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Gender, racial bias in astronomy revealed

Research has found that women generally experience subtle, indirect or unintentional discrimination in the sciences. A new survey shows women of color undergo the worst harassment.

Social scientists Kate Clancy (left) and Katharine Lee (right) collaborated with space physicist/astrophysicist Erica Rodgers (second from left) and planetary scientist Christina Richey (second from right) to conduct a study of workplace climate among planetary science and astronomy professionals. Image via AGU.

On July 10, 2017, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) announced results of a new online survey, showing that women of color working in astronomy and planetary science report more gender and racial harassment than any other gender or racial group in the field.

In the online survey about their workplace experiences, 88 percent of academics, students, postdoctoral researchers and administrators in astronomy and planetary science reported hearing, experiencing or witnessing negative language or harassment relating to race, gender or other physical characteristics at work within the last five years. Of the 423 respondents, 39 percent reported having been verbally harassed and 9 percent said they had suffered physical harassment at work. AGU said:

In a survey of workplace experiences among astronomy and planetary science professionals, about 40 percent of women of color reported feeling unsafe in their workplace because of their gender, while 28 percent feel unsafe due to their race. About 13 percent of the survey’s female respondents reported skipping at least one class, meeting, fieldwork opportunity or other professional event for this reason. Some men of color also skipped events as a result of hearing racist comments at school or work, according to a new study detailing the survey’s results in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

A substantial number of respondents – 88 percent – reported having heard remarks within the last five years that they interpreted as racist or sexist or that disparaged someone’s femininity, masculinity, or physical or mental abilities. Thirty-nine percent of respondents reported having been verbally harassed, and 9 percent said they had suffered physical harassment at work.

According to anthropologist Kathryn Clancy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, lead author of the new study:

These negative experiences are taking a toll on the scientists’ sense of security at work, leading to a loss of professional opportunities and underrepresentation of women and minorities in science.

For 40 percent of women of color to say they felt unsafe in their workplace – not over the course of their lifetimes, but just in the last few years – that is probably one of the strongest pieces of evidence that something is terribly wrong.

Previous research has found that women generally experience subtle, indirect or unintentional discrimination in the sciences. The authors of the study wanted to look specifically at the experiences of those who fit into two minority groups – women of color – and their study is among the first to do so.

Read more about the new study from AGU

Deborah Byrd

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