siaa_logo_blue Patricia Ann Whitelock whitelock_small

South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO)
and University of Cape Town (UCT)

Cape Town, South Africa
Job Title: Head of Astronomy Division at SAAO
and Visiting Professor at UCT


'She is an Astronomer': How long is it since you got your maximum academic qualification?
Patricia Ann Whitelock:
It is 33 years since I got my PhD. I am currently Head of the Astronomy Division and I was Acting Director for about 18 months following the death of the Director.

I have also been President of the South African Institute of Physics - so far the only woman and only astronomer to hold that position.

SIAA: Do you feel it was more difficult for you to get a job or a promotion in comparison with male astronomers?
PAW: Probably not - while I came across one or two junior people who were very negative when I first arrived at SAAO 30 years ago, my senior colleagues have generally been very supportive. What is clear in South Africa is that many things were strongly biased against women prior to our first democratic election in 1994 (although not obviously so within SAAO), and that bias has been more or less eliminated since. That is not to say that women occupy 50% of top posts, but there are at least some women in top posts and the profile of the workforce is gradually changing. The legislation that was put in place to try and remove racial discrimination is also dealing with other types of discrimination but it will take time. The racial imbalance in the workforce remains the major problem.

SIAA: Are women under-represented in your institution?
At SAAO there are a few women in scientific posts, but none at all in senior engineering or IT posts. Of the 25 astronomers on the SAAO staff, 5 are women (only one of them born in South Africa). of the 5 astronomers on the Executive Committee, I am the only woman.

SIAA: What is your family status?
I have a husband, John Menzies, who is also an astronomer and who has always been very supportive. I do not have children, and am immensely impressed by women who do and also manage to be successful astronomers.

SIAA: How many hours per day do you normally dedicate to work?
8 or 9 hours now, but I used to do 10 to 12 when I did more research.

SIAA: What would most help you advance your career?
Less bureaucracy would help in almost every single way, but as far as my career is concerned I am sure I have got where I am going.

SIAA: What recommendation would you make to young women starting their career in astronomy?
It is well worth it, but astronomy has to be your life, not just your job, or you are unlikely to do well or be happy. If you are going to get married and/or have children then you must find a partner who is a true partner, because it is impossible to do everything yourself.