Did you ever notice that only one of the eight or nine planets in our solar system has a female name? That’s Venus, known for love and beauty but not necessarily for the brains and ambition associated with the male gods Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, Mars, and possibly Pluto.
This gender-centric discovery occurred to me this morning after I read about the sex harassment charges filed against UC Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy. Sex discrimination has always been an issue for ancient and post Copernican astronomers. It also changed the course of my career.
In pre-Internet times, I co-produced a radio program for the University of California’s Office of the President called “Science Editor.” I could interview anyone I wanted so tried to interview as many women as possible, although CBS Radio, where the Peabody Award winning program was broadcast each week, wouldn’t allow a woman’s voice as radio host, so I had to literally excise my queries and responses from the recording tape and allow my co-producer, to “gendrify” my voice.
The interview that got me fired – and escorted out of my office by two gun-toting campus police – took place in 1981 on the phone, although the professor, Elizabeth Scott, taught statistics in the math department at UC Berkeley, just up the hill from me. She’d been hard to nail down, because each time I set up an interview, some disaster occurred – once her car had been stolen; then she couldn’t find her purse.
We finally had a long talk. She’d been going for a Ph.D. in astronomy but at the time, right after the Second World War, women were not permitted to operate large telescopes. Don’t ask me why. It seemed as bizarre as not allowing a women’s voice on the radio if the subject involved science. So Scott switched to statistics and got a doctorate in mathematics. Despite the limitations for women in her original field, she authored 42 scientific papers in astronomy and identified a characteristic of clusters of galaxies that came to be known as the “Scott effect.”
We talked about her findings on the rise of skin cancers and its correlation to the greater prevalence of ultraviolet light. We also talked about her national study sponsored by the Carnegie Commission in 1973 in which she developed a system to compare the relative salaries of male and female faculty. Not surprisingly, she found that women faculty in ten major universities, including UC Berkeley, earned less than male faculty holding equivalent positions. What I didn’t know was that earlier, she and another professor had studied the status of women at UC Berkeley alone, and the resulting report was reprinted by the U.S. Congress and used as a model by other universities for discrimination based on sex and ethnicity.
I submitted an edited tape of the interview to my co-producer, Chuck Levy, who submitted it to the director of our office. While I was at UC San Diego, conducting more interviews, I got a frantic call from Chuck, saying that our director had refused to run this interview because it made the university appear in a bad light. Scott hadn’t cited UC Berkeley in the sex discrimination study, but the fact that she had switched majors while at UC Berkeley because of sex discrimination in her field and that her study on discrimination did include UC Berkeley was heinous enough, according to our boss. In turn, her boss, VP Judith Woodward, ironically one of the only two women vice presidents of UC, agreed.
Woodward issued a gag order: I was not to talk to professors whatsoever. In the meantime, another interview I’d conducted with a zoology professor at UC Diego, who had written a book about the menstrual cycle, was killed by the same director because she thought the word “endometrium” was obscene. According to Levy, this was the first time the program had been censored in the 25 years he’d been producing it.
I decided to write Professor Scott a letter explaining what was happening even though I knew this would be my death warrant. Not obeying a boss’s orders was considered insubordination, grounds for dismissal, which I knew as a former board member of the employee union, AFSCME, as well as a trained arbitrator for grievance proceedings.
Scott wrote me back and requested lunch at the Women’s Faculty Club on the Berkeley campus. Over lunch, I told her what was going on, not knowing that she was chair of the faculty committee on Academic Freedom. That committee started an investigation of my VP, and by this time, I had contacted a couple of the UC regents I knew. They began an investigation of the UC President.
I knew I’d get fired, but the last two weeks before I did was my opportunity to level the playing field. I wrote every UC professor I’d ever interviewed, and one of them started a petition to defend UC employees’ freedom of speech. More than 70 faculty signed. The tipping point came with media exposure of the VP, Woodard. Dan Brekke, a reporter for the Daily Californian who went on to become editor of Wired.com and is now with KQED’S “California Report,” discovered that Woodard had lied about having a college degree from UC Riverside. She had never graduated.
I was fired. Woodard was fired. And not too long afterwards, the UC President, David Saxon, resigned. My co-producer, Chuck Levy, developed leukemia a few months after I was walked out of the building, and died. Scott testified on my behalf in a lawsuit the union filed against UC that dragged on for five years. A new union, CSEA, sent me to all nine campuses to speak out for employee rights, and next year UC employees voted to join a union and engage in collective bargaining.
What hasn’t changed is the lack of women astronomers. There are more women in science media now but it’s still a field dominated by men. And only one planet is named for a goddess, although in some cultures, our planet Earth is known as Gaia.