For One Astronomer, a Solar Eclipse Illuminates Progress for Women in the Field

August 11, 2017

Courtesy of Debra Elmegreen
Debra Elmegreen, an astronomer at Vassar, will be flying to Kansas City with her husband to see the eclipse "like everyone else."

On August 21, as a total solar eclipse cuts a horizontal stripe across the center of the country, millions of Americans will get a deeply spiritual lesson in humanity’s eternal nature.

For some university astronomers, it will also be a welcome reminder that important things in their lives can change, if not quite as fast as they might like.

Back in 1878, as a previous solar eclipse neared, the U.S. government agreed to fund a few teams of scientists to travel west to the predicted path of totality — a vertical band, stretching from the Montana Territory to Texas, across which the sun was completely obscured — and conduct various studies of it.

But the government only financed trips by men. Professor Maria Mitchell of Vassar College, already a globally recognized astronomer known for an 1847 comet discovery, was turned down.

In 2017, it’s a much different world for Ms. Mitchell’s successors. Debra M. Elmegreen, the astronomy professor holding the Maria Mitchell chair at Vassar, is also chair of Vassar’s physics and astronomy department, a vice president of the International Astronomical Union, and a past president of the American Astronomical Society. And across her profession, Ms. Elmegreen says, diversity and inclusion are gradually becoming the norm.

Still, there’s significant room for improvement. One of the most striking recent examples involved the University of California at Berkeley, where a renowned astronomy professor, Geoffrey W. Marcy, resigned in 2015 after complaints that he engaged in a decade-long pattern of sexually harassing female students. A survey that year found that only 29 percent of the women in Berkeley’s astronomy department who responded agreed that department’s climate was "healthy with respect to gender/gendered issues."

And an online nationwide survey published last month by Kathryn B.H. Clancy, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found significant numbers of female astronomers still encountering harassing behaviors. Ms. Clancy’s survey tallied 474 responses from astronomers and planetary scientists between 2011 and 2015, with 40 percent of women saying they sometimes or often experienced sexist remarks from peers and 21 percent reporting sexist remarks from supervisors. Also among survey participants, 40 percent of black women and 27 percent of white women said they felt unsafe in their current career position due to gender; 28 percent of black women felt unsafe in their current position due to race; and 88 percent of academics, students, postdoctoral researchers, and administrators in astronomy and planetary science reported hearing, experiencing, or witnessing negative language or harassment relating to race, gender, or other physical characteristics at work in the previous five years.

“We're just going to be awestruck, ... just watching the shadow run across the land.”
Ms. Mitchell’s generations-old experience with those actions and attitudes is now gaining wider attention in the run-up to this month’s eclipse, thanks to a book published last month. American Eclipse, by David Baron, describes how Ms. Mitchell responded to the government’s snub by organizing her own low-budget expedition of female scientists to Colorado to study the solar spectacular.

Ms. Elmegreen enjoyed Mr. Baron’s account, and she is among those who are also setting out this month to find a viewing spot along the path of totality. While the sun is not her professional object of study — she’s an expert on galaxies and star formation — she’s flying to Kansas City with her husband to take it all in "like everyone else."

"We’re just going to be awestruck, like the feelings that came through so well in the book, just watching the shadow run across the land," she said.

Looking ahead to that moment, Ms. Elmegreen described for The Chronicle how the path toward diversity in her profession that was plowed by Ms. Mitchell is largely blossoming 139 years later. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. As the holder of the Maria Mitchell chair at Vassar, what did you already know about her 1878 trip?

A. I’ve heard a lot about it in bits and pieces. I thought the book captured the spirit of adventure and how rare it was for women to do something like that.

Q. How are women in your field treated today?

A. As the University of Illinois survey shows, discrimination is not a new story. I’ve never personally experienced these things, but I’ve certainly heard from a number of women who have. The good thing is there’s an awareness of it now like there never has been before. People are openly talking about it, and in departments we’re seeing an inclusive mind, and not just for women but for all minorities.

In the International Astronomical Union, it’s only about 15 percent women worldwide, as it’s mostly an older crowd. In the American Astronomical Society, it’s probably about 20 percent women, but when you get to the younger ranks it’s about 30 percent for assistant professors and nearly 50 percent for women entering graduate school. So as more and more women get into this field, that alone will help the environment.

Q. Is there anything about astronomy that would make improvements lag behind those in other fields?

A. I don’t know that it’s lagging behind others, and I’d be surprised if that’s true. We have more women in astronomy than in physics, and more than in computer science, though a lot less than in biology. I think it’s just the nature of disciplines. It’s not even harassment issues, not discrimination issues, that have prevented women from going in. I think it’s just the nature of the fields.

Q. Nature of the fields? You mean astronomy is somehow intrinsically less attractive?

A. Well, yes, there certainly have been studies — and you don’t want to generalize — but physical sciences are different than the biological sciences. They historically have not appealed to women as much.

Go back to Maria Mitchell’s day. In Civil War times, there weren’t women’s colleges. And then Vassar came along at the start of higher education for women. So I think it wasn’t natural for women in the U.S. to be pursuing physical sciences, because there wasn’t that kind of training.

“Physical sciences are different than the biological sciences. They historically have not appealed to women as much.”
Once Maria Mitchell arrived at Vassar, and all the women who first came to Vassar took astronomy, suddenly they were introduced to a whole new world, both figuratively and literally.

And then what did they do? There weren’t opportunities, which is why the women became either the next director of the college observatory, or they worked at Yale or Harvard. Those were the opportunities for women then. They became the data analysts, or the "human computers," who were assigned tasks that were very tedious.

In fact there were more women working in astronomy than men at Harvard at the start of the 1900s. There were a lot of underpaid and overworked women who really loved working on variable stars and that sort of thing. It was just a new field opening up.

Q. What’s your own eclipse history?

A. This will be my first total solar eclipse. I was in high school when there was a 97-percent solar eclipse in Virginia [March 7, 1970], and I thought, 97 percent sounds pretty good. But I was 100 miles from total, and I didn’t know that you couldn’t see shadow bands unless there was totality. So I’m excited now to look for shadow bands.

Q. What is going on at Vassar that day?

A. It will just be 70 percent at Vassar. Our seniors who run the observatory for the public are not back yet, and that’s the day the freshmen move in, and so the dean asked me what we were doing for the eclipse, and wondered if we would be impacted. I said that with a 70-percent eclipse, nobody is going to notice it if they don’t know about it. But we’re giving all of our freshmen glasses so they can look up and see a partial eclipse.

Q. So nothing specific to honor Maria Mitchell?

A. Not that day. Every year for Maria Mitchell, we still have Dome Parties in the observatory. In terms of Maria’s legacy, the main thing was that she got students involved: She never wanted them to just learn something from the books, she wanted them to go out and measure and observe. And that’s something we take to heart at Vassar today. Sciences are not just book subjects; they’re subjects where you’re really exploring. And that’s what Maria did so well.

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at paul.basken@chronicle.com.