Do media have to talk about family matters?
by Ann Finkbeiner
I have an assignment from a magazine to write a profile of a woman astronomer. I am delighted about this: the magazine is excellent, the editors are superb, and the woman astronomer is impressive. I did notice that the assignment came just before the magazine announced publicly it needs to redress its problem with a gender balance that favors males, and that both I and my profilee are suspiciously female. But I honestly don’t care. What I won’t do, however, is write about this astronomer as a woman.*
Not that I haven’t done that before: a while back, editors were commissioning one story after another about women in physics, women in astronomy, and I ran all over the place interviewing women physicists and astronomers about their careers in overwhelmingly (90 percent is a good rough number) male fields: what did they face, how did they deal with it.
I learned that sexual harrassment is frightening when the guy wanting your sexual attention is your advisor. I learned that feeling like the only leopard in the room is hard when the room is full of tigers. I learned that the obvious response to hearing that boys are better at math is to be better at math than boys are. I learned that seeing another woman doing what you want someday to do is heartening. I learned that marrying another scientist and then finding two rewarding jobs in the same city (“the two-body problem”) almost guarantees that the job one of you takes will be less than rewarding. And living on the other side of the continent from your spouse can be tenable for years. And being what one astronomer called a two-person, one-parent family is also tenable but wearing. I learned that in the arrogant and competitive culture of the physical sciences, you’d best learn what another astronomer called “jostling and hurling.” I learned that the motivation for being an astronomer regardless of the battles is that the stars and galaxies are so beautiful and their behavior so intricate and right.
I learned all that maybe 10 years ago. At the time, the fraction of tenured astronomers who were women was 7 percent. Now it’s 15 percent. Every institution hiring astronomers has policies, oversights, committees, whatever is necessary to assure gender equity. The American Astronomical Society has a Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy that’s active and current. But 15 percent is still pathetic. And a rigorous study by a prestigious outfit showed that underneath the ancient and stupid list of inequities – lower salaries, longer times before promotion, larger numbers in lower ranks, tiny numbers at the highest rank – is a completely unconscious judgment by men and women both that women just aren’t as good.
Ok fine I give up. The problem has been noticed, is being attended to, and isn’t going away any time soon because it’s deeply cultural. I mean, an essay titled “Why Bias Holds Women Back” by the chairman of astronomy at Yale (oh my, a woman!) is interrupted by a link about skinny models with a picture of a skinny model in a deck chair upside down and in a bikini. I don’t see any solution other than time and perseverance. Meanwhile I’m sick of writing about it; I’m bored silly with it. So I’m going to cut to the chase, close my eyes, and pretend the problem is solved; we’ve made a great cultural leap forward and the whole issue is over with.
And I’m going to write the profile of an impressive astronomer and not once mention that she’s a woman. I’m not going to mention her husband’s job or her child care arrangements or how she nurtures her students or how she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field. I’m not going to interview her women students and elicit raves about her as a role model. I’m going to be blindly, aggressively, egregiously ignorant of her gender.
I’m going to pretend she’s just an astronomer.
*Unless the editors badly want me to, then I will. But I won’t like it.
[This post originally appeared at the Last Word on Nothing blog.]