as a kite for a long time - and have been having to keep it quiet. However, while I was on holiday last week, we received the go-ahead to reveal our new forum and there should probably be a press announcement soon.

The forum is at Do come along and visit - men and women are both welcome, as are both professionals and interested laypeople. (Personally, I have no problem with words such as "layman", since "man" originally means "the human race" - and it's far less clunky. But the older I get the more I feel it's simply a matter of taste, and I'd probably better not start by sparking off linguistic quarrels.) We're putting in lots of threads for you, and look what a beautiful logo the forum has:

I sent in some ideas for a structure of the forum, and proposed an equivalent of the "Object of the Day" scheme we run at the Galaxy Zoo forum: a regular slot for celebrations of the beauty we work with and our discoveries. I proposed that, with only a few of us to start off with, we also don't start off with something daily, but perhaps three times weekly: a special astronomy or space picture; a story of a past or present female astronomer; and a story of astronomy or space news. (This is only a loose plan, with room for many adaptations and extras. I also hope to start getting other members to write them, just as we did a year ago with Zooite Objects of the Day.) Hanny refined the structure I suggested, and Quentin set it up! We are working with a third lovely moderator from Portugal, named Paula, who is studying galaxy mergers - what excellent taste! - and also loves politics, photography, and much more.

We now have a special place to introduce yourself, and our "Feature of the Day" (so far we have the BBC "day in the life of an astronomer", i.e. Dr Catherine Heymans, who did a PhD under the same supervisor as Edd, and Markarian 817 again due to lack of time and imagination on my part). We also have places to talk about science stories, to ask science questions, and to play games and chat - besides, of course, the all-important board about women in astronomy.

Returning to that subject momentarily: the "She is an Astronomer" website has kindly given Galaxy Zoo's blog a special mention. Out of six interviews so far, the only woman who claims to have experienced sexism at work is, embarrassingly, myself. Hopefully I was very clear that this only took place in thoroughly nasty institutions, absolutely never in astronomy. Carie and Kate, on the other hand, both mention the difficulty of moving around from place to place, sometimes country to country. Unemancipated as this may sound, I agree that this is a problem once you become a full adult who has a limited time in which to have children as well. I wonder if there will be less requirement to move as the age of the Internet becomes more and more a part of the way things work - that it will matter less and less where you are. But then that's already very nearly what Kate says about Galaxy Zoo: she believes there are no barriers to women amateurs. Well, that's one thing . . .

We just have one minor problem at the moment: as the big press release has yet to come, but Quentin has given us the go-ahead to publicise the forum ourselves, the forum is now full of Zooites! Not that this in itself is a problem, but we do hope to capture some more people from around the world, and for them not to feel as if they might be on the outside of a clique. So if you don't frequent Galaxy Zoo, please come along. On the other hand, if you do frequent Galaxy Zoo, please also come along because everybody is welcome and Zooites do a darn good job getting everybody chatting and working together. Basically, anyone who is at all interested in the gender gap and science is welcome.

Hope to see you there!

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