A Celebration of Women in Astronomy: Introduction

Raghda Abdel Khaleq and Nuwanthika Fernando are astronomy guides at Sydney Observatory. Raghda is a physics student at the University of New South Wales and Nuwanthika recently completed her PhD at the University of Sydney studying the dynamics of satellite galaxy planes. To celebrate International Women’s Day in 2018 both will be writing posts over the coming month featuring women in astronomy from ancient times through to the modern era.
In this post Raghda introduces International Women’s Day.

Each year, International Women’s Day marks a time for global celebration of the diverse intellectual, social and political achievements of women worldwide. Having been officially marked for the first time in 1911, this year International Women’s Day will fall on Thursday the 8th March. It will call for continued shared action towards a more gender-equal world, as “International Women’s Day is not country, group or organisation specific. The day belongs to all groups collectively everywhere.”

International Women's Day logo

This year’s campaign theme, #PressforProgress, highlights the persistent efforts of communities worldwide towards gender parity through activism, education and advocacy. The Office of the Chief Scientist’s 2016 “Australia’s STEM Workforce” report shows that although the percentage of women with STEM qualifications in 2011 was only 16%, the number of women with these qualifications increased by 23 percent between 2006 and 2011. This proves the fruitfulness of the struggles of women everywhere to break glass ceilings, and the need to continue these efforts into the future.

Here at Sydney Observatory our commitment to gender equality is reflected in our 50-50 female to male staff ratio. In response to the event, we will be releasing a blog series dedicated to the varied achievements of women in astronomy, with this blog kicking off our series.

Women in Astronomy: Philosophers and Priestesses
Women in Astronomy: Assistants and Instrumentalists
Women in Astronomy: The Early Astronomers
Women in Astronomy: The Computers
Women in Astronomy: The Modern Astrophysicists
Women in Astronomy: The Astronauts
Women in Astronomy: The Contemporary Women in Astronomy
Women in Astronomy: The Future of Women in STEM
And see also
Women in the British Astronomical Association NSW Branch – Cecilia Maclellan, Edith Deane & Dr Lucy Gullett

As a final note, it is important to remember that small actions by individuals, groups and organisations can make a difference. If you would like to find out more about the day or how to take action #PressforProgress. If you would like resources for your event, please visit the International Women’s Day website.

Stay tuned for the next blog in our series, which will be looking at some of the earliest female Philosophers and Priestesses.

Happy International Women’s Day!

International Women's Day banner

2 responses to “A Celebration of Women in Astronomy: Introduction

  • Thank you for this important series of blog posts highlighting pioneering women in the field of astronomy. It’s also wonderful to hear the 50-50 female to male employee ratio at the Observatory. Does that gender-balance include the executive and board member level?

    I noticed that in the introduction to astronomy course I attended at the Sydney observatory in April this year there was no mention of female astronomers.

    For example we learnt that William Herschel discovered Uranus but not that it was co-discovered by Caroline Herschel. We learnt how Hipparchus categorised stars by magnitude from the first to the sixth magnitude but not the role of Annie Jump Cannon in developing the star classification system used today who according to Lewis D. Eigen, “in only 4 years discovered and catalogued more stars than all the men in history put together.”

    We heard about Kepler’s 3 Laws of planetary motion, and Hubble and the discovery the universe was expanding, but not about Leavitt’s law that provided the evidence for this and was used to calculate Hubble’s Law. Nor that Cecilia Payne collaborated with Cannon and used Cannon’s data to show that the stars were composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, and their use of spectroscopy to do so which is the key aproach to scientific enquiry in astronomy today.

    There was also no mention of the female computers that enabled the first trip to the moon.

    I mention this in the hope that the course can be updated rather than continue the omission of these astronomers.

    Thanks again for this series.

    • Bridget, thank you for your feedback and we are pleased you enjoyed the posts. Raghda and Nu did a great job.
      Sydney Observatory is part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS). The Director and CEO of MAAS is Dolla Merrillees. MAAS is governed by a Board of Trustees, which is currently made up of a 4:3 male female ratio. The MAAS Executive is made up of a 3:1 male:female ratio. You can read more about the MAAS Board of Trustees here and MAAS Management here. MAAS is committed to developing an engaged, talented and sustainable workforce that is reflective of our community’s diversity.
      With regard to the Astronomy course I forwarded your feedback to the presenter, Dr Paul Payne, for comment. He replied:
      Hi Bridget. Thank you for your comments. In the introductory course I could certainly give more recognition to Caroline Herschel working along with William, and independently. The introductory nature of the course omits many topics in astronomy and I tend not to touch on galactic scales, or even talk about distance measurements to stars, or variable stars, that Leavitt contributed to. The course is primarily concerned with communicating basic concepts rather than the people that contributed to the theory of the how stars work or how they have been classified. However many of the topics you mentioned are covered in later courses.
      In Astronomical Concepts, Leavitt is one of the few characters in astronomy that is mentioned. The course focuses on the theory and not the characters, but in my latest Astro-Update evening Leavitt was one of three astronomers given recognition throughout the evening. In the Astronomical Concepts course I also discuss the work of Jocelyn Bell in discovering Neutron Stars. I could certainly put more emphasis on the contribution made by Annie Cannon and Cecilia Payne in Astronomical Concepts. In my Quantum Course Marie Curie features with her contribution to radioactivity in the topic on quantum tunnelling. I also mention that she was the only scientist at the 1927 Solvay conference (that features the greats of early Quantum physics) to have received two Nobel prizes in Chemistry and Physics.
      I am always looking for ways of improving the courses and your comments will make a difference. Thank you.
      I hope to welcome you to future courses.
      Paul Payne

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