Nature Astronomy Focus: Gender equity in astronomy

Equity and inclusion of all in the scientific process would ensure a true diversity of ideas, which is paramount for exploiting the full potential of our community to make new discoveries. Despite this relatively universally accepted Ansatz, women and other under-represented groups still face both direct and indirect obstacles in their pursuit of a career in astronomy and space science. Discrimination based on gender, skin colour, disability, sexual orientation and other minority statuses persists in our society at large but also in the microcosm of astronomy, astrophysics and planetary science communities. 

In this Focus issue of Nature Astronomy we put the spotlight on the issue of equity (or lack thereof) in our community by inviting comments on the different manifestations of this persistent discrimination. The data presented by our authors paint a worrying picture. A dense network of often subconscious and therefore insidious biases and discriminatory behaviours lead to very real deficiencies in the representation of women and minority astronomers in almost every aspect of scientific discourse (from conferences to missions, career prizes and citation counts).

The Focus is centred on a research Letter by Neven Caplar and collaborators that asks the question whether women-led papers are cited differently than papers led by men. The answer is yes: with machine-learning techniques accounting for non-gender specific attributes, women-led papers are cited systematically 10% less than their men-led equivalents. This deficit is not surprising and in line with similar findings in other scientific fields. Finally, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein offers her Perspective on the issue of intersectionality and how astronomers at the intersection of multiple minority statuses suffer exponentially more and yet often fall through the cracks of statistical studies such as the one conducted by Caplar et al.

Please click through the content of this Focus (links to free-access PDF files in the "Read more" tabs) and once you've finished reading it, you are invited to move to the "Further Reading" section, where a wealth of additional information awaits your perusal.

Our Focus issue on Gender equity in astronomy is centred around the research Letter by Neven Caplar and collaborators, "Quantitative evaluation of gender bias in astronomical publications from citation counts". The authors look at the citations that women- and men-led papers in astronomy receive and find that women-led papers are systematically undercited compared to those led by men. Their methodology, using advanced machine learning techniques, allows the authors to account for other, non-gender specific factors that might affect the citation count of the paper. These include the seniority of the lead author, their institution, the number of co-authors and the journal in which the paper is published. While there is a clear trend towards parity in terms of citations, there is still a systematic 10% deficit of citations for women-led papers. The authors analyse potential systematics in their methodology and they conclude that this deficit is probably under-estimated. 

The results by Neven Caplar and colleagues are put into context in a News & Views piece written by Sarah Tuttle, "The power of being counted". Tuttle reflects on the importance of data but also highlights the pitfalls of such purely data-driven works; for example, authors using only their initials or those who do not identify with their birth gender would be miscounted by Caplar et al. The News & Views piece makes a plea for already established astronomers to move beyond the adage of "Where are the data?" and instead, as a first step, do their homework to educate themselves and then join the fight for equity in astronomy.

"Curiosity and the end of discrimination" by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein offers a Perspective on the topic of intersectionality, "the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage". Prescod-Weinstein explains that very often works like the one by Caplar et al. tend to — often inadvertently — erase the experiences of those people that suffer the most in our community. The piece urges us to be curious and to use all the tools at our disposal — most importantly the already established and experienced field of sociology that routinely deals with such issues — to root out discrimination.