Students and faculty at Swarthmore find the college’s astronomy department to be a notable exception to the national trend of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
The college has a history of being more inclusive of women relative to other institutions around the country, despite still holding greater value of male pupils. Astronomer Nancy Grace Roman ’46, one of the first female executives at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), pursued astronomy at Swarthmore but still encountered a great deal of discouragement. She wrote in a The Meaning of Swarthmore that the school’s Dean Blanchard opposed women entering science and engineering, and a professor in lab told her, “I usually try to discourage women from going into science, but I think maybe you’ll make it.” Swarthmore gave Roman the rare opportunity to pursue astronomy as a woman, despite it being a hostile working environment.
Now many women take astronomy courses at Swarthmore. Some students find educator and student conduct in astronomy courses to be equally fair, respectful, and attentive to students of all genders.
Amanda Izes ’19 took Introductory Astronomy her first semester and is now a grader for the class. Her co-grader Jason Gonzales ’19 is a man and the SA Maral Gaeeni ’18 is a woman. She held positive views of the course.
“It was a very interesting course. My peers were especially willing to collaborate and the professor was always available for any question I had,” she said. “Everyone got attention when they needed it.”
Barbara Taylor ’18 is taking the class this semester with Visiting Assistant Professor Kate Daniel and has positive views of the professor.
“She seemed pretty engaged with a variety of people,” Taylor said.
Professor Daniel just arrived this year and has thus far enjoyed the atmosphere of her department and the campus.
“I think that the environment at Swarthmore is incredible, very supportive, and I think that the number of women that I’m seeing as undergraduates is on par, if not greater, than the number of males who are getting astronomy or astrophysics majors,” she said. “It isn’t representative of the larger community, which points to we’re doing something right.”
Daniel pointed to parts of the culture at Swarthmore that may contribute to its classrooms being more inclusive than many others.
“At Swarthmore, this egalitarian attitude is really emphasized and taken to heart, and I think that that kind of sets Swarthmore apart.”
Daniel says egalitarian values permeate discussions between professors as well. She often talks to other science professors about issues related to gender and academia. She notices that these types of conversations are more prevalent here than at other institutions she has worked at.
“It’s an issue that’s important in the community so we have conversations… amongst the astronomers here. I’ve spoken about the issue of harassment and gender, but as subset of all diversity issues, like racial issues or religion or sexual identity.”
She also discussed how gender representation among astronomy and physics professors is more balanced here than at other schools, and this may serve as encouragement to students who are women. On a national scale, she noted, the number of women in astronomy has remained at consistently low levels for the past several decades. The American Institute of Physics revealed in the report “Astronomy Enrollment and Degrees” that while interest in astronomy has increased over the past decade among both sexes, the proportion of all bachelor’s degrees received by women each year since 1983 typically hovers between 30 and 40 percent. In 2012, women comprised 38 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned.
“When the numbers are so imbalanced like that [on top of] having a culture where women are excluded, then I imagine that adds to the effect of them not staying in the field.”
Daniel has experienced varying levels of gender-based harassment at prior academic institutions, from blatantly sexist statements to more insidious remarks about her capabilities as a woman in science.
“I’ve had experiences that were very direct in terms of discrimination, and I’ve had experiences [involving] the subtle assumption of my gender being in the way of my academic progress.”
She recounted an experience as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University involving a non-permanent researcher who expressed sexist remarks in a public setting.
“[He] told me… that I would be better off raising kids and cooking for my husband, and that women were not as smart as men and it was scientifically proven.”
She said this was an obvious and highly public display of the researcher’s sexist convictions, and the school could and did easily address it.
“Hopkins handled it very well… There was a conversation with the chair… and eventually the Dean. This person ended up having to go to sensitivity training.”
She believed handling the incident at least set an example to the community that sexism would be acknowledged and reprimanded to some degree.
“I think that one of the larger problems is the more subtle kinds of harassment issues.”
She noted a general tolerance for instances of sexist sentiment in academia.
“There’s this culture of just not saying anything, just ignoring it. And that’s what ended up happening at Berkeley,” she said of the esteemed astronomy Professor Geoff Marcy, who after years of sexually harassing female students resigned from the University of California at Berkeley in October.
“Everybody knew this one guy was a perp… but nobody was reporting it because it was kind of just like ‘stay away from that guy.’”
Marcy is one the most respected astronomers in the world, and how his history of gender-based sexual misconduct will tarnish his reputation and future career remains to be seen. Daniel stressed the importance of both valuing the women he harassed and of recognizing how he diminished their prospects and chances of contributing to the field of astronomy.
She explained that debating the severity of a perpetrator’s consequences is a worthwhile conversation, but it should not distract from the hardships they had imposed on others.
“Does he have to stay accountable forever?” She questioned about Marcy. “[T]he flipside of the question… is you have all the women who he harassed who didn’t go into the field. So those are minds that are lost from this field, and how do you balance that?”
Daniel believed institutions should have outlined procedures to follow for handling harassment, as this would give members of the community a better understanding of what kind of conduct is inappropriate and will reap consequences.
“I think… having solid signposts for how to proceed forward would be hugely beneficial for the entire community.”
She explained that the ways in which an institution responds to acts of discrimination or harassment influences what behaviors the community deems to be acceptable or not.
“Maybe if we start holding them accountable now… because it [becomes] clear to the community that these are unacceptable behaviors and that there are repercussions, then maybe that will decrease the number of cases later on down the road.”
Daniel also described being catcalled by students while giving lectures at other schools.
“That’s all part of the culture… all these micro-harassment experiences build a larger picture and… how we handle those micro-harassment situations makes a huge difference along the way.”
Daniel does not find such behavior to be apparent in the college’s astronomy department, and she believes that fair treatment allows women to pursue these studies as much as their counterparts who are men.
Jacklyn Pezzato ’17 is one student who will pursue a career in astronomy after leaving Swarthmore.
“I had not really considered it as a career path before coming to Swat,” she recalled. “[But] I really liked the department.”
She described the working environment as comfortable and positive, and astronomy professors David Cohen and Eric Jensen as welcoming and helpful.
“They’re very socially conscious of diversity issues in the field,” she said. She also notices and appreciates how the astronomy textbooks often use “she/her” pronouns for characters in problems.
After graduating with an honors double major in astrophysics and engineering, Pezzato plans to go on to graduate school to study astronomy.
“Leaving Swarthmore are a significant number of women who have a strong background at the undergraduate level, who entering graduate school have that confidence in themselves,” said Daniels. “[A]nd that’s something that I think does play a large role in whether or not they stay in the field.”
She also mentioned being pleased to go through Title IX training before working here, as mandated by the college.
Daniel has hopes that astronomy departments around the nation will come around as well. She recently attended an American Astronomical Society meeting, during which the audience was presented with a report about sexual harassment in the field.