Astronomy and gender politics

In space and academia, Meg Urry pushes the envelope.

Richard Panek, author of The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, teaches writing at Goddard and Barnard colleges.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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The three-day international astronomy meeting that Meg Urry hosted at Yale this past June was over, but she wasn’t done. Urry stood at the front of the lecture hall in the Loria Center and called up to the 90 or so colleagues who, stretching their legs and making dinner plans, had already begun to rise from their seats. She asked them to stay until the senior administrative assistant who had organized the conference could return to the auditorium. It wouldn’t be fair, she said, if they didn’t thank Laurelyn publicly.

Urry dashed into the hallway, returned without Laurelyn Celone, urged her colleagues to remain where they were, dashed back into the hallway, returned without Celone. Urry continued to reassure the audience for several more minutes, through an increasingly pained smile, until at last Celone appeared. Urry relaxed into a real smile and presented Celone with a box of flowers, and the audience applauded.

Was it a woman thing, what Urry did?

In an ideal world, the question wouldn’t matter. In an ideal world, Urry wouldn’t have been the first woman to chair Yale’s Department of Physics; she would have been a department chair, period.* She wouldn’t have received the Women in Space Science Award from Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, wouldn’t have been an American Women in Science Fellow. She wouldn’t have featured prominently in a 2013 New York Times Magazine article titled “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” In an ideal world, she would simply be one of the more influential astronomers of her generation, and she wouldn’t be pursuing what she calls “a second career” devoted to “the women thing.”

But Meg Urry long ago learned that she doesn’t live in an ideal world.

Once, she thought that maybe she did.

As a graduate student in physics at Johns Hopkins University, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she attended a class that the professor began with a comic greeting: “Good morning, gentlemen and Meg.” Urry didn’t need reminding that she was the only woman in the room, nor that the room was a microcosm of the field of physics. All she had to do was look into the offices of the physics department, look around the auditoriums at physics meetings, look at the lists of authors on physics papers, and she could see she was an outsider.

When she first heard that someone named Beatrice Tinsley was an astronomer, Urry didn’t know who she was—an expert in galaxy evolution at Yale who would die in 1981—but she knew Tinsley was a woman in science. As Urry would later write, “I felt the kind of relief that a child raised by wolves must feel when she first sees a human being.”

But Urry figured that her own presence in a physics classroom suggested progress, and that soon the seats would fill with other eager young women. Until then, she would get on with her own career in science.

She wasn’t a born scientist. In high school, science classes weren’t her favorite. What she was, instead, was a born academic. As a teenager in Boston, her idea of fun was spending weeks at a time in the library researching and writing papers that were not for class assignments. When she learned that the Russian navy had visited New York during the Civil War, into the stacks she went. (The North, she learned, saw the visit as a sign of support for the Union cause, though in fact the navy was simply idling in a convenient harbor to avoid a blockade.)

During her freshman year at Tufts, however, she had to take a science course. She tried organic chemistry, but her father insisted that chemistry is boring; because he was a chemist, she reasoned that he knew what he was talking about. So she enrolled in a physics class.

Physics was a breeze, at least for the first semester: things falling, things crashing, things rolling—things doing what we intuitively know they do. In the second semester, however, the topic turned to electricity and magnetism. Urry had never played with batteries; she had no intuitive grasp of how electricity and magnetism behave. She bombed a test in spectacular fashion, and for the first time in her life she found herself struggling academically.

“Physics can’t be that hard,” she thought. “Other people do it. What am I missing?”

Into the stacks she went. And when she emerged, she was a physicist for life.

Physics, she had come to understand, is about discovering underlying truths. Physics can be expressed in simple equations—formulae that are more precise than any possible paragraph about the Russian navy. You want to quantify a car accident, the lifespan of a battery, the thermonuclear workings at the core of the sun? Here’s the principle, and here’s the math behind the principle.

She spent the summer after her junior year as an intern at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, in Virginia. The freshly minted PhD who hired her said that what distinguished her application was that she played the violin; he did, too! Then he mentioned the terms “RA” and “dec”—shorthand for “right ascension” and “declination,” which are to an astronomer what latitude and longitude are to a geographer. She asked what they meant. Somehow he’d neglected to notice that his new hire had no background in astronomy.

Into the stacks Urry fled once again, and when she emerged this time, she was both a physicist and an astronomer—an astrophysicist—for life. Observational astronomy is, if anything, even more data driven than physics. It provides the data behind the math behind the principle. She spent the summer inspecting charts of radio sources in the sky and looking for corresponding objects in visible-light photographs. She couldn’t believe people actually got paid to do this.

