Genders of advisors and their students in our survey. These numbers are based on the 2959 students that 252 respondents reported they had advised over the past 5 years. The students are separated by education level (high school through postdoctoral) and gender (green for female, yellow for male), while the bar graphs indicate the fraction of students in each subgroup advised by a male or female (total numbers of students in each subgroup are listed outside each bar). The fraction of female students advised by female advisors decreases with later educational levels, as low as 26% at the postdoctoral level. Male students, on the other hand, are advised by male advisors 65-74% of the time.

I’m currently completing the write-up for a study Jacqueline Faherty and I did for the Women in Astronomy 2009 conference this past October, looking at perceptions of inappropriate behavior between students and advisors in astronomy (see the next blog post).  We polled 579 students, researchers, teachers, staff and other astronomy affiliates as part of an online survey to examine how perceptions of behavior change according to gender, age, professional status, etc.  Our results (when we’re finished writing them up!) will eventually be posted here.

In the course of analyzing the mounds of biographical data we collected from our respondents, there was one thing I realized we could look at: who is advising our female students? One of the issues that continually comes up in addressing the disparity in gender representation in professional astronomy is the problem that female students are less likely to have a female advisor.  I realized that with our survey data we could actually measure this, as we explicitly asked respondents who indicated that they were advisors how many students they had advised over the past five years, and what the genders of those students are.  By matching these statistics with the gender of the respondents, we get a measure of the gender match between students and advisors in astronomy overall.

The Numbers

The figure above shows this breakdown, separated by educational level of the student (high school, undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral researcher), their gender, and the gender of their advisor.   These results confirm our underlying suspicion: female students are not advised by female advisors nearly as often as male students are advised by male advisors.  As one progresses through the academic stages, this disparity gets worse, from 44.4% at high school to 26.0% at the postdoctoral level.  In contrast, 65-74% of male students are advised by male advisors at these educational levels.  So female students are less likely to have a same-gender advisor than a male student, and as such are more likely to face cross-gender issues.  An example of a cross-gender issue we found in our survey was that many common “grey area” situations are viewed to be more inappropriate in cross-gender student/advisor relationships than in same-gender relationships.  With fewer female advisors, female students are more likely to experience, and possibly be negatively judged on, these situations than their male counterparts.

We need more women faculty

Why does this happen?  Because there are simply fewer female astronomy advisors in academia than males; or more precisely, fewer women in faculty or staff positions that can advise any students.  We see this clearly in our sample – while overall we had just over 50% male respondents, the percentages change when we break the numbers down by professional status, as shown in the figure below. Among students, 54.1% were female and 45.9% were male; among academic faculty, 37.1% were female and 62.9% were male.  These statistics are well-known, and a reflection of what many consider to be a “leaky pipeline” in astronomy.

Percentage of survey respondents broken down by gender (female in green, male in yellow, transgender/intergender/other in blue) and professional position. Total numbers of respondents in each professional category are listed along the bottom. Undergraduate and graduate students who responded to the survey were mostly female, while postdocs, staff and academic faculty members were mostly male.

Indeed, our respondent numbers are actually better than contemporaneous accounts of the representation of women in astronomy, which indicate roughly 20-25% of professional astronomers are women, as opposed to 37.1% here.  We also noticed that the fraction of females students responding to our survey was higher than the fraction of female students reported by their advisors in the first figure above: 43.8% female versus 56.2% male overall, dropping to 38.6% and 61.4% at the postdoctoral level.  This discrepancy indicates that our respondent sample is probably biased toward more equal parity than what actually exists in astronomy (perhaps not surprising given that this work was presented at a Women in Astronomy conference), and that the actual fraction of female students advised by female advisors may be even lower.

Other links:

A Survey of Perceptions of Appropriate Behavior Between Students and Advisors in Astronomy:

Women in Astronomy 2009 conference page:

Women in Astronomy Blog:

AAS Committee on the Status of Women:

She is an Astronomer: