Women in Astronomy: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going!

As a woman, immigrant, astronomer, and CEO of the American Association for Variable Star Observers, I’ve experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of being a woman in a field that isn’t representative of myself. As a woman in a position of power in STEM, I’ve dedicated much of my energy to ensuring that future generations of young women are empowered and inspired to join the scientific community (particularly in a career in astronomy, but I guess I am a bit biased). For future generations of women to feel comfortable embracing a career in STEM, we must pave the way for them to pursue their personal and professional aspirations in a society that respects and appreciates their contribution. We also need to provide appropriate support in their practical challenges balancing their work and personal life without guilt or sacrifice. 

Where We Began

The history of the AAVSO, specifically how it has to do with women and gender inequalities, is quite interesting. The AAVSO was formed out of Harvard College Observatory in 1911 to coordinate variable star observations for observatory Director Edward Pickering. William Tyler Olcott, an amateur astronomer, regularly sent Pickering his variable star observations after hearing Pickering discuss variable stars at a talk. In June of 1911, Pickering published a list of variable stars that needed to be observed and people he thought would be interested in taking part. This moment is often referred to as the embryo of the AAVSO, as Olcott and his other amateur astronomer colleagues began observing and submitting their findings to help advance Pickering’s research. 

However what’s notable about this time is the volume of women working in Pickering’s observatory that lack the acknowledgement that Pickering and Olcott receive for their role in facilitating variable star observations. This 2013 piece in Smithsonian magazine takes a deep dive into these discrepancies, but for the sake of context, I would say this excerpt sums it up nicely:

So began an era in Harvard Observatory history where women—more than 80 during Pickering’s tenure, from 1877 to his death in 1919— worked for the director, computing and cataloging data. Some of these women would produce significant work on their own; some would even earn a certain level of fame among followers of female scientists. But the majority are remembered not individually but collectively, by the moniker Pickering’s Harem.”

While this represents a time when women were still largely expected to be homemakers and housewives, it helps set the stage for decades worth of inequities in the sciences. Though some may argue that Pickering was progressive for hiring women in the first place, he also “reinforced the era’s common assumption that women were cut out for little more than secretarial tasks.” These women worked six days a week, only earning 25 to 50 cents an hour–half of what a man would have earned. 

It turns out that access to data resulted in critical discoveries in astronomy by “Pickering’s computers” (as these women were called at the time). Annie Jump Cannon devised a system to classify stars widely used today. While studying variable stars, Henrietta Leavitt discovered a technique to measure distances in the universe (what is now known as Leavitt’s law) and showed that the universe is expanding. Their work also paved the road for further statistical analyses of data, leading to key discoveries in astronomy: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s work showcased that the sun’s atmosphere is mostly hydrogen. This led to a Ph.D. in Astronomy, albeit from Harvard’s affiliate female institution, Radcliffe College, since women were not accepted at Harvard at the time.

Where We Are Now

When I arrived at the AAVSO in 2015, over a century after Pickering’s computers spent countless hours cataloging data for half a man’s pay, I felt a sense of significant growth and stagnation all at once. I am immensely proud of the data collection the AAVSO had accomplished in advancing science, the contribution of private telescopes to scientific discovery and progress, and the passion and enthusiasm of the AAVSO community to explore the universe. I quickly became aware that citizen science was not diverse: the most recent demographic study revealed that 92% of respondents identified as male. AAVSO meetings were dominated 98% by older white male individuals. This is not unique to the AAVSO; amateur astronomy is very male dominated. Variable star astronomy that has no borders, that inspires our imagination and creativity, that explores the most dynamic phenomena in the universe, lacks diversity and the relevant enrichment from a broad range of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. And yet, our mission is as inclusive as it gets; it is to “enable anyone, anywhere to participate in scientific discovery through variable star astronomy.” 

For the progress and healthy future of the AAVSO – and citizen science – it was critical to diversify our membership base. When encouraging citizen science from amateur astronomers, I wanted people to know the AAVSO was a safe space for everyone to contribute to research. But when you enter a room where nobody looks like you, it’s a hard sell. 

Thus I began my journey to diversify the AAVSO. To do so, I knew I had to implement new programs to the organization upon my arrival. As female scientists, it’s widely known that our work is less frequently cited than our male colleagues. For further information on this topic, this 2017 article in the Atlantic articulates it well. As it states from a historical context, women’s research has been cited approximately 10 percent less than men’s research in the last several decades. This was the case at the AAVSO as well, with our Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (JAAVSO). Upon my arrival, I helped spearhead and implement the double-blind peer review process for the JAAVSO. This double-blind process ensures that the reviewer and the manuscript authors remain completely anonymous to one another. This way,  JAAVSO content is reviewed solely on merit and any intrinsic biases by the reviewer are eliminated.  

In addition to increasing female membership and participation, I also knew that to create a more diverse community within the AAVSO, it was crucial to attract younger members, providing a fresh perspective and cultivate the association’s leadership of the future. To that direction, I launched an international ambassador program, aiming to provide young people from all backgrounds their own space and opportunities within the AAVSO community, showcasing the value and promise of the young entrepreneurs in astronomy. Interestingly, this group primarily comprises young women enrolled in science programs on college campuses across the globe. As AAVSO ambassadors, these young scientists conduct research, engage in outreach and science communication, launch their own projects and overall represent the AAVSO in their communities. These women and men have been some of our most vocal advocates to date, encouraging their peers to join the AAVSO to enrich their coursework and join a community where they can make real contributions to scientific research. Like attracts like.

Aside from my direct work at the AAVSO, I sit on numerous committees to help improve the diversity and overall female presence in astronomy, both in the professional realm and in citizen science. This is something I encourage other young scientists to do as well, as it helps them network and connect with like-minded individuals and move the needle forward. While we’ve come quite a ways since the days of Pickering’s computers, there is still much work to be done. But what a privilege it is to be able to do it. 

We still have a long way to go. But we need to keep pushing forward to support our peers, encourage and empower our students, and showcase the value of diversity in science. I hope that our successors will work in more equitable environments, that we won the major battles for them, and that all individuals can breathe the fresh air of being equally respected and valued as partners and contributors in science. And finally realize the mission of the AAVSO to “enable anyone anywhere to participate in science”. An aspiration for life!

For questions about joining the AAVSO or to take advantage of our free resources, visit us here.