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The Issue Of Women In Astronomy

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Beginning with the invention of the telescope over 400 years ago, the field of astronomy hasprogressed rapidly, allowing humans to see distant celestial objects and study these to develop adeep understanding of the structure and evolution of the universe. Many notable astronomers havebeen crucial in the development of their field. However, very few of these have been women. InAustralia, just 15.3% of people forming the International Astronomical Union (IAU) are female (1), and only 33% of astronomy bachelor degrees in 2017 were obtained by women (2). Despite thesesmall numbers, female astronomers have been critical in contributing to expanding catalogues anddeveloping revolutionary ideas and as such are an underrated minority in the astronomical field.Notable female astronomers include Caroline Herschel, who assisted in the discovery of severalnew celestial objects including Uranus, Wang Zhenyi, who explained lunar eclipses and calculatedthe precession of equinoxes, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who developed techniques to determinethe distance to variable stars (3). These women paved the way for their gender’s acceptance asscholars and scientists in the society of their time (1) and they continue to be notable icons lookedup to by women today.2 Caroline HerschelCaroline Herschel is one of the most highly decorated female astronomers. She was the first womanto be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and inducted as an honorarymember (3).

Herschel worked closely with her brother, William Herschel, to discover many newobjects, including Uranus. Although William’s name is remembered as the ’father of modernastronomy’, Caroline was in integral part of his work. It was Caroline who created the New GeneralCatalogue with their observations, and she also made her own discoveries, including 8 comets,recorded in her book;Book of Observations(3). Astronomers today still use the NGC number ofmany celestial objects, and this is all thanks to Caroline Herschel’s careful documentation.Beginning life as the household help of the family under careful instruction by her mother,Caroline was taught domestic chores, such as sewing and embroidery (4). At the age of 22,Caroline Herschel escaped this tedious lifestyle, following her brother William to England. There,she initially trained as a singer, but soon found joy in William’s passion of astronomy. Afterinitially assisting William with his work, Caroline began to diverge and study the skies by herself(4).After assisting her brother to discover the planet Uranus, William was offered the position ofRoyal Court Astronomer, and Caroline was appointed as his assistant. She was offered a fixedsalary of£50 per year for her work, making her the first professional female astronomer (4).Continuing her research, Caroline herself discovered eight comets, fourteen nebulae, and countlessstars, all of which she compiled in her catalogue, the NGC (3). Later in her life, she became thefirst woman to be honored with the golden medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the firstto receive the golden medal of the Prussian Academy of Sciences (4).Caroline Herschel is a strong figure in the world of astronomy, accomplishing great feats thatmost male astronomers could only dream of. She defied countless stereotypes of her day andchallenged the path envisioned for her from birth. Her resistance to the norm and desire to followher passion defined her as a leader for both female astronomers of her time, and those studying inthe modern day.

Wang ZhenyiWang Zhenyi was an outstanding female astronomer from the Qing dynasty, China. She breachedthe federal customs of the time which hindered women’s education, and worked tirelessly to educateherself in sciences such as astronomy, mathematics and medicine. She was an extraordinarilyintelligent women known for her contributions in these fields. In astronomy, she is credited withthe description of the movement of equinoxes and wrote various articles disputing common beliefsthat she proved to be inaccurate (3).Born into a family of academics in 1768, Wang Zhenyi learnt basic mathematics, medicine,geography, astronomy and poetry from her three family members; her grandmother, grandfather,and father. Her passion and aptitude for astronomy came from her grandfather who owned manybooks on the subject that Zhenyi was keen on reading (3). At age 16, Zhenyi began to studyadvanced mathematics and astronomy by herself, associating and developing her ideas with otherfemale scholars (5).Zhenyi has written at least 12 books, mostly on mathematics, but with a few on astronomy (6).Her astronomical works include ”Dispute of the Procession of the Equinoxes, explaining the move-ment of equinoxes and disputing previous ideas,Dispute of Longitude and Stars, which commentson the number of stars and the revolving direction of the sun, moon and the planets, and The Explanation of a Lunar Eclipse, analysing the movement of the moon and describing eclipses. Herideas in these papers were extraordinary and allowed her to correctly demonstrate the occurrenceof a lunar eclipse which at the time was thought to have been caused by the gods.

