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Results of the Latest Demographi​cs Surveys: Women in Astronomy and Planetary Science

January 17, 2014

The retention of women in STEM fields is of enduring interest. Since I’m preaching to the choir, I won’t describe all the gory details again.  Rest assured, though, that people interested in astronomy and planetary science, and how these fields are recruiting and retaining women, are surveying the fields and reporting interesting results. I’m optimistic that these results should help to shape policies at institutions around the country, if the right people see the data.

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) has been conducting demographics surveys of major astronomy departments and divisions since 1992 to track the representation of women across the field.  The latest survey was conduced in 2013 and includes data from 40 PhD-granting universities and 7 national research centers.  CSWA member Meredith Hughes presented a town hall at the 223rd AAS Meeting near Washington, DC, describing the results of the 2013 version of the CSWA demographics survey. The results were compared with those from 1992, 1999, and 2003, and the slides from this presentation can be found here.

I compared the results from the 2013 CSWA survey to those of a survey conducted in 2011 by Fran Bagenal and others. This survey was sent to “university departments around the country that were thought to include faculty involved in planetary science research and/or offer planetary science undergraduate or graduate degrees”. Dr. Bagenal presented these results at the October 2103 DPS meeting in Denver, and they are summarized here.

In my opinion, the simple take-home messages from both of these studies are
1. ~37% of graduate students in planetary science and astronomy are female (~38% in planetary and ~35% in astronomy);
2. 15% of full faculty in astronomy are female (tripled since 1992: 5% to 15%!), while just 13% of all faculty in planetary science are female; and
3. the proportion of  female assistant faculty in astronomy roughly reflects the proportion of female graduate students in the field (27% vs. 34%), while all female faculty in planetary science is less than one-third the number of females who received PhDs in planetary (13% vs. 38%).

The more difficult take-home message is that both surveys report results that reflect more graduate students than faculty positions in these fields. Additionally, in astronomy, women have “advanced to the assistant professor level at rates approximately proportional to their representation at lower levels” (CSWA survey). Thus, it appears that efforts to recruit and “retain junior women in astronomy faculty positions are working” (CSWA survey).  Planetary has some work to do.

What do you think about these results? How does your department compare? What other data would you like to see disseminated or collected? Let us know by posting your comments here.

For more CSWA-sponsored presentations at AAS meetings, see:

5 Comments leave one →
  1. sutari permalink
    February 25, 2014 1:28 pm

    It might be interesting to know the age demographic of those faculty members. For example, planetary science seems to me to be both relatively small (total number of schools with programs) and relatively new – as in post Apollo. As in the people who were hired in new positions in this ‘new’ field maybe haven’t quite retired yet. I’ve been out of grad school for nearly 20 years. And the 3 planetary professors at the school now are the same 3 as were there then. Not much of a chance to change the gender balance when departments don’t grow and no one leaves…

  2. February 2, 2014 11:58 pm

    Another paper on this topic:

  3. January 21, 2014 7:06 pm

    I suspect this is a problem endemic in the sciences. It would be useful to see a side-by-side comparison with similar surveys in other fields like physics, biology, and chemistry.

    Some quick googling suggests there isn’t much difference, and that in the culture of ever discipline in “hard science” there is bias that is less alienating to men:

    I recall from prior reading on this topic that the glass ceiling implied by the AAS survey—a larger percentage of female grad students than faculty—has persisted for longer than we should expect it to if it were simply a problem of needing to balance enrollment. I’d like to see a survey of current faculty, male and female, asking what hurdles they have faced in getting and keeping their jobs.

    • January 22, 2014 11:29 am

      From Nicolle: Thanks for your comments, Steve. You are correct in your suspicion that this is endemic. Off the top of my head, I seem to recall that (in the past), full female faculty (at the top-tiered institutions) was something like ~15% for Geology, <5% for Computer Science and Engineering (and Math?), ~15% for Physics, and ~30+% for Biology. Unfortunately, the links for the employment stats at are no longer working.

      Thanks also for your suggestion to survey faculty about their employment hurdles. I'll make a note of that.

      • January 22, 2014 11:34 am

        Hi again, this time a comment from me :). I have been asked to participate in a recent survey that AWIS (Association for Women in Science) is co-sponsoring. They asked a lot of questions aimed at trying to discern what some of the challenges are in the workplace. I do not know if they are only surveying women, or surveying women and men.

        The project that this survey is part of can be found here, and they have a lot of interesting resources and info:

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