There’s a lot of bias in astronomy — and women of color are hurt the most

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Nearly half of women of color working in astronomy have felt unsafe because of their gender, says a new study.

Researchers gave a survey to 474 astronomers and planetary scientists. The results, published today in the Journal of Geophysical Research, show that women — especially non-white women — often face a negative environment at work. Women of color felt unsafe 40 percent of the time due to gender, and 28 percent of the time due to race. In addition, 18 percent of women of color and 12 percent of white women reported that they’d skipped fieldwork, class, or professional events because they seemed unsafe. Given that these events are important for networking and career advancement, there is a real cost to being forced to opt out.

Recent years have brought more attention to sexual harassment in academia. For instance, well-known UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy violated sexual harassment policies for years, while a Caltech professor who harassed two women was allowed to return to campus. There have, of course, been other papers on the negative experiences of minorities in academia, including one in 2014 about the experiences of women doing field work, by Kathryn Clancy, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and a co-author of this new paper.

But this is one of the first to focus on women of color in science.

“We’re following the lead of women of color, who have been trying to say this for decades and haven’t been heard,” says Clancy. “It’s presumed that it’s mostly white women who are the victim, and we really wanted to make it clear that that’s simply not the case. Instead, women of color in the sciences have been missing for far too long, partly because their absolute numbers are small.”

For the study, the researchers adapted a 2011 survey conducted by the American Physical Society about the workplace climate in physics. They recruited participants (both men and women) through various newsletters such as the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences. Because there are so few women in astronomy to begin with, the scientists intended to get more women than is representative, so they also used outlets like the Women in Astronomy blog and American Astronomical Society Women Newsletter. As a result, 84 percent of the sample were white, which is about representative of national data, but 67 percent were female, which is much higher than average.

Participants took the 39-question survey from January to March 2015. They provided demographic information — gender, ethnicity, whether they were able-bodied — and career position, and answered questions about how often they felt unsafe, whether they experienced racist or sexist remarks, and whether they heard negative language or comments about not being masculine or feminine enough. (You can see the list of questions here.)

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Overall, 88 percent of everyone surveyed reported having a negative experience relating to gender, race, or physical ability at work. Across nearly every significant finding, women of color faced the most discrimination and harassment.

There are some limitations to the study. People weren’t randomly recruited, so it’s possible that the people who responded were more likely to have already experienced harassment. In addition, the study uses terms like “verbal harassment” and “physical harassment,” meaning that people had to think of the events as harassment. This may seem like nitpicking, but studies have suggested that cultural differences mean that minorities may report harassment at different rates.

The authors say that this research highlights the “double jeopardy” situation that women of color find themselves in, receiving harassment for both their race and their gender. Clancy says that she is aware of other groups who are interested in doing studies on the experiences of women and minorities in their own fields. “But raising awareness is not sufficient,” she adds. “There will be more, and we’re going to keep publishing these papers, but what are these disciplines going to do with this information?”

They suggest changes such as a code of conduct, diversity training, and responding quickly to allegations of harassment, but acknowledge that, ultimately, no one solution alone is enough.

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