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In one famous exhibit, Zhenyi used a lamp to represent the sun, a mirror to represent the moon, and a table forthe earth (5), (6). Using this set-up, she was able to accurately simulate a lunar eclipse, somethingthat awed even the highest-level astronomers (5), (6).Wang Zhenyi became a famous teacher, despite being self-taught. She even taught male stu-dents, something unheard of for a woman of her time (6). Zhenyi inspired many further generationsof Chinese women to pursue this discipline, being a huge inspiration for some of her pupils. De-spite only living to 29, Zhenyi allowed many to see what a woman could achieve in this primarilymale-dominated field, and in a society of female oppression. To this day, she is credited with someof the most amazing ideas in astronomy.4 Henrietta Swan LeavittHenrietta Swan Leavitt was a female computer at the University of Harvard, where women werepayed less than men and were not allowed to operate any of the University’s telescopes (7). Leavittwas tasked with analysing data from Cephid variable stars, observing that in general, brighterstars had longer periods of variability in brightness. This allowed her to determine the distancesof these stars and create a 3 dimensional map of the universe (7). Her observations, however, wereoverlooked and she never received the true credit that her work deserved (3).Leavitt attended a college for women in the United States and followed an interest in astronomydeveloped there in her senior year. She became a volunteer assistant at Harvard University andseven years later was offered permanent employment in the observatory’s project to determine thebrightness of stars (8). Initially she was a computer, cataloguing variable stars and analysing data(7), (8).From her analysis, Leavitt found that brighter variable stars generally had longer periods offluctuation. Her curiosity pushed her to take a deeper look into the data, and she studied a sampleof variable stars that were all in roughly the same location (7). From these observations that wereapproximately the same distance from earth, she could determine that the stars with a longerperiod had a greater absolute magnitude. This allowed her to form a three dimensional map of thesky as she was able to determine the relative distances to variable stars based on their period andapparent brightness (7). She then remarked that one would only need to calculate the distance toone close variable star using the parallax method to essentially calibrate the system and turn herpicture of “near or far” into a complete map with marked distances (7).

Throughout her time at the Harvard Observatory, Henrietta Leavitt had completely determinedmagnitudes for stars in 108 areas of the sky. She also discovered 4 novas and approximately 2400variables stars, more than half of those known at the time (8). Her system remained in general use in Astronomyfor many years, even being used by Edwin Hubble to determine the distance to the great nebulain Andromeda, the first distance measurement for a galaxy. Improved technology was eventuallyinvented which was able to determine stellar distances with greater accuracy (8). However, Leavitt’swork was crucial in our understanding of the universe at the time.Leavitt was a revolutionary, yet underrated figure of female astronomy. Her work allowed usto begin to study the sky in three dimensions and develop a deeper understanding of the universe.Although she never got acknowledgement for her extraordinary achievements at the time, Leavitt’sideas are gaining recognition by modern astronomers who understand the crucial role that her workplayed in our modern understanding of the night sky. Because of this, she is one of the most famousfemale astronomers, and she continues to be an inspiration to those young aspiring astronomerstoday.

The Current Situation for Female AstronomersIt is clear that the number of women pursuing a career in astronomy is severely lacking, as withmost other scientific fields. This is generally attributed to the male-dominated society of the past,where it was practically unheard of for women to pursue a scientific career, let alone undertake anystudy at university. Men were believed to be superior and much more intelligent in scientific fields,a bias still held by many to this day. Recently, the high-school stereotypical misconception thatonly ’nerdy, unpopular girls’ undertake study in scientific fields has also significantly contributedto the gender gap. Girls face these stereotypes when making decisions on their subject choices atschool and feel pressured to push away from those scientific subjects they may find interesting,towards the generally feminine subjects, such as English or art.These gender biases are declining in modern times, however research shows that beliefs aboutnegative stereotypes continue to subconsciously influence assumptions about people and behavior.I believe that in the future, the number of female astronomers will increase. However, this willtake time as we as a society digress further from the gender stereotypes, and women feel moreaccepted as part of the scientific community. It is thanks to the female astronomers mentionedabove and the many more that continue to inspire young women to pursue astronomy, that wehave come so far in terms of equality.

In the last 20 years, the number of women in the IAU inAustralia has doubled (1), however, we still have far to go to achieve equal status in the field. Tosupport women pursuing careers in science, we can teach students, both male and female, aboutstereotype threat, encourage high-school girls to take science subjects, actively recruit women intoscientific degrees, and spread the word about how women have changed the world. The Universityof Adelaide Women in STEM group is an example of a way that women are banding together andencouraging more females to take up the scientific subjects that they love

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The Issue Of Women In Astronomy. (2022, February 24). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from
“The Issue Of Women In Astronomy.” Edubirdie, 24 Feb. 2022,
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