Monday 3 May 2010

The "She is an Astronomer" Conference: Day 1

Whoops, sorry it took over a week to get round to the actual conference write-up. Already it seems like a long time ago - perhaps because I've had so many surprises then, mostly requests for guest blogging. Strangely, what I remember the most about the start of the day is the beautiful sun, and the lacy patterns of the trees in Green Park. I set off just before 8 so as to be there in time, arrived before 8.30, so went and sat in the park to ring my mum and tell her I'd been asked to write an article - and, for the first time, am actually being paid for it. Just like a fresh university student, just starting out . . . But it's never too late.

The buildings of central London rose up white and friendly out of the traffic, their eaves high, giving their tall windows a look of their eyes being wide open to admire the rich blue sky. I love central London. It's always like coming home.

The RAS building is at Burlington House, an impressive collection of royal societies around a courtyard which seems to keep changing its (for want of a better word) decoration (all these silver baubles have mysteriously vapourised). I sat on one of the wavy white benches and soon Helen arrived, full of friendliness and enthusiasm. We started setting up our banners, which required my height and her knowing how to actually do it. The one we put in the hallway to welcome everyone in was a picture of a woman looking through a telescope. We agreed that it was blatantly a model rather than a real astronomer, since she was caressing the telescope rather than having a good old fight with it!

The inside of the RAS is more like a very smart, luxurious house than its museum-like inside would suggest. There is the Fellows' Room on the bottom floor, with comfy chairs, unobtrusive lamps, cushions with Jupiter-like stripes, a table full of leaflets, and a coffee machine which needs a mystic's degree to operate - but in the room opposite is always a very friendly person or two who has such a degree and is glad to help out. There's a kitchen full of crockery downstairs, and a toilet with taps like waterfalls and a massive window seat, which I've never seen in a toilet before. The stairs are endless; a spiral is etched into the glass of one of the windows, and mysterious wire objects purportedly representing structures such as black holes hang from the faraway ceiling. The whole building is made of marble (or some kind of stone; I don't really know), and looks as if it will last forever. On the first floor is a library enough to make one gasp: books up to the ceiling, which includes a black spiral metal staircase to reach, amazing instruments, and heavy tables on which the librarian displays impressive texts or pictures as he chooses. The floor above that is also stacked with books, golden instruments, and a coffee machine whose mysteries are entirely different from the one downstairs; and that's where the posters were and where we put our stuff and ate lunch. But the best thing is the lift. I recommend you visit the RAS just to see it. Start at the bottom floor and watch the Moon, the planets, galaxies, nebulae, Fluffyporcupine's avatar, and the Cosmic Microwave Background go by!

Helen and I took our stuff upstairs. The posters were already up - far fewer than we'd expected, but a range of subjects nonetheless: people's research, what it was like being alone as a female astronomer in your whole country . . . Helen showed me a pretty little orange calendar, made by the Spanish She is an Astronomer team for 2009. It was 12 historical female astronomers. "That's going to be the prize for the best poster," she told me.

We were soon joined by Quentin, Emily, Anita and Hanny. An awful few minutes passed waiting for Pedro Russo to arrive; he'd been standed in Germany and had all the badges and books of abstracts! Thankfully he did, and dumped two heavy cardboard boxes on the tables. We unloaded the books of abstracts (of our talks and posters), and started trying to sort the name badges into alphabetical order. The table promptly turned into a sea of blue ribbons. We ended up taking those off, and giving all the arrivals one badge, one blue ribbon, one book of abstracts, one survey (of a question about what they thought would help female astronomers the most. Sorry, Helen, I never did hand mine in), one programme, and so forth. I got terribly thirsty and asked one of the RAS staff where I could get some water, as I didn't know about the kitchen at that point. He angelically went and got me some! Minor, but nice things like that should be noticed. They often don't happen, unless you're in a position of power.

The lecture theatre is on the right as you go in, a surprisingly small room compared to the awesome library upstairs. We filed into the seats to hear Jocelyn Bell-Burnell give the opening address. Sadly I'd left my notebook upstairs, so I couldn't write down anything she said. She was rousing and impressive, though, of course! She never needed to mention having been passed over for the Nobel prize (which makes me cross every time I think about it). She was the first female president of the Institute of Physics, which says a lot, she says: physics is more hostile to women than astronomy. The higher you go in the academic career ladder, she reports, the more male-dominated it becomes, though "cooling-out" starts of affect women before they even finish their PhD. She told a wonderful story of an excellent male role model: a professor of chemistry who often left the department early to pick his young kids up from school. The tone of the department matters a lot. "There have been a lot of programs to support women," she told us, "but they all said the same thing: that we women have to change, and they're there to teach us how to adapt. In other words, they assume that it is women who are deficient." Pause. "GET LOST." Whoopee! She went on to explain that women are just as good at science and astronomy as men; we simply do it in a different way - and while we should adapt, so should men, and so should science, so that we all meet each other half way.