Because she lacked a formal background in the subject, most graduate programs in astronomy wouldn’t accept her. She settled for physics, and chose Johns Hopkins. But she continued to moonlight in astronomy, first as an aide at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s X-ray group, then as a NASA graduate research fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Maryland. By the time she received her PhD, she had accumulated enough experience and collected enough professional contacts that she received a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT’s center for space research, then another at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the science operations center for the soon-to-launch Hubble Space Telescope. When that fellowship was up, in 1990, STScI hired her as a full-time astronomer. The universe was her oyster.

The world, however, was something less. One day a professor at Hopkins (STScI occupies a corner of the campus) told her that he couldn’t really listen to a woman giving a scientific talk, because the first few minutes he was just so busy “checking her out” that he couldn’t hear what she was saying. Urry gave him an are you crazy? look, and he answered, “Doesn’t that happen to you?”

“If that happened to me,” Urry said, “I’d never hear a single talk, because they’re all men.”

All men? The statement might have been slightly hyperbolic, but only slightly. When she was a student, some of the seats beside her had indeed been filled by women. But now, she realized, those women had drifted away from science.

Suddenly, “Good morning, gentlemen and Meg” didn’t seem so amusing anymore.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Doctorate Recipients (preliminary data).

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Doctorate Recipients (preliminary data). "Research Institutions" are Research I institutions, based on 1994 Carnegie criteria.

Progress: National percentage of tenured women in science, engineering, and health View full image

“When I was the only one in my physics classes,” Urry says now, “I just thought it was a matter of time. That there had been discrimination in the past, but now we just need everybody to step up.” Eventually, she had a sobering realization about sexism in the sciences: “It had been there all along.” Not just the overt kind—the wet T-shirt poster on the office wall, the offensive comment, the pin-up left on her desk—but the more subtle, insidious kind. She had been a student at Johns Hopkins in the early 1980s when STScI had first hired a science staff; of 60 PhD positions, only one went to a woman. She remembers her early ’90s epiphany: “I’m thinking, ‘Really? Was that really a reflection of the quality of the people? I don’t believe it.’”

Around the same time, a colleague complained to her that the administration at Berkeley had pressured a search committee to hire a woman over more-qualified men. A few months later, Urry was talking to a search committee member who laughed at the idea. No, the department had invited the candidate to apply; she was by far the most qualified. No wonder young women weren’t sticking around, Urry thought. Such rumors and the assumptions behind them could only reinforce “the sense that you don’t belong, that you don’t have what it takes to be a physicist.”

Urry decided that if the system was going to change, somebody was going to have to change it. She approached the STScI director, Riccardo Giacconi. He gave his blessing to a Women in Astronomy conference; it was held in Baltimore in 1992 and attracted about 150 attendees. Urry remembers his counsel: “Let’s not just have a meeting. Let’s have something come out of it”—a document that would help institutions understand how to correct the problem of sexism. Sheila Tobias, a feminist scholar, was hired to write a draft.

“We thought it was the Magna Carta of astronomy,” Urry says, laughing. “And then we tried to get places to endorse it. They just thought it was a totally radical document.” One statement in particular—“normally at least one woman should be on the short list for any position, paid or honorific”—was supposedly “way too extreme,” she says. “It made a lot of people crazy.” In the end, just a few universities endorsed the document. The American Astronomical Society Council passed a resolution “kind of” endorsing it by “waffling on the language,” says Urry. “They finally hammered out a compromise where they would endorse the goals of the Baltimore Charter. Equality of opportunity—how radical is that?”

Source: Yale Office of Institutional Research

Source: Yale Office of Institutional Research

Head counts at Yale: Numbers of tenured male and female professors in science, engineering, and health at Yale, 2013 View full image

When Urry arrived at Yale in 2001, she was “quite surprised” to find that she was still the only woman in the “room”—the room this time being the faculty of the physics department. Her arrival, however, coincided with the end of the university’s yearlong celebration of its tercentennial, and among the events she attended was Gender Matters, a conference that several leading women faculty members had organized. The influence of that conference has endured to this day in the form of Yale’s Women Faculty Forum (WFF). “I was very impressed and pleased to be at a university that engaged in a conversation about how much gender matters,” Urry says, “and exactly how gender interacts with other important aspects of life at Yale.” In the mid-2000s, Urry served as the chair of WFF. What she calls a “basic duality” continues to inform the organization today: “scholarship on gender and attention to gender equality.”

She goes on: “It’s been demonstrated that diversity of thought leads to innovation. If diversity of faculty means diversity of thought”—an idea she acknowledges is “plausible but certainly debated”—“then science will benefit enormously from this change.” She has been “impressed,” she says, “by Yale’s commitment to adding women faculty in the sciences, which has allowed the physics department, as well as other departments, to make some spectacular hires.”

