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'Sexist' astronomers cause a row that spans the globe

EARTHY remarks by male astronomers have caused a global row about sexist language within the international community of stargazers.

Female astronomers in the United States are up in arms about comments made by male colleagues during a committee meeting earlier this year of the International Astronomical Union, whose 7,300 members include some of the world's most famous scientists.

Male astronomers who attended the meeting reportedly compared a giant nebula with a phallus. Others were said to dismiss a difficulty between themselves with the phrase 'tough titty'.

Roberta Humphries, the only female astronomer present, was so upset she complained and her cause has been taken up by the body representing American astronomers.

It has written to the general secretary of the International Astronomical Union, Jacqueline Bergeron, a leading French astronomer, to complain.

Dr Humphries said yesterday that she did not want to discuss details of the incident. 'Something did happen. I complained about it. It's not an isolated incident. It happens all the time. It is not just what happened to me. There are other incidents.'

Astronomers present at the meeting said that Dr Humphries appeared to be particularly upset when the chairman called the meeting to order with the phrase 'lady and gentlemen'.

Suggestions that the row could lead to American astronomers pulling out of the International Astronomical Union were dismissed by Dr Bergeron.

Nevertheless, she admitted that there were 'strong cultural differences that resulted in tension between countries'. 'We are meeting in September to examine possible ways to improve things,' Dr Bergeron said.

Women astronomers have been kept up-to-date with events with the help of an electronic mail messaging system called the Women and Astronomy Network - WONET - according to a (male) astronomer who wished to remain anonymous.

'It's another example of what people say is the paralysis in US academic life. Such issues are clogging up valuable academic time,' he said.

Dr Humphries said she found certain words and types of language offensive. 'The International Astronomical Union are going to take up the issue. It's not something they've addressed in the past.'

Dr Bergeron said that about one in ten members of the astronomical union are women and some may be offended by slang phrases.

'If I was in such a meeting I would make a remark on the spot,' she added.