19 September 2016

President’s Column: Making Astronomy Welcoming & Safe for All

Christine Jones, Harvard-Smithsonian, CfA

Astronomy has symbolized the fulfillment of the human endeavor to understand the universe and our place in it. Indeed, in just the last hundred years, astronomers have revolutionized our knowledge of the cosmos. Over the last few decades, we have come to understand our own profession better too.

Recently many concerned AAS members, alarmed by the violence against minorities in our country, have written asking the AAS to express support for our Black colleagues and other members of underrepresented groups. Together with the Council, I affirm our complete and unwavering support for all our colleagues whose experiences in the workplace often differ significantly from those of the majority. In addition we must continue to work within our community to fully establish a welcoming and safe environment within which all astronomers can thrive. This is part of the charge to the AAS diversity committees [1] and a goal to which the AAS leadership is committed.

The painful events that gave birth to and sustain the Black Lives Matter movement remind us that considerable work still needs to be done to ensure that the climate within our profession is welcoming for everyone. Many of our members report experiencing both unconscious and conscious racism, and this is to the detriment of our profession. Currently people from Black, Latino, and Native American backgrounds are underrepresented in astronomy relative to their numbers in the population [2]. Research has shown that disparities in access and inclusion arise from structural issues in education, mentoring, hiring, and resource allocation in the sciences as well as unconscious and conscious bias and discrimination (e.g., [3], [4], [5], [6]).

As with all members of our nation, astronomers have certain fundamental rights, including but not limited to respect for their humanity and dignity, freedom from discrimination and violence, and equal access to high-quality opportunities in education and employment. To secure these rights for all astronomers, especially those from historically underprivileged groups, the AAS, through its members, diversity committees, and leadership, has undertaken several positive actions against conscious and unconscious racism and discrimination and to address underrepresentation in our community. These activities include the following:

We recognize that these efforts will not in themselves eliminate racism and the problems of underrepresentation in our community, so we seek ideas and involvement from all our members to accomplish this goal. Thus I ask all our members to take actions in their own schools and institutions to provide welcoming climates and encourage the increased participation of people of color and women, and especially women of color. AAS members are encouraged to contact the Council and the diversity committees to express their views and ideas on how to make our community more inclusive. We know that we can do better and we ask for your help.

Understanding our universe is a basic human quest that, as astronomers, we have the privilege of leading. We must also commit ourselves to the principle that the sky belongs to everyone.

Notes & References

[1] The AAS diversity committees are the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA), and the Committee for Sexual-Orientation & Gender Minorities in Astronomy (SGMA), formerly the Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality (WGLE). Our newest diversity panel is the Working Group on Accessibility and Disability (WGAD).

[2] Ivie, R., Anderson, G., and White, S. 2014, “African Americans & Hispanics Among Physics & Astronomy Faculty: Results from the 2012 Survey of Physics & Astronomy Degree-Granting Departments,” American Institute of Physics.

[3] Townsend, B. L. 2000, “The Disproportionate Discipline of African American Learners: Reducing School Suspensions and Expulsions,” Exceptional Children, 66, 3, 381–391, DOI: 10.1177/001440290006600308.

[4] Milkman, K. L., Akinoa, M., and Chugh, D. 2012, “Temporal Distance and Discrimination: An Audit Study in Academia,” Psychological Science, 23, 7, 710–717, DOI: 10.1177/0956797611434539.

[5] Anderson, K. J. and Smith, G. 2005, “Students’ Preconceptions of Professors: Benefits and Barriers According to Ethnicity and Gender,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 27, 2, 184–201.

[6] Ginther, D. K., Schaffer, W. T., Schnell, J., Masimore, B., Liu, F., Haak, L. L., and Kington, R. 2011, “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards,” Science, 333, 1015–1019.