The lectures that followed contained many questions, many statistics - some things I disagreed with, some things that were revelations, and all things giving me a great deal to think about. Some lectures had to be skipped because of the presenter being unable to come; a few talks were read out by others as I'd suggested to everyone by e-mail (this suggestion was met with mixed views!). There was some debate over whether to train so many PhDs, the reason being that very few stay on in academia anyway. Or, should PhDs be changed to provide additional job skills? Personally this made me groan; for starters the question seemed to answer itself since PhDs are very valuable in the job market and give you great skills anyway. For another thing it drives me mental to hear constantly about academic learning only "really" being for jobs. It's not. There is such a thing as intellectual curiosity. But maybe I live on the moon. Though on the other hand we later heard, in a talk about the career paths of PhD students, that they all choose to do a PhD because they love their subject. So there you go . . . We also heard how hard it can be to get accurate statistics about women at various levels of academia; they are very different between, for example, physics and biology. Also many websites are out of date, the department hasn't compiled the statistics, and so on.

One interesting trend that came up in several talks was the contrast between the "Catholic" countries (such as France, Spain, Greece and Italy) versus the "Nordic" countries (such as the UK, the Netherlands, Finland and Germany). In the former, there are more women in science and fewer in politics; in the latter, vice versa. There was some discussion whether this was due to whether science was regarded as a respectable profession in these countries or not. Interestingly, France allows professors (male and female) to obtain permanent academic positions earlier than the UK or Germany; this certainly makes it easier for female scientists to have children!

There are some glaring exceptions. Lots of women in India get PhDs, but the culture there discourages them from continuing work after they get married. Jocelyn went to Malaysia and said she wanted to get more women into science; they asked her why - and she found out that 60 to 70% of scientists over there are female! She also found a high proportion of female scientists in Mexico and asked a Mexican lady why; the lady responded in one word: "Maids." There are many poor women glad of a job looking after the house, which frees up the wife to go to work. This was uncomfortable hearing. I'm hopeless enough at housework (except cooking) as it is, and would love someone to do it for me. And yet, as Elaine Morgan would say, this only amounts to liberating half of women at the expense of the other half. But then, and this is my personal view and it did not get discussed, is it really necessary for scientists to work such incredibly long hours? Couldn't there be more scientists to do the same amount of work? Couldn't that, indeed, apply to quite a lot of jobs?

Some of the statistics were quite anger-rousing; for example, women very rarely get any awards - and those that do are on average 2.5 times as productive as the men who get similar awards! I don't know what the parameters were for the 2.5 times, though.

Towards the end of the morning I was making general points about all the lectures. The gist of all was that there is no point in pretending women and men are the same, because we're not. As Danielle Alloin put it, "Diversity is strength." There is a good mix of men and women doing PhDs generally. Men tend more to go into the private sector and women the public, but there is not a large difference. Also, people who do a theoretical PhD tend more to go into the private sector. Claims of how many PhD students stayed in academia varied throughout the day, from two out of a hundred to 46%! The famous experiment of asking a child to draw a scientist was brought up a couple of times - I don't buy much into that as children are pretty random, not generally aware of discrimination, and also may be trying to please the adult; but maybe I'm missing Something Significant, etc. We were warned that the media can distort general perceptions by always talking to the same people (you can say that again!), and advised not to base our social lives around our work, because that only leads to something along the lines of the "Old Boy Network". We also heard about the Daphne Jackson Trust, which aims to get women who have had a two year or longer career break catch up and get back into academia.

Someone, I forget who, told an interesting story at one point - that girls who go to all-girls' colleges seem to do better. We hear this about schools every so often. The reason given for this was that "they see examples of female leadership". Well, I know I shouldn't value personal experience over statistics, but when I transferred from an all-girls' grammar to a mixed comprehensive, I suddenly found myself whizzing ahead in the sciences. This may of course have been because the grammar school did not (with the exception of one or two teachers) take science very seriously. But in particular it was interesting listening to the boys talking about science, to overhear them debating and see how different their angles and their approaches to problems were. Anyway, all in all I felt that to segregate the sexes particularly on the grounds described above is to treat a symptom, not a cause. Is it a given that mixed schools and universities don't get to see female leadership?

