International Women's Day

By Phil Plait | March 9, 2009 8:31 pm

I learned too late from Amanda at AstroPixie that Sunday was International Women’s Day. I wish I had known in time to write something for then, but I guess that’s OK. The point of the day is to raise awareness, and it made me think about a couple of issues. So let me talk to you about them.

Women in science is a tough issue. They are still underrepresented, and I don’t think it’s clear why. Sexism, certainly, plays a role. In fact, it plays both ends of the age game: when young girls want to go into science, they can be discouraged by their teachers, and when they are older trying to get a job in science they can be discouraged by their peers. I’ve heard way too many stories about that, and read too many studies as well.

Jessica Simpson

I wonder about sexism in a broader sense, too. Our society in the US is not the most encouraging for women. Just look at the screwed up body image advertising and such gives women; Jessica Simpson has gained some weight recently and a lot of rags online have been calling her fat. Really? She looks like she has a healthy and normal body to me. This whole advertising trend of using women with the bodies of 12-year-old boys baffles me.

Still, there are worse places for women. Allow me a slight digression.

Now, Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) is batguano insane (about a billion examples are to be found on the web, left as an exercise for the reader). Her viewpoints are so bizarre and skewed that her biography would have to be written on a Moebius strip.

Perhaps in a blog post about women’s rights, poking fun at Bachmann is ironic. Maybe so, but the point I want to make is that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. In an interview from 2008, tucked in with a vast number of ravings that are actually difficult to map against reality in any way, Bachmann said this:

"Not all cultures are equal. Not all values are equal."

This may shock people, but in this one small case I agree with this lunatic. She’s absolutely right. All cultures are not equal. A simple example: a large fraction of our own culture in the United States used to accept slavery. Moral equivalency be damned; slavery is wrong.

While I would hesitate to accept anything as a moral absolute, there are some things that are clearly wrong. Murder. Slavery. Institutional torture. Genocide. Racism. Sexism.

And that last one brings us to the point. There are countries in this world where women are treated essentially as slaves, or, perhaps worse, as things. Girls get acid thrown on their face for daring to get an education (and while this was done by a small band of militants, the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan for years, forbad girls from going to school). A woman was beheaded, possibly as an honor killing because she wanted to divorce her husband. A google search yields so much more, a horrifying list of atrocities aimed against women. A woman set afire because she was accused of being a witch. Thankfully there are groups taking action.

I am something of a moral relativist; I know that cultures differ, and what is art in one place would be a grave insult in another. That’s OK, because people are different.

But if you take half your population and relegate it to second class, forbid them from learning, don’t let them participate fully in society, then there is no relativism in my book. You’re wrong, and you’re stupid.

Carolyn Porco and Buzz Aldrin
Buzz Aldrin with Carolyn Porco, whom
he called "the Secretary General of
United Nations of the Solar System".

I know some brilliant women astronomers. Absolutely brilliant at what they do, whether it’s research, observing, public outreach, writing. Where would our science be without them? Carolyn Porco leads the Cassini imaging team which has brought us such beauty from the deep solar system. Could a man have done that? Sure, but that’s not the point: a woman could do it, and did do it. Vera Rubin helped clinch the existence of dark matter. Andrea Ghez has measured the mass of a black hole 25 quadrillion kilometers away, in the center of the Milky Way. Debra Fischer finds planets orbiting other stars. Pamela Gay educates tens of thousands of people on Astronomy Cast. Carolyn Collins Petersen does the same by writing planetarium shows.

I could go on and on, of course. These women — and many more — are friends, colleagues, scientists. Where we would be now if we relegated them to wearing burkas, to walking behind men, to staying at home and kept in the dark about the Universe around them?

Relativism be damned. Our culture in the US has a long way to go, certainly, but if you look behind us you’ll see the long winding road we’ve already labored upon. I’m glad my daughter is starting with such a head start down that road, and I hope that she forges ahead even further. That road goes a long way in both directions, and we’re right in the middle of it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind, Science

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