RAS PN09/39 (NAM26): FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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‘She Is An Astronomer’ Project Launched To Tackle Misconceptions And Gender Issues In Astronomy And Science
The number of women reaching senior positions in astronomy is still disproportionately small, despite significant increases in numbers of female undergraduate and postgraduate students in recent years. To highlight some of the issues facing women during their careers in astronomy, the International Year of Astronomy 2009 has developed a Cornerstone Project, ‘She is an Astronomer’, which will be launched today at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science at the University of Hertfordshire.
“Approximately a quarter of all professional astronomers are women, although there is wide geographical diversity, with some countries having none and other countries having more than 50% female professional astronomers. However, in all countries, these numbers drop towards more senior levels, suggesting that scientific careers are heavily affected by social and cultural factors, and are not determined solely by ability,” said Dr Helen Walker, the Chair of the international ‘She is an Astronomer’ project.
A series of UK studies organised by the Royal Astronomical Society has shown that although the number of female astronomy postgraduates had jumped from 5% in 1992 to 35% in 2003, the percentage of professors had increased by only one percent from 2% to 3% in the same period.
“As part of ‘She is an Astronomer’, we are in the process of interviewing women from all over the world at all stages in their careers and everywhere follows the same pattern at the highest levels,” said Dr Walker. “Although most of the women that we have interviewed have not felt that they have experienced discrimination on a personal level, all report that women are under-represented in their institution, except for one case where an active diversity policy has been pursued.”
Lord Drayson, the UK Minister for Science and Innovation who attended the European Week of Science and Technology yesterday, said, “I thoroughly support the ‘She is an Astronomer’ project. We need to ensure there are no limits to the boundaries of space research and that there are opportunities for all working in this exciting field."
Through a website and a series of meetings and workshops around the world, ‘She is an Astronomer’ aims to collect and disseminate statistics and information that can be used as quantitative, factual data to back up future discussions on gender equality in astronomy. 'She is an Astronomer' also aims to raise some of the issues that are of common concern to women working in the field and present solutions to tackle them, identifying and sharing best practice techniques. The website includes profiles women currently working in astronomy and highlights the historical contribution that women have made to expanding our knowledge of the Universe.
“This drain of women at higher levels is a waste of resources, not least in terms of the financial investment in their training. It is in the interest of all societies to ensure that the factors hampering women from reaching the top or causing them to leave scientific careers are addressed. I think that the Royal Society of Chemistry’s report on best practice summed this up particularly well: “Both men and women benefit from good practice; however, women in particular are adversely affected by bad practice'”. We hope that ‘She is an Astronomer’ will be able to spread best practice and we will see real gender equality in the future,” said Dr Walker.
The promotion of equality and the empowerment of women is one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
‘She is an Astronomer’ website: http://www.sheisanastronomer.org
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NOTES FOR EDITORS
International Year of Astronomy
The International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) is a global effort initiated by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and UNESCO to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the Universe through the day- and night-time sky, and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery. The International Year of Astronomy 2009 is supported by eleven Cornerstone projects, including ‘She is an Astronomer’. These are global programmes of activities centred on specific themes and are some of the projects that will help to achieve IYA2009's main goals.
IYA2009 website: http://www.astronomy2009.org
The International Astronomical Union
The IAU is the international astronomical organisation that brings together almost 10 000 distinguished astronomers from all nations of the world. Its mission is to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects through international cooperation. The IAU also serves as the internationally recognised authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and the surface features on them. Founded in 1919, the IAU is the world's largest professional body for astronomers.
Chair of SIAA International Cornerstone Project
STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
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