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RAS PN09/39 (NAM26): She is an Astronomer project launched to tackle gender issues in Astronomy

Last Updated on Monday, 29 March 2010 15:46
Published on Tuesday, 21 April 2009 00:00
siaa2_small.jpgThe 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:


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:

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.


THE EUROPEAN WEEK OF ASTRONOMY AND SPACE SCIENCE More than 1000 astronomers and space scientists will gather at the University of Hertfordshire for the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS), incorporating the 2009 Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting (RAS NAM 2009) and the European Astronomical Society Joint Meeting (JENAM 2009). The meeting runs from 20th to 23rd April 2009.

EWASS is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial Physics (MIST) meetings. The conference includes scientific sessions organised by the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA).

EWASS is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield.


The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

Helen Walker
Chair of SIAA International Cornerstone Project STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Harwell Science and Innovation Campus
Didcot Oxon OX11 0QX UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1235 446 490
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.