In retrospect, astronomy’s “Magna Carta” had served a purpose—what 1970s feminists would have called consciousness raising. The scientific community had become aware of the issue of gender inequality. Urry’s second career as an advocate, however, might have been less successful if she hadn’t acquired a certain reputation in her first career—one that ensured her peers couldn’t ignore her even if they wanted to.

Over the past 20 years, Urry has helped reconceive a new area of astronomical research—Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), the sources of tremendous energies at the centers of galaxies. In so doing, she has also helped to transform cosmology itself, the study of the structure and evolution of the universe on the largest scales.

In 1962, astronomers outfitted a rocket with X-ray detectors and launched it into the night sky over the New Mexico desert. They knew that the sun was a source of X-rays; now they were trying to determine if the moon was, too. It wasn’t. What was a source of X-rays, however, was seemingly everywhere else. In X-ray vision, the night sky radiated with noonday brilliance.

Numerous other X-ray experiments repeated this observation at greater levels of precision, eventually pinpointing the centers of galaxies as the sources. Astronomers gave these AGN a variety of names, depending on their intensity and other factors. But in the early 1980s Urry began looking at the data and deriving the math, and she discovered a principle: the seemingly various AGN were actually all the same thing—black holes.

Every black hole has an accretion disk, the part that famously sucks in its surroundings, and some black holes also have two visible jets of matter and energy, heading in opposite directions at velocities approaching the speed of light. The apparent intensity of a jet depends on its orientation to the observer. If you’re in the path of a jet, it can appear as much as a million times brighter than if it’s pointing away. The magnitudes of the AGN, in a way, had been a red herring.

Urry’s paper “Unified Schemes for Radio-Loud Active Galactic Nuclei,” written with the Italian astronomer Paolo Padovani, appeared in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1995; so far it has been cited more than 2,600 times, well beyond the threshold that qualifies a paper as a classic in the literature.

Since then Urry has continued to work on AGN—specifically, investigating how black holes at the centers of galaxies affect the growth of their hosts. Her groundbreaking work earned her the invitation to be the founding director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, which began operations in 2001, and which Urry still heads. Among the YCAA’s areas of research are contemporary astronomy’s usual cutting-edge suspects: extrasolar planets (planets that orbit stars other than the sun), dark matter (the mystery matter that seems to make up 27 percent of the mass/energy density of the universe), and dark energy (the even more mysterious something-or-other that is accelerating the expansion of the universe and that makes up 69 percent of the universe’s mass/energy density). But Urry’s YCAA also reflects her own, no less cutting-edge, interests: AGN, black holes, and X-ray astronomy (including the center’s participation in Astro-H, the next-generation X-ray satellite observatory that was the subject of the June conference that Urry oversaw).

One of Urry’s current projects expands on her longtime study of the relationship between black holes and their host galaxies. This time she’s comparing not just their masses but their growth rates over time. Because the speed of light is finite, astronomers think of the night sky as a kind of time machine; the more distant an object is, the longer its light has taken to reach us. And because the collaboration is using a series of telescopes near the equator, it’s collecting population samples from both the northern and the southern hemispheres, meaning that its census will be “nearly complete.” For those reasons, Urry says, the survey can identify population patterns over vast stretches of cosmic history, “like combining all [human] censuses back to the ancient Egyptians.”

What she and her collaborators have found so far is that the most distant black holes—and therefore, the earliest black holes in the universe—are bigger than their more recent counterparts. Her tentative conclusion: “Black holes of high mass formed and grew first, then stopped, while the smaller-mass black holes we see today”—for example, the one at the center of our own galaxy—“probably grew much more recently.” This pattern is in fact similar to one that astronomers have noticed in galaxy evolution: “The biggest galaxies formed the earliest and are pretty much done with star formation, while lower-mass galaxies have relatively more star formation today.” Data from the YCAA surveys will continue to feed theorists’ ideas about galaxy evolution for years to come.

Her science alone, though, wouldn’t have made Urry a successful advocate on behalf of women in science. Urry’s not-so-secret weapon: the strength of her personality.

“She is a force of nature,” says Matt Mountain, the current director of STScI and a longtime colleague of Urry’s on panels and committees. “She doesn’t hold back from expressing her views.”

Urry knows her reputation. “I’m very good at being annoyed,” she agrees. She’s especially good at it when the subject is balancing career and family. When her two daughters were young and someone would remark on how fortunate she was to have a husband—Andrew Szymkowiak, an instrumental physicist at the YCAA—who was so willing to help out, Urry would say, “That’s how it should be! Fifty-fifty! It should be usual.” After a pause, she adds, “He may have done more than fifty.”

