How (Not) To Reach Out To Women

A man walks up to a telescope to view the sun at a daytime star party. The owner of the telescope casually gives him the hood to block the rest of the light from his view and they chat a little, with the mutual respect that is common amongst amateur astronomers.

A little bit later, a woman walks up to that same telescope. The owner of the telescope puts the hood over her head and says, “See that big white thing? That’s the sun. And those dark things on it are sunspots.”

Can anyone spot the difference?

I was the woman in the second part of the story, and rather than take offense, at first, I gave him the benefit of the doubt that this was just his usual spiel. After all, this star party was taking place at the Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF), one of America’s largest gatherings of amateur astronomers, where we go to drool over the latest in stargazing technology, score great deals on gear, make connections with fellow enthusiasts, and learn more about our passion for space from experts. The assumption is generally that everyone there knows something about observing, but it’s also a friendly place for someone new to this hobby to learn from amateurs and professionals alike.

Catching a great daytime view of Venus through a different telescope. Photo by John Wood.

Catching a great daytime view of Venus through a different telescope.
Photo by John Wood.

How beginner would someone have to be, though, to not know that big glowing thing in the daytime sky is the sun?

My companion, the man in the first part, immediately pulled me aside after I stepped away to give other people their turn. “You know, he didn’t say any of that to me. Do you think it was because you are a woman?”

We debated whether we should say something or try an experiment. After all, we had several women in our group of friends gathered at NEAF, as well as men. Being scientifically-minded, we chose to experiment, but by the time we’d found our friends, it was too late. The show was ending for the day and the telescope was packed away. Sadly, day 2 started with cloudy skies, so most of the telescopes remained in their cases, including the one in question.

So, in the end, we don’t know why he talked to me like I was about 4 years old. Still, doesn’t the fact that we even have to wonder say something?

Showing off the wonderful present from the NASA SDO team, one of my most cherished possessions.

Showing off my special snow globe from the wonderful NASA SDO team, one of my most cherished possessions.

I’ll admit, there is no way this man could know I watched the launch of the Solar Dynamics Observatory with my very own eyes, or that I watch the daily views of the sun we receive from that marvelous satellite and track things like sunspots and solar flares for fun. I don’t walk around with the present I received from the NASA team working on that project, as thanks for my passion and dedication to sharing their work with the general public while driving 1000 miles on a whim to support the mission. He couldn’t possibly know that I keep a few paper solar glasses in my bag at all times, so I can hand them out to strangers and get them looking up (safely) at our most precious star for the first time. He certainly couldn’t know that I constantly teach people what sunspots are, as well as the other features that make solar viewing such a fun pastime even if you have viewed it hundreds of times through various telescopes.

I don’t expect anyone to assume the above. I do, however, take exception to anyone who thinks they are doing outreach when they talk down to anyone, even children.

I hated being a child, for that very reason. I looked forward to being an adult just to get the automatic respect that comes with a government-issued ID card. At least, that’s how I thought it would be.

I will also admit that I seem to be a bit of a rarity at events like NEAF. Walking around the show floor you see mostly older white men. It makes sense, amateur astronomy is largely a world of privilege. How many people can afford to spend thousands of dollars on their hobby or have the time or schedule to stay up observing? Mostly older white men, statistically.

This year, I specifically watched for women at the event and, to be clear, there were many. Then I started talking to more of them, and discovered many were there only to support their husbands. Quite a few were working the booths where their husbands were selling gear and assorted items, and readily admitted they weren’t usually part of the family business, just helping out for the busy weekend. Another subset was there due to their children’s interest, which is wonderful, but it made me wonder: Why does astronomy seem to turn most women off?

After all, astronomy is the domain of the patient, the detail-oriented, and even the romantic. Some amateurs love the science and study as if they were going to turn professional. Some are purely about the beauty of the sky and all it contains. Most fit somewhere in-between. Once upon a time, we were all astronomers, charting the night sky was a survival skill. As we lit up the ground and filled our atmosphere with pollutants, we largely lost those skills. Astronomy became a luxury, despite the importance of learning more about our universe and all it contains.

Tina Canali intently observing the sun.

Tina Canali intently observing the sun.

If you want to play with stereotypes (despite the dangers of doing so), how about the stereotypes that women are patient, detail-oriented, and romantic? Perfectly suited to astronomy, either as a hobby or a profession.

How many of us, as children, loved to lie on the grass on a hot summer night and just stare up at the stars? When do we lose that? Why is the loss so disproportionate?

As someone who is passionate about grassroots, one-on-one, person-on-the-street sorts of outreach, I am very frustrated. We pour so much into reaching out to young children, but who is usually the largest influence in a child’s life? Mom. If mom thinks astronomy isn’t cool, what does it say to a child? We should approach outreach to adult women more like we approach outreach to teachers, as something that can yield results beyond that one person.

As much as I lament the fact that women still do most of the child-rearing, why not use that as a tactical advantage?

I credit my own mother with my love of astronomy. She wasn’t an amateur astronomer herself, but she made a point of taking our family to see Halley’s Comet on its most recent visit, which was the moment I fell in love with the night sky on a deeper level. It was magical to my 10 year old eyes, made me understand what an ever-changing thing the sky could be. Every night is a different show, despite the familiarity of the players most of the time. My mother placed my first subscriptions to astronomy magazines and told me it was a very cool thing that I wanted to study this. She never questioned my interest or let me think that I was too young to read more about it. My father was absolutely a huge part of these choices (and usually the one who would stay up with me to view the night sky), but my mother drove home the idea that every single passion I had was worth pursuing and she never once questioned if this was an appropriate activity for a girl.

