Girls and Women in German Astronomy

Today is Girls Day in Germany, where young girls can take part in events all over Germany to learn more about jobs in science, IT and technical professions. We have a whole host of things happening here on the MPIA campus, although somehow I am missing out on the part where we make cryogenic ice cream. Darn.

What I will not be telling teenage girls about is the paper published by Heidelberg (dot-)astronomer Janine Fohlmeister and Christiane Helling of St Andrews in Astronomische Nachrichten, and posted to astro-ph today (timing: coincidence?), on the career situation of female astronomers in Germany. The results presented are based on a survey taken by 61 female astronomers, based in Germany or German but based abroad. It’s a typically bleak read: no female Max Planck directors in Astronomy, leaky pipelines etc. I have a few issues with the survey, mostly that (i) the sample is really very small, and (ii) we can only really assess how work-life issues affect women specifically if we ask men the same questions. And the authors do also state that as a limitation.

They present lists of recommendations, which are also very sensible:

a motivating, encouraging, acknowledging boss/super- visor who was a good mentor and trusted in abilities, and who helped getting hands on excellent data and who introduced into networks
finding projects as well as self-motivation and working
having role models for different topics and life phases
attending and giving talks at conferences, colloquia and
successful applications for grants, observing time and
soft money
stays abroad and flexibility, and
colleagues who helped to advance.

although I’d argue these apply to both male and female PhD students alike. As a woman, you really need all the above, and a supervisor who respects you irrespective of gender and who will stick up for you when others don’t.

More salient are the anecdotes offered by women taking the survey of comments they’ve had directed at them by men. These made me laugh, but of course it’s really quite depressing.

1. General designation (unconscious or conscious prejudice):
1.1. I know you would like to work, but if all women would stay at home, we would have much less un- employment.
1.2. For a woman your seminar was good.
1.3. You must be the secretary.
1.4. Female scientists are more masculine than normal women.
1.5. Special programs for women discriminate men.
1.6. Good morning gentlemen.
1.7. Dear Sir.
1.8. Ha ha, that is the alibi/quota woman!

2. Women are not treated independently of their partner:
2.1.    The husband of this (female) applicant has a better position, so she does not need a job.
2.2.    Why you want more money? Your husband is working!
2.3.  Will you stop your PhD education now that you married?

3. Pressing into the mother-role:
3.1. You have a diploma [i.e., M.Sc. degree], why do you also want a PhD? Now you can go home and have children.
3.2. Women who give birth dont come back.
3.3. To a woman with children: The permanent position is for mister XY, he has to support his family.
3.4. She wouldn’t come anyway (for a job) due to the children.
3.5. It is better for the children if the mother stays at home.

If I had taken the survey (sorry!) I might have contributed a few classics from my own experience over the years. Sometimes these comments are meant the way they sound: nasty and prejudiced, but often they are said in good spirits or as a joke, and answering back creates more awkwardness than it’s worth. I just smile, mentally relive some noted scenes from Kill Bill, and toast my glass of wine to the morons of the world with friends later on.

But basically people: if there’s only one woman in the room, anything you say that singles her out as being different is a no-no. When in doubt, replace “woman” with “old guy”, “non-white person” or “disabled person” and if that feels wrong, just don’t go there.



  1. Awesome post Sarah. I recently tried to start up a campaign for more female astronomers on BBC Sky at Night.

    Regarding point 1.5: The “normal” programs discriminate against women, so I think to whine is pretty pathetic from some men.

    Regarding 3.5: It’s only better for those wishing to be conservative in their opinion of the family unit. Children need both parents, and children need ambitious hard-working parents so they too can see the merits of achieving their goals.


  2. @ Michael: No not all men are like this and it’s really important to state that. The vast majority of men AND women I meet through my work are really great, smart and supportive of colleagues irrespective of background or gender or whatever. I meet far more idiots outside of astronomy.

  3. I am one of the women that participated in the survey. Janine did have a hard time gathering enough women for this survey, I am sorry it didn’t reach you. I have worked both in Germany and in the US as a postdoc in astronomy.
    Broadly (and I do mean broadly and this is only from my experience, etc. etc.) men in Germany are the people with the “klutzy” answers mostly brought up out of ignorance. But what is the saddest is the discrimination or pressure brought up by WOMEN in this context.
    When I mentioned I went back to work slowly, part time, but right back a month after giving birth, I garnered most criticism from women in Germany – not in the “how could you do that?”, but in the “wow, *I* would never do that!” accompanied with a frowny face. When I suggested a lactation/pumping room (area), people looked at me strangely as to why that would be even relevant.
    I can only emphasize the mentoring aspect and I do hope to be an example that being a mother and an astronomer is compatible, achievable while being successful in both.

  4. Thanks Tanya! I suspect it’s my own fault the survey passed me by – I was pretty swamped at this point in time. Yes it’s good to remember that insensitive or derogatory comments don’t come from men alone. And my experience is like yours re. some men being a bit klutzy on this point – that’s why it’s usually not worth getting annoyed over…

  5. @Sarah Absolutely. One point is, what is the opinion of yourself when you see four astronomers on the BBC all of which are men (Sir Patrick, Paul, Peter Lawrence and Chris North + Chris Lintott), is it not bias against this because surely this can not be the case?

  6. Correction: against *women, apologies for the terrible use of words! And by case, I mean the state of genders in science, and astronomy, in the research community. Would you say the old ways of doing things are changing?

  7. @ Michael – well, having not lived in the UK for several years now I don’t get to watch S@N very often; I didn’t grow up in the UK either. I agree that perhaps female scientists should be more visible in the media, but I’m not sure S@N is a particularly bad offender. They have lots of women guests (I’ve been on it!) and the presenters are great. On the balance of things, S@N have done, and continue to do, a wonderful job popularising astronomy in the UK.

  8. Oh yeh, absolutely. I’m not saying they are deliberately pushing a macho agenda or that they’re not popularising astronomy well, it’s just they need to show the audience that science is not just for boys: and they need to have more female astronomers on there. Astronomy really does have a stigma attached to it, even I find myself going “ah, a female astrophysics student (or words to that effect), that’s pretty cool”. And by saying that, I’m falling into the traps that you have listed! But yes, remedy the situation with more female astronomers on the front line. That’s just my opinion of course.

    P.S. That’s also so awesome that you’ve been on S@N! I did not know this! :) Haha, excellent.


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