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Female astronomers of colour face daunting discrimination

Two-fifths report feeling unsafe at work, and 18% have concerns about attending conferences.

Corrected:

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Women of colour working in astronomy and planetary science experience high rates of harassment at work, a study finds. In a survey, a striking 40% of these scientists reported feeling unsafe in their workplaces owing to their gender, and 28% reported feeling unsafe on account of their race.

The findings, published on 10 July in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets1, illustrate a well-researched phenomenon: a woman’s risk of being subjected to gendered or race-based harassment is higher if she belongs to multiple minority groups. Women of colour were more likely than white women or men of colour to recall a negative workplace experience during a five-year period from 2011-2015. Such incidents included having their mental or physical ability questioned.

“This is something that I’ve known about, that I’ve seen and experienced, as someone of colour, for as long as I’ve been in the field. So I’m not surprised,” says Cristina Thomas, an astronomer at the Planetary Science Institute who is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “I was very happy to see someone quantify what was happening so other people would see it.”

In plain sight

The study, whose participants ranged from undergraduate students to senior researchers, suggests that the negative environment experienced by many female scientists of colour is often apparent to colleagues of other genders or ethnicities.

Eighty-eight per cent of the 474 participants — a group that was 84% white and included both men and women — had heard remarks that were racist, sexist or directed at a person’s gender or intelligence in their current workplace.

Survey respondents included 45 women of colour, who collectively accounted for 11% of participants. That proportion is double the percentage of minority women in the United States who hold bachelor's degrees in physical science.

The analysis is the first of its kind in the astronomy and planetary-science fields, and one of few in a science, technology, engineering or medicine discipline that specifically examines the experiences of women of colour, says study co-author Christina Richey, former chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy in Washington DC. The research team was made up of two planetary scientists and two social scientists, including anthropologist Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led a high-profile survey of harassment in scientific fieldwork that was published in 2014 in PLoS ONE2.

The latest study found that harassment and discrimination can have a heavy impact on an individual’s career decisions. Eighteen per cent of women of colour and 12% of white women reported avoiding a class, conference or professional event because they did not feel safe attending. Such events can help to foster professional networks, mentorship and opportunities for collaboration — connections that can advance a scientist’s career, says Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.

Systemic solutions

“If a culture of hostility remains in place, it doesn’t matter what we do at the individual level because the system is broken. The pipeline is broken,” says Zevallos, who helped to implement gender-education programmes at universities in her former position at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra.

The analysis has sparked intense discussion online among astronomers and planetary scientists. Several female scientists of colour have shared their stories on Twitter, describing the significant, but sometimes subtle, consequences of harassment and discrimination in their own lives.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle, tweeted that when faced with events that she thought might expose her to harassment, discrimination or other negative experiences, she sometimes brought her husband along. But that created an extra financial burden for the couple.

In recent years, professional societies such as the American Astronomical Society and American Geophysical Union have taken steps to prevent harassment at their meetings. The latest study suggests several actions that research institutions, funding agencies and scientific societies can take to reduce harassment. These include updating their codes of conduct to bar harassment; instituting mandatory cultural-awareness training; encouraging leading researchers to model appropriate behaviour; and putting in place swift sanctions for perpetrators.

“It’s time to pivot away from the conversation of, ‘Is gender equity and racism a problem in science?’, and shift to taking action,” Zevallos says. “We can’t afford to lose more women of colour, white women and under-represented minorities.”

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
547,
Pages:
266–267
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nature.2017.22291

Corrections

Corrected:

An earlier version of this story cited data from the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets on the percentage of men of colour who reported avoiding a class, conference or professional event. However, that journal has since revised its data, revealing that, in fact, only 6% — or one man — in the sample fell into this category. That comparison has therefore been removed from the story.

References

  1. Clancy, K. B. H., Lee, K. M. N., Rodgers, E. M. & Richey, C. J. Geophys. Res. Planets http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/2017JE005256 (2017).

  2. Clancy, K. B. H., Nelson, R. G., Rutherford, J. N. & Hinde, K. PLoS ONE 9, e102172 (2014).

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