This is all too rare, as I have come to learn.

In my middle and high school years I discovered how uncool it was to be a girl who loved space. I learned to keep quiet about my passion, and it made it a little less fun to take part. I’m naturally the sort who wants to share everything I learn with other people, perhaps due to being raised by an educator. As much as I adore the sky myself, I also love the look of delight in others’ when they see something like Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s moons for the first time. I wish being “cool” wasn’t such a big part of the school experience, because it makes people hide who they truly are at a time when we should be absorbing as much knowledge as possible and exploring the adult people we will grow to be. Deep down, I wanted to study physics and astronomy and planetary sciences, but the messages I constantly received were that it just wasn’t something for me. I didn’t actively think these thoughts, it was far more subversive. I quietly dropped out of the honors science track and pursued art in its place.

I have no regrets, but I’m working hard to make up for my mistake in believing my teachers. I can’t afford the telescopes I dream of and I live in some of the worst light pollution on this planet, but many a night you can find me on the streets of Hoboken with a pair of Celestron binoculars, chasing objects in the sky. If you’re here and you see a redhead staring up, come and take a look! I’m also taking MOOCs and reading books and trying to educate myself. Let me tell you – it’s a hard road, educating yourself on science outside of an academic environment, but it’s absolutely worth the sacrifices. I feel like I’m making up for years of lost time and it is wonderful!

When I get frustrated over a difficult lesson, the astronomy friendships I have cultivated get me through. Having a support system changes everything. Just being able to bounce things off someone who understands this passion is a huge help, even when I can’t ask for outright help due to honor codes.

One of the amazing things about astronomy is it’s one of the few areas where an amateur can still contribute to the advancement of science in a meaningful way. Professional astronomers often rely on data and images from the observations of amateurs because there just aren’t enough professional observatories to cover the entire night sky and getting time on them is a major hurdle. There are also excellent citizen science projects like Cosmoquest and Galaxy Zoo that harness the power of amateurs to analyze the reams of data that professionals simply don’t have time or the computing power to get through completely. Amateurs are often responsible for the observation of supernovae and other events, pointing the professionals to their locations for further analyzation and imaging. Anyone can learn to calculate the size and shape of an observed asteroid, or even simply help track light pollution by counting the stars they can see with the naked eye. You don’t even need all that fancy equipment to do most of these things, just a device on the internet, working set of eyes, and enough interest to volunteer your time.

I’m not saying that everyone should love astronomy, because we are all individuals. I’d just like to make it clear that astronomy is very cool and accessible to every single person on this planet. If I can watch the sky from a couple of miles from Times Square, you can too!

However, if those who are trying to share their love of astronomy treat women like they are automatically unintelligent and uneducated on the subject, women and girls alike will continue to receive the message that this isn’t for them. No one wants to be patronized. No one.

The opposite but also repellent attitude I have encountered is an overabundance of enthusiasm when I go to a star party or astronomy lecture, just because I’m a woman (and youngish at that) and, thus, a rarity. I don’t want to be special, I just want to share this wonderful hobby with others and learn more along the way.

I refuse to believe that women aren’t naturally into astronomy, because I know far too many brilliant women who are professionals and educators in this area for that to be true, and they got there despite pressure all along the way to pursue something more “feminine” and constant messages that they don’t belong in their chosen fields. Imagine if we got rid of those messages. We could learn so much more about this incredible universe we get to live in, together!

The #NEAFPosse, the relatively diverse and always welcoming group of SpaceTweeps that gather for NEAF every year, celebrating the conjunction of NEAF and Yuri's Night last Saturday.  Photo by Tony Hoffman.

The #NEAFPosse, the relatively diverse and always welcoming group of SpaceTweeps that gather for NEAF every year, celebrating the conjunction of NEAF and Yuri’s Night last Saturday.
Photo by Tony Hoffman.

I was lucky to be at NEAF with a mixed-gender group of enthusiasts, including men who have never once questioned whether us women were really interested in space. I was also pleased to note that most of the vendors I talked to treated me exactly like the men, as did most of the people who had their solar telescopes on the grounds. The majority of amateur astronomers are simply welcoming to absolutely anyone. Still, it is amazing what one condescending person can do to the mood of an experience. I’m not hurt, I just want to use this example to help people understand a better way to approach such a situation.

If you don’t know the person looking through your telescope, you might want to chat a little and gauge his or her experience level before you decide that this person knows nothing. Even if that person does know little or happens to be young, don’t condescend. You can decimate or increase a nascent interest in just one sentence. Honor that power. Remember, you might be the first person to give someone a chance to try this out, you can have a positive or negative impact, but you will have an impact.

If you think women can’t be knowledgeable in this area, don’t try to do outreach, please. You are doing a disservice to the entire community you are supposed to be promoting and growing. Every community gets better when it becomes more diverse, when we consider the brain inside the body instead of the body that contains the brain. Take some time to get to know people who share your passion but don’t look just like you and you might be surprised by what you learn!

Bonus material: My own video of the launch of the Solar Dynamics Observatory, including the sounds of women and men alike sharing the thrill:


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