Emily was trying to tweet the main points from the conference, but there was no Internet available in the lecture theatre! So she had to type them up and send them at lunch time. You can find some excellent soundbites on @SheAstronomer (from 22nd and 23rd April, of course) such as "'Women are like canaries in a coal-mine' i.e. more sensitive to friendliness of a department" (that is not to say that men do not get put off too). I wandered round to look at the posters and saw a fascinating one about the links between solar activity and the incidence of particular diseases. I didn't chat with the others as much as I should have, because I was getting quite childishly nervous about my upcoming talk. Hanny and Emily were very sweet about that. If it had been a year ago I wouldn't have had nerves at all, but it had been a while, and also this was my first audience of professionals! They had the good taste to serve fresh fruit at lunch time, beautifully cut up, often the only way I'll get around to eating fruit. Mango, pineapple, strawberries . . . It definitely felt like spring, just the time to get everyone chatting about how to change the world.

Last of all we had Sarah Bridle, who told us what a wonderfully varied career she's had and how becoming a professor made more difference than having a baby; we had Ruth Wilson, who has gathered our blogs together and just never stopped smiling; and we had me; and finally we had a wonderful talk about William and Caroline Herschel's unique partnership. Caroline was the first paid female astronomer in history. Unfortunately I think this is the page that fell out of my notebook, and in any case my brain had blown by then!

We milled around in the library, eating crisps and drinking wine and orange juice and attempting not to spill them over some amazing antique texts the librarian had put out. Quentin had been rushing around all day getting everyone coming to the Italian restaurant to choose their meal. I got talking to some lovely astronomers once I was able to relax - in the restaurant, two women were talking about gravitational waves and quantum fluctuations and my eyes were absolutely out on stalks. They told me what a nice change it was not to get the answer "Oh, so you can predict the future?" when they said "I'm an astronomer"!

A write-up of Friday should follow shortly . . .
Related links: My talk
Narrow picture from Profiles at She is an; the top is, of course, the logo.


jules said...

Excellent write up! Still wish I could have gone.

"They told me what a nice change it was not to get the answer "Oh, so you can predict the future?" when they said "I'm an astronomer"!"

So true!!!!
If I had a pound....

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Anonymous said...

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Sakib said...

Want to know more about really obscure galaxies such as UGC 3426 and ultra obscure planetary nebulae such as HFG 1? Then you need to visit ( in exactly one years time! Why, yes, this fantabulous universe we live in is so incomprehendably huge that it'll take me that long to actually write something!
Also as an added bonus, you will be marvelled by the glorious Technicolor images of really bizarre unknown objects such as the Frosty Leo Nebula and the Sacred Mushroom Galaxy! Don't miss this once in a lifetime opportunity, just visit ( in exactly one years time, or maybe 2 or 3!


Honestly that was one of the greatest articles you have ever written! It almost felt as if I was there! It really angers me that female astronomers never get awards or the recognition they deserve! It must have been one hell of an experience meeting Jocelyn Bell Burnell, even though she discovered pulsars, you never ever see her name mentioned anywhere! I betcha if pulsars were discovered by a male astronomer, the whole world would probably be preening over him and showering him with excessive adulation. We need to end this inequality.

Anonymous said...

LOVE that comment, Sakib! You had me laughing out loud for quite some time. Oh, and by the way, folks, I do recommend Sakib's exceptionally rich, pretty and informative website.

I think things are getting a lot better for female astronomers but it's one hell of a fight! Glad you liked the write-up - the detail is already fading, I wish I'd had time to write it earlier. Now on to Day 2.

Sakib said...

Aww you're too sweet Alice! Although I would have to disagree with you and say my website isn't as great as it hopefully will be!
Also you still haven't written up Astrofest!

Alice said...

Oh my God . . .

The only thing I really clearly remember offhand is meeting Jill Tarter and how good the Allan Chapman lecture was. He pointed out a trap I have fallen into utterly with sci-fi alien writing: that it reflects the period in history, and is effectively a commentary on today's society! For example, in the 17th century and so on, aliens were theological; in War of the Worlds time, they were monstrous; in the 80's, ET was politically correct and so on. He had us roaring with laughter all the way through. I nearly had tears rolling down my cheeks - the aliens I have been writing about in a silly story I hope to finish one day are an exact commentary of my views about society! This is not quite as silly as it sounds; having lived abroad, I've found that the thing you learn the most about is in another country is things about your own that you never spotted before.

I'll see if I can come up with any more, but no promises.

maybe said...

like ur writing's the real deal. just keep on writing...