Imbalance

Last week, some tweets during the BBC's Stargazing Live got me to thinking about the demographics of astronomers.

The tweets I saw were about the "Down To Earth" shows being dominated by men (typically 2 male hosts, 2 male guests and 1 female guest). Aside from the fact I hated people using the word "token" (which has negative connotations about ability) to describe the individuals who were experts in their respective fields, the under-representation of women in science and technology shows does need to be addressed. First some stats.

As in many fields, women are under-represented in astronomy. The UK membership of the IAU was 12.6% female in 2012. IAU membership quite possibly has a bias towards certain age groups so I found the Royal Astronomical Society figures for those in permanent jobs. At the senior professor level, in 2010, only 7% were women. That's rubbish. This goes up to 28% amongst lecturers. Weighting the RAS figures by the number of people employed at each level gives ~20% of those in permanent positions as women. STFC says that in 2009 28% of astronomy PhD students were female (44% in solar system science!).

You'd hope that the imbalance was down to the senior people having come from a less equal time, and that equality would percolate up, but the picture seems more complicated. The fraction of women to men may actually drop as you go to younger groups. The Institute of Physics shows that only 20% of A-Level physics students are female (age 16-18). The split is pretty similar for those starting university degrees (Graph 5). However, these may be an unfair comparison as physics probably has a poorer gender split than astronomy.

I don't like this imbalance and know that, like everyone, I have a bunch of unconscious (and conscious) biases. Do I help perpetuate the imbalance in things I'm involved with? I helped create a regular astronomy podcast in 2006, and was the chief producer from 2009 to the middle of 2010, so I thought I'd compile some statistics to see. From two listener surveys I knew that the listeners were dominated by men (~85-90%) as are subscribers to Sky And Telescope (95% in 2013). What of the show itself? I've been through the show notes from January 2006 to December 2012 to work it out.

The main part of the show is usually given over to an interview with an astronomer. In total, 362 people were interviewed. Episode-by-episode the gender split varies hugely so I've binned the interviewees by year to look for trends. There is some natural variation from year-to-year but it seems to broadly reflect the imbalance in the professional community with just over 21% being female.

Jodcast Interviewees
Gender split amongst interviewees on the Jodcast 2006-2012 CREDIT: Stuart
The next thing to look at are the rest of the voices on the show; the presenters. For "presenters" I included those reading the news, describing the night sky, answering astronomy questions, interviewing, and those providing the links between items. I didn't include people who appeared in the intro/outro skits. On average this works out as just over 5 presenters per episode but can be as many as 10 (particularly during conference-based episodes). I'm also counting appearances rather than individuals. As before, the episode-by-episode gender split varies hugely as is depends who is able to help out for a particular show. So, here are the results binned per year:

Jodcast Interviewees
Gender split amongst show presenters on the Jodcast 2006-2012 CREDIT: Stuart
There are a few things you'll notice. Firstly, the split got worse in 2007. This was when the show split into 2 monthly shows; although the presenters stayed the same, the distribution of appearances changed. In 2009 I made a concerted effort to bring in as many of the new PhD students as I could to distribute the effort amongst a wider pool of people. In the long term this reduced the workload per person and, it seems, made it more balanced with far more people getting to learn new skills and participate. I handed over the reins in mid-2010 and I've been really happy with my successors. In fact I've been very lucky to work with a great bunch of students and postdocs over that time.

Back to Stargazing and I think we do need more female scientists on TV. This shouldn't have to mean fewer male scientists either; let's increase the overall number of scientists. It isn't just the responsibility of TV producers though. The onus is also on early-career scientists to build their confidence with things like science communication courses and by getting involved with outreach. Hopefully the future will have more variety.

Update (19:31): Just after I posted this I noticed I'd had a reply from the examining body for the G.C.S.E astronomy exam. The EdExcel stats (page 5) show that 40% of those taking the course are female and 60% male. The course is entirely optional and I know that some fraction of the people taking it are A-Level students or older.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 15th Jan 2013 (19:28 GMT) | Permalink
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