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Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy

Monday, November 19, 2012 - 11:44

Although recent decades have seen significant progress by women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), this rate of progress is not shared by women scientists belonging to underrepresented minorities. Recognizing this problem, the National Academy of Sciences organized a conference entitled, “Seeking Solutions: Maximizing American Talent by Advancing Women of Color in Academia,” which was held on 7-8 June 2012 in Washington, DC. In preparation, the Academies invited a range of scientific societies to comment on the status of women of color in their disciplines. The AAS responded by forming a working group consisting of members of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA): Dara Norman, Jedidah Isler, and Hakeem Oluseyi; and the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA): Nancy Morrison, Caroline Simpson, and Laura Trouille. Our report is posted on the National Academies’ web site, along with those of many other societies, at: http://sites.nas.edu/wocconference/get-involved/organizations/. In the following summary, quotations are from our report: http://sites.nas.edu/wocconference/files/2012/03/6.3.-American-Astronomi...

Women of color are at the nexus of race and gender, and are therefore in a double bind. While their experience has much in common with those of both women and minorities, they are often overlooked in efforts on behalf of both groups. Our report begins with a summary of barriers faced by women of color in astronomy, involving: difficulty building networks and collaborations and achieving a professional status that permits participation in invited activities; lack of effective mentoring; unfavorable workplace climate, lack of support, and even hostility; cultural alienation; conscious and unconscious bias; and stereotype threat. All these problems are exacerbated by the rarity of women of color in every STEM field.

Aiming toward solutions to these problems, our report suggests steps that could be taken by funding agencies, consortia of universities, and scientific societies, to improve networking, recognition, support, and understanding within the scientific community of women of color in science.

  • Build national cohorts of high-achieving graduate student women of color at leading institutions to provide supportive, interdisciplinary peer networks
  • Require diversity and cultural awareness training for people in supervisory roles to decrease their reliance on stereotypes in their relations with women of color
  • Encourage fair hiring practices such as those implemented by the ADVANCE programs at the University of Michigan (http://sitemaker.umich.edu/advance/recruitment__stride_) and the University of Wisconsin (http://wiseli.engr.wisc.edu/map.php), among others. Research shows that “only after reviewers are given specific metrics with which to assess candidates do they avoid giving unfair advantage to white males.”
  • Encourage networking across disciplines among women of color at the professional level
  • Expand programs that enable graduate students and postdocs to change advisors or to be exposed in mid-program to alternative mentors. In this way, damage caused by a failed relationship with a supervisor could be mitigated and students’ professional connections stimulated. An example is the Visiting Faculty Program of the Department of Energy (http://science.energy.gov/wdts/vfp/).

Our report continues with descriptions of existing activities by the AAS that assist women of color, including the existence of the CSMA and CSWA and the ongoing redesign of the Shapley Lectureship program to provide outreach to underrepresented minorities. It concludes with lessons learned from successful programs at minority-serving institutions such as Florida International University and at historically black colleges and universities such as Spelman College. We hope that the AAS can be at the forefront of additional efforts to make our science more inclusive.

Nancy D. Morrison
University of Toledo