A biased opinion on gender bias

Men can even acknowledge their advantages in the astronomical community but it is uncomfortable to give them up

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Mar 07, 2019

During the introductory speech at the last meeting I attended, the male convenor shared some wise words about gender balance and the need for it in view of the forthcoming International Women's Day. I think the whole audience nodded. The conference went on and three male speakers gave their invited talks. At that point, I had seen only one woman - the session chair - on stage.

It is not easy or comfortable to recognise male privilege. Most people within the astronomical community think of themselves as very smart and if some success is achieved they think they are very worthy of it.

I recently applied for a position. This is just a personal experience and it is not statistically or sociologically significant. All the applicants showing at the final interview were well prepared. Out of 11 applicants, four were female. The two positions were offered to a male and a woman. This looks quite balanced, but it still worries me that we might think that a bit short of one half is enough.

Children like the starry sky. Pretty much everyone likes the starry sky. This is very balanced. However, in most astronomical faculties the majority of first-year students are male [statistics in Bologna, Italy]. In most competitions, the majority of applicants are male. At some point during their life, some smart girls stopped to pursue their astronomical interest.

Recently, Greg Popovich, coach of the NBA team San Antonio Spurs, pondered about racism in the United States. “We still have no clue of what being born white means,” he said. “It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. And you’ve got that kind of a lead because, yes, you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there. And they have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years. [...] There has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change, whether it’s the LGBT movement, or women’s suffrage, race, it doesn’t matter.”

Racism is not gender discrimination, astronomy is not basketball, but I think the same applies to my line of work too. As grown-ups it can be difficult to see the problem. We think of colleagues as scientists, not as female or male scientists. Astronomers are usually very well prepared and hard-working. Competitions are won by candidates who fit the panel criteria regardless of gender. This is comfortable, but there are more uncomfortable elements behind. Retrograde thinking persists in some areas but it is becoming rarer and rarer.

As a male astronomer, I had an easier path. I won that position I applied for. But as far as I cannot be sure that at some point of their life an astronomical hopeful was systemically, culturally, or psychologically discouraged to pursue her dreams based on gender, I have to say that I won a fixed competition.

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Mauro Sereno

Researcher, INAF-OAS Bologna

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