Mountain invited Urry to chair a committee on workplace conditions when he became the director of STScI in 2005. He had inherited a science staff of 80, only two of whom were women. At his previous institution, the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, women made up 30 percent of the science staff. “What the hell!” he remembers thinking on his arrival at STScI. “What’s wrong with this East Coast place?” He laughs. “A lot of my staff were really quite frightened by the fact that I’d asked Meg to chair this.”

The problem at institutions like STScI, Mountain says, is bigger than women. “Women leaving is the canary in the coal mine for much deeper issues in the institution—which is the point Meg kept making: this isn’t just a women’s issue; this is a work climate problem,” he says. “It’s all about trying to make sure all people in an institution feel empowered and safe to contribute.”

How did he and Urry’s committee change the culture at STScI? “We sat down with the hiring committees and said, guys, you know, enough of this crap of ‘You’ve got to be honored to be here and we’ll grill the crap out of you.’ No. You’re going to be welcoming, you’re going to actually say ‘We want you here.’ And by the way, if your shortlist doesn’t have 50 percent women on it, take it away out of my office.”

The point, he says, wasn’t to hire 50 percent women. It was to bypass the unconscious biases that affect hiring decisions. “Studies have shown that even women write different references for women than they do for men,” Mountain says. “So insisting that the shortlist have 50 percent women and 50 percent guys forced the committee to see through some of these things.” He’s aware that some people think policies such as a fifty-fifty shortlist are “a political correctness, statistics thing.” But they’re “missing the fundamental point that a twenty-first-century organization needs a diverse staff to be agile. That’s the key insight that Meg has.”

So: is it a woman thing to make sure that the administrative assistant who helped organize a conference receives the thanks of the attendees? Was Urry more likely than a man to make the gesture? Probably not, if the man knows how to maintain a respectful and welcoming workplace. But more important than the answer is the fact that the question is the kind that comes to mind when a woman behaves in a “maternal” manner.

“Everything I do is seen through the prism of my being female,” Urry says. “What I’d like people to say is, ‘My God, not only is she an outstanding scientist, but she does it while she has this whole second career, and that’s amazing.’ No, they don’t say that. They sort of say, ‘Well, she’s a good scientist but she does spend a lot of time doing this female stuff.’”

Urry says that in recent years she’s tried to be more tolerant of those who disagree with her as she pursues both her careers. “I finally realized it’s the people who are annoying you who are the people you can learn from,” she says. “And if somebody is sticking to their guns in the face of your excellent argument to the contrary, then there must be a reason, and you haven’t understood what that reason is.” Life, unlike physics, is messy.

Not that she doesn’t advocate as much as she ever has. If an institution invites her to give a colloquium, she usually volunteers to give a women-in-science talk as well. But the difference now is that she doesn’t have to advocate as hard. The awareness has been raised. The culture has changed. At conferences 20 years ago, she says, “You’d go into the bathroom, and there you would find the one other woman who was there at the same time. Now there are lines in the bathroom.” Over those same 20 years, four women have been elected to serve as president of the American Astronomical Society—including Meg Urry, who will start her two-year term in June.

The world she lives in might not be ideal, but her timing was. As she reflects on how far she, astronomy, and women in astronomy have grown together in such a short period, she offers a reflection that is less exasperated—that is perhaps even mellower—than it once might have been: “I’m actually very fortunate to have come along when I did.”


* This article has been edited to correct an error. It originally stated that Meg Urry was Yale’s first tenured woman physicist. In fact, Karin Rabe, a physicist now at Rutgers, was tenured in 1995 with a primary appointment in the Department of Applied Physics and a joint appointment in the Department of Physics, six years before Urry was hired as a tenured professor. 

1 comment

  • Pamela Lupton-Bowers
    Pamela Lupton-Bowers, 5:42am September 11 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    What an opportune article. Not only was it fascinating reading, but falls for me at a most relevant time. I am at the moment preparing to facilitate a workshop for the UN in improving ways to encourage, engage, and enable women to take on more leadership positions. Meg Urry's experiences gave life to the research revealing the stereotypical behaviors that result in the cognitive shortcuts that bias opinion and selection decisions. Her messages support the practical strategies for both individuals and organizations we will be exploring: consciously articulate selection criteria and hold people accountable for their decisions, promote metrics and measure recruitment and promotion decisions against them, women speak out about your expertise and competence, sit at the table, make your partner your real partner in terms of domestic chores and child rearing, and most importantly vouch for the capabilities and achievements of other women colleagues. Now I have to thank my 50% partner in life, Bob Bowers '78, not only for suggesting I read this article, but for his constant support in my career and interests.

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