An online investigation and discussion about the role of
Women in Astronomy, Past, Present, and Future.

Scott Hildreth
Chabot College

Introduction - "Science has no gender" - Dr. Sethanne Howard

!  If you haven't completed the Nature of Science activity yet, please do this first: Picture an Astronomer available at:   We may have already done this in our on-campus class; you'll be expected to redo this with members of your family or circle of friends and co-workers as well in this assignment.

One of the many benefits of the 'Picture an Astronomer' activity is that it can be very revealing about our unstated biases, and not just about gender roles! It also can illuminate a bit about stereotypes of all kinds -- ethnic, behavioral, and academic. And it is fun! We are so strongly influenced by the media in our perceptions of what people have to be, or look like, for particular professions. So...did you picture an astronomer who was a woman? Why, or why not? You'll have the chance to think about the issue of gender in astronomy, and science in general, in this assignment.

The introductory college astronomy textbooks that we use provide a brief sense of the history of astronomy, sketching the development of the science from ancient Assyrian and Mesopotamian astronomers through the Greeks, and then concentrating upon the European astronomers of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. Some textbooks include a bit about the contributions of other cultures, including Mayan, Chinese, Polynesian, and Native American astronomers.

But if astronomers are mentioned in these historical recaps, they are almost always men. What about the other half of society? What about women?

Our textbook and others do include historical and current references to the lives and contributions of some women: Caroline Herschel, Maria Mitchell, Annie Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, Jocelyn Bell, and a few others. Sometimes pictures and brief sketches are provided, and there are sometimes vague references to "difficulties" women encountered in their attempts to crack the gender barrier within science.

But there are far, far more contributors to astronomy who were and are women than our textbooks share. And those difficulties were real, were significant, and have not disappeared. So our goals together in this unit are to learn more about the historical and current contributions of women to the science of astronomy, to learn of the excellent and growing electronic resources related to the status of women in astronomy, and to discuss as a class in our shared online forum what you think, and what you have learned through the research you are about to do.

Assignment Overview

As usual, there are TWO things to do in this assignment.  First you must do some research, and it must be done first so you can share what you learn with friends and family, AFTER you ask for their help with another short survey. In this survey, though, there are no "right" answers to trip up your participants! Instead, I hope you'll engage in a discussion, and share what you have learned in your research.

Part 1:
Research and document the contributions of TWO women who have contributed to Astronomy.

 One of the contributors must come from the historical profiles of women who made contributions in the past, and one from the current profiles of women still working in Astronomy today.    Please make sure you are researching astronomers, rather than other famous women who contributed to other fields of science.  In other words, Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Maria Montessori, and Inge Lehmann were all incredible contributors to science, but they were not astronomers. 

You may use Contributions of Women to the Science of Astronomy, available online at: as one source for your work.  You could also discuss this assignment with Library Faculty at our Chabot College Library, or consult with other librarians at another facility. 

Part 2: Ask at least 2 others outside of class to do the "Picture an Astronomer" Activity, either in person or online.  Record their responses, and then discuss. sharing what you have learned in your research about women in astronomy.  What were their reactions? 

Please do record your participants' reactions to what you have shared about women who made contributions in the past, and who are today contributing to Astronomy.  Were they surprised at the number of women who have made contributions to the field?  Do they feel that science in general (or astronomy in particular) is changing in terms of its acceptance and encouragement of women?

Specific Requirements:

  1. Aim for at least 1-2 paragraphs for each profile in Part 1 (at least 250 words each, typed double-spaced, and spell-checked, please.)  Good work will have at least 2 paragraphs and excellent work even more, including more than one source for each person profiled.  Aim for at least one more paragraph to describe who you talked with in Part 2, their responses for the "Picture an Astronomer" activity, and their reactions to what you shared from your research.
  2. Include where possible a brief description of the astronomical research or discoveries that the astronomer accomplished or currently works on.
  3. Include a sentence or two about why you chose this woman to profile - what was it about her, her background, or her work that made her interesting to you?
  4. Remember that good science, and good scholarship, is demonstrated by looking for multiple independent sources, so also consider finding more than one source for each of the women you profile.  Do they all reflect the same perspective?
  5. Remember that you cannot just copy material from the biographical sketches or encyclopedia listings - you must use quotes if you borrow any phrase, passage, or excerpt verbatim.  And a full, properly formatted bibliographic citation is required.

On-line classes: Please POST your assignment on Canvas in the discussion forum directly, not as an attachment.  Don't forget citations!
On-campus classes
  Please POST your assignment on Canvas if you are absent from class  by the due date, but please then bring your work on paper to the next class so that I can grade it!  I won't grade the work submitted on Canvas.  And remember being in class to discuss the assignment is part of the grade.  Don't miss this if at all possible.


1) You may choose to post your work in the class online site in addition to submitting it in class.  You earn +5 points extra credit for doing so, BUT:

 (a) you must post unique profiles about women scientists that have not yet been profiled online by anyone else in the class. If you post a profile about someone who is already featured, you'll earn no credit.  So check Canvas FIRST before you decide who to profile; and,

(b) you must read and respond substantially to the posts of at least two other students, asking questions about the astronomers they profiled.

2) Read the articles at provided from STATUS, a publication from the American Astronomical Society's Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CWSA) and/or other articles I have provided, or a similar article from a websearch of your own choice. Use the Chabot College library and the ability to search our extensive online database. (see )

Turn in (and post in the Canvas discussion area) your thoughts about biases that existed in the past and still exist today, and how you see those issues evolving in your lifetime. Respond constructively to the postings of at least two of your classmates. - 10 points for your posting and responses to others.

Going Even Further

For additional extra credit, you might consider the following or, as always, you are encouraged to come up with your own ideas and contact me for concurrence and assistance. The amount of extra credit available will depend upon what you are able to do.. Extra credit is due no later than the last week of class.

Idea A: After doing the research above, contact one of the women currently doing astronomy, and politely request the opportunity to do a short email or chat interview. You can find comprehensive listings at the CWSA website, as well as NASA. From the research you have done, develop 3-5 questions to ask, and submit to the discussion forum the results of your interview. You might want to refer your contact to this webpage so that she will get a better idea of what you are doing.

Idea B: Write a longer essay (4-5 pages, double-spaced, with an additional page for a bibliography) about the issue of gender in Astronomy (or science in general). Locate at least one, and preferably two or more resources from print or online media, journals, or reports not already linked in the resources identified above.

One great place to start would be doing a literature search with the help of our library faculty. As always, your scholarship is measured in part by your research, proper use of references, citations, and the bibliography. Brief new items may not provide sufficient detail or substance to use as your primary sources here. Email me your essay.

Idea C: Investigate two or more of the resource sites noted in the  in depth, and evaluate:

  • What do the sites present most effectively? Does each accomplish its stated purpose? What else -- other resources, technologies, or content -- would help the authors further improve their sites?
  • Post your analysis on the class discussion forum.

Idea D: Look at issues of representation across ethnic/historic lines - not necessarily related to gender.  Research the status of minorities in astronomy today, and share what you have learned from that research.  Consider sources like:

Resources for the entire unit on Women in Astronomy are available here in bibliographic form ( .


Content Copyright 2016 Scott Hildreth

Image of "Women Hold Up Half the Sky" from 4000 Years of Women in Science Copyright 1997 University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Chabot College Astronomy