Data show that women astronomers face discrimination at all stages of their careers. To ensure true diversity of ideas, everyone, but especially those with privilege, must do something about it.
Do we live in a post-gender, post-race world? The answer is clearly no, as time and time again statistics about pay gaps1, glass ceilings2 and acts of discrimination and harassment3 remind us. Nonetheless, many still believe that — in spite of the society in which it is embedded — science adheres to equality of genders, races and sexual orientations. After all, aren't hard work and an inquisitive mind the only tools an earnest scientist needs?
It's more than a year ago that the astronomical community awoke to harassment scandals4–6 — ugly reminders of what female scientists, scientists of colour, scientists with disabilities and other minority statuses experience day to day. Yet, these are the more obvious manifestations of a deep, systemic undercurrent of discrimination that underpins each and every interaction within academia. The more insidious acts — a comment about one's looks, an assumption about one's gender identity or the gender identity of one's partner — harm us as much7. It is the conformity of academia and its poster image (a white heterosexual cis-gendered man, white lab coat and crazy hair optional) that deprives us from our much needed role models and mentors.
Those at the intersection of several minority statuses suffer the most (see the Perspective by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein; article no. 0145). When was the last time you met a black woman professor while at a conference? Of all physics doctorate degrees awarded in the USA, only ∼19% go to women8 and only ∼2.5% are awarded to members of underrepresented minority groups (http://go.nature.com/2pLiSZf). In 2013, only five bachelor's degrees in astronomy were awarded to African Americans9. In 2012, there were 30 African American female physics and astronomy faculty members out of a total of 9,000 (ref. 10) — 0.3% their representation in the population. It is also telling that such statistics are all but missing for most other regions in the world. Numbers are even worse when looking at the highest scientific prizes in our field (see the Comment by Pat Knezek; article no. 0151). For example, in roughly 115 years, the Nobel prizes in the fields of physics and chemistry have been awarded to a total of 0 women of colour (out of 379 laureates).
So where does the problem lie? Even at the earliest stages of self-awareness and identity formation, society and science are failing girls. A system that is dominated by men and white people reinforces its masculinity and whiteness by effectively excluding anyone who does not conform11. Take the infamous ‘leaky pipeline’12 that is established already at the undergraduate level or even earlier, for example. It is no wonder that women are significantly underrepresented at all stages and facets of professional astronomical activities (see the Comment by Julie Rathbun; article no. 0148; and the Comment by Sara Lucatello and Aleksandar Diamond-Stanic; article no. 0161). Indeed, even within scientific functions such as conferences, women scientists systematically get the short end of the stick both in terms of active contributions13 (https://cswa.aas.org/percent.html) and in how the ‘air is shared’ in discussion and question and answer sessions (see the Comment by Sarah Schmidt and James Davenport; article no. 0153).
We have data to back these statements. Neven Caplar and collaborators mined the Astrophysics Data System and the arXiv preprint server and compared the citations of papers led by men and women, using machine-learning techniques to account for non-gendered factors. The discovered 10% citation deficit for women-led papers is revealing. The cumulative effect of all the above make for an egregious constant upstream battle against a pervasively uniform research culture.
Not everything is doom and gloom though. The astronomical community is slowly becoming more aware of such problems and is devising ways to change the tide. Astronomical societies around the world are investing time and resources to make their conferences more welcoming to all (http://go.nature.com/2rqKfUT) while at the same time establishing committees that quantify the problem through data mining and statistics. Funding agencies, like the National Science Foundation and Science Europe, have a key role to play in coordinating these efforts14. Schemes like the UK's Athena SWAN (http://go.nature.com/2jnBVT4) for incentivizing universities to do better are examples of steps that take us forward. Finally, the community is organizing itself to protect and mentor those in need and establish networks between like-minded people. The Equity and Inclusion in Physics and Astronomy Facebook group, with more than 1,000 members, is a grassroots initiative.
Journals also bear the duty of striving for equity in the fields that we publish. This Nature Astronomy Focus issue on gender is such an effort. Together with Nature and Nature Physics, we will also be sponsoring an equity and diversity luncheon at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science, in Prague later in June.
However, perhaps more importantly, it is the poster image of science (remember him?) who we should call upon to carry the burden of change. Privilege, whatever its origin, creates the impetus for the most fortunate among us to strive for the betterment of all. We must not fall in the trap of the ‘colour-blind’, ‘humanism not feminism’ rhetoric. These are real problems, affecting real people — our colleagues or could-have-been colleagues. It is our duty to face them unflinchingly head on.
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