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Diminished By Discrimination We Scarcely See

I have no problem with any of these choices. What troubles me, though, is that I rarely saw men making them, especially the choice to stay home with kids. I think some women use "family" as an excuse to leave science when science actually drives them away.

This is a huge loss for our country -- these women PhDs are some of the best scientists we train. We need their talent.

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In my field, physics and astronomy, women still make up a small percentage of active scientists -- about 7 percent of physics faculty are female and about 12 percent of astronomers. Those percentages are increasing, but slowly. So I grew up with almost no women professors. When I first heard of Beatrice Tinsley -- who came to the United States in 1964 from New Zealand with a master's in physics, created an entire sub-field of astronomy, finished her thesis under adverse circumstances and by all accounts was an incredible person -- I felt the kind of relief that a child raised by wolves must feel when she first sees a human being.

Physics has fewer women than other scientific disciplines. I think it may be because physics is more hierarchical, more aggressive than other areas. ("Combat physics," a friend of mine calls it.) Physicists act as if they are better and smarter than everyone else. The standard for excellence is to be the best in the world -- and that seems pretty boastful to polite girls raised not to brag.

When I expressed ambition, though, I sometimes got put back down. I suggested I was ready to be tenured -- "Be patient, Meg, it's too early for you." I mentioned I was interested in a high-level national committee -- "Isn't that a bit ambitious, Meg?" I expressed interest in a promotion: "You're not a leader, no one would follow you."

Social scientists like Virginia Valian of Hunter College have developed a lot of evidence showing that women and men are treated and evaluated differently. Yet physicists reject the possibility that scientists are not objective. I learned about the lack of objectivity the hard way -- through experience.

On hiring committees or tenure and promotion committees I served on, we'd evaluate men and women, and somehow the women seldom came out on top. They were "good," even "very good" but the men were always better. Some of this was caused by letters of recommendation. Every woman was always compared to other women, as if every woman scientist is female first and a scientist second. Also, women's letters were somehow more pedestrian -- the candidate "works hard" and she "has a nice personality," "gets along well with others." Once you see the patterns, you realize that these evaluations reflect people's expectations more than reality.

As I got more educated about the abundant social science research, I got more frustrated: The answers were there, if only physicists and astronomers would read the literature. So I made it easier. I organized conferences to talk about these issues. We held that first conference on Women in Astronomy in 1992 and wrote the Baltimore Charter, a kind of manifesto for change (www.stsci.edu/stsci/meetings/WiA/BaltoCharter.html). In 2003 we organized a second meeting, from which the Pasadena Recommendations have just been produced (www.aas.org/cswa/).

It's been slow, but we've made progress, and we're making a difference. More young women are flocking to science every year. It's a great life, after all, doing something you love, having control of your time, being paid pretty well.

And, however slowly, the barriers women face are being abraded. The American Astronomical Society and American Physical Society, my professional organizations, have been immensely forward thinking. As for me, Yale hired me with tenure four years ago and treats me wonderfully. My science has never been better. I bet some people say I got this job because I'm female. But now that I've been around awhile, I'm finally able to say, confidently, that I'm really great at this job. I'm lucky to be here at Yale, yes, but even more, they are really lucky to have me. The doubt is finally going away.

Author's e-mail: meg.urry@yale.edu

Meg Urry is a professor of physics and the director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.


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