By the numbers, Argentina looks like the most female-friendly place in the world for astronomers. A full 39 percent of professional astronomers there are women, which, yes, passes for remarkable when the number hovers in the teens or below in most of the rest of the world.

So what’s going on in Argentina, a country which female scientists there describe as still having “‘machismo’ in the air”? I first began asking this question to astronomers—Argentinian and otherwise—after news broke that renowned UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy had been sexually harassing female students for decades. The scandal shined a spotlight on the dismal number of women in astronomy in the US. Explaining the differences between countries could, I hoped, point out policies that might be able to root out sexism.

While no one had a definitive answer about what’s different in Argentina, a pattern did emerge—but not an encouraging one. “I have a hypothesis that’s never been disproven: The more elite the field, the more male it is,” Meg Urry, president of the American Astronomical Society, told me. What I learned about Argentina’s academic system didn’t disprove it either. Correlation and causation are notoriously difficult to untangle, but the way things work in Argentina at least supports the hypothesis that what looks like typical workplace competition disproportionately blocks women in science.

The percentage of professional women astronomers in different countries.The percentage of professional women astronomers in different countries. WIRED

The Leaky Pipeline

First of all, that 39 percent statistic doesn’t capture the whole picture, says Cristina Mandrini, a solar physicist at Argentina’s Institute of Astronomy and Space Physics. To illustrate her point, she began reading gender balance statistics to me over Skype: At the lowest level of research, the proportion of men and women in Argentinian astronomy is roughly 50/50. The highest level has only two women: Mandrini and Gloria Dubner, the director of Mandrini’s institute.

The tenure system that fuels university rank and research in the US doesn’t exist in Argentina; instead, the National Scientific and Technical Research Council funds all research positions while universities run teaching. (So someone could do both.) That council establishes the “lowest” and “highest” levels Mandrini was talking about. After a PhD and post-doctoral fellowship, a young scientist can apply for permanent research positions at the first level, and the opportunity to level up comes every few years. Job security is pretty good even for young researchers, says Dubner, and they don’t have to worry about moving from job to job.

Without the high stakes of tenure, the system is less competitive than in the US. Salaries are standardized at each level, so men and women are paid the same. And the system has some built-in protections for women, like adding an extra year to age limits if a woman has a baby. Argentina has also had a long record of better representation of women in astronomy, even back in the 80s. But Dubner says that making it to the very highest level—by, say, publishing in top journals and competing on the international astronomy scene—isn’t easy for working parents. “If you have a family and are raising kids and other things, it’s hard. Too hard,” she says.

This, of course, is what people who study professional gender imbalances call the “leaky pipeline” problem. When you put the squeeze on a field, the people who get squeezed out tend to be women. That’s because of any number of reasons: lack of female role models, discrimination both subtle and overt, family responsibilities falling disproportionately onto women.

Fewer women end up in elite positions, but also, as Urry pointed out, fewer women end up in elite specialties: Plenty of women are physicians; few are heart surgeons. The number of women in astronomy is bad; the number in cosmology is worse. This dynamic may explain the pipeline problem—and, in part, why Argentina has more women in astronomy and in other fields of science.

The Prestige of Professors

The late 1990s and early 2000s were disastrous for Argentina’s economy. The country saw hyperinflation, riots, and a debt default. Funding astronomy was not the government’s biggest priority. “When salaries were very low in the ‘90s, men tended to leave research and move to industries with better salaries. In that epoch, the percentage of women was higher than now,” says Dubner. “I don’t think this is because of a good reason.”

The Argentine economy has since recovered, but being a professor at a top astronomy research center still doesn’t come with all the privileges you might expect. Hernán Muriel is a former president of the Argentinian Astronomical Society and a professor at the National University of Córdoba, the site of Argentina’s first observatory. But, he says, Argentina is far from many international astronomy meetings, and he doesn’t always have the budget to attend conferences in the US or Europe. Argentina is a somewhat unique position: It has a sizable astronomy community, but it’s not quite a powerhouse like the US or Germany.

Muriel did spend a few years as a postdoc in Germany in the 1990s, and he found that things just ran more smoothly there. “When I came back to Argentina, the Internet was nothing,” he says. “I had to push for connections. And getting a good speed that worked properly, that was 10 years later.”

Something else struck Muriel as odd while abroad. “In Germany, if you’re a professor you’re something like God,” he says. But that hierarchy with a tenured professor at the top just doesn’t exist in Argentina. When his department ran low on space, he shared his office with a student for a while. And that was no big deal.

Mandrini echoes the sentiment: “If I send an email to other countries and I sign my email ‘Professor Cristina Mandrini,’ then they treat me completely differently. And I’m not used to that.”

This changes the social dimension of research. In Argentina, professors and students (even undergraduates!) socialize. The push to keep relationships between professors and students strictly professional—to reduce possibilities of sexual harassment—hasn’t reached Argentina. “I remember a professor friend from Cornell who told me he never closes the door when he’s in a meeting with a student. He told me, ‘You are crazy if you close the door,’” says Muriel. To him, a closed door doesn’t hint at impropriety. “Here, you close the door if you need to talk business.”

Even when those relationships turn romantic, several people told me, nobody bats an eye—as long as the professor is not the student’s direct supervisor. That sounded crazy to me the first time I heard it. But professor-student relationships are problematic because of that huge power discrepancy; if the discrepancy is smaller in Argentina (though certainly not nonexistent) that attitude makes more sense.

Comparing two countries—with their innumerable social, political, and economic differences—is even more complex. But even so, Argentina doesn’t work as a model for US science. The reasons Argentina is more women-friendly don’t seem to translate across borders. Instead, they underscore that no one, and certainly no one in science, has figured out how to patch the leaky pipeline. The ultimate problem isn’t that the pipeline leaks; it’s that the pipeline leaks selectively.

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Argentina Has More Women in Science—But It Hasn’t Fixed Sexism