28 July 2016

AAS Endorses Vision Statement for Inclusive Astronomy

The Council of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) has endorsed the vision statement that emerged from the inaugural Inclusive Astronomy conference in Nashville, Tennessee. For three days in June 2015, 160 astronomers, sociologists, policy makers, and community leaders met at Vanderbilt University to discuss issues affecting people of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer/genderfluid, agender, intersex, queer, questioning, or asexual (LGBTIQA*) people; people with disabilities; women; people disenfranchised by their socio-economic status; and anyone in the astronomical community who holds more than one of these underrepresented identities. A key focus of the meeting was examination of issues of intersectionality: the well-established idea that racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, and ableism are often linked (e.g., women of color suffer at the intersection of racism and sexism).

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Attendees at the Inclusive Astronomy 2015 conference at Vanderbilt
University in Nashville, Tennessee, June 2015. Courtesy IA 2015 organizers.

In the months following the conference, participants augmented the discussions and workshops held at Vanderbilt with a synthesis of prior studies, input from community members who weren’t at the meeting, and consultation with expert practitioners. This work led to guidelines and recommendations covering four broad topical areas:

1) Removing barriers to educational access, e.g., the use of Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores in admissions decisions, financial barriers to graduate-school application, stereotype threat, and accessibility problems that impede the ability of all students to directly participate in learning environments.

2) Creating inclusive climates to improve and maintain diversity, e.g., by eliminating microaggressions, honoring diversity without tokenization, using effective and accessible teaching methods, and effectively mentoring members of historically underrepresented groups.

3) Improving inclusion and access to power, policy, and leadership, e.g., by employing strategies on how to play a role in decisions affecting the astronomical community and learning how people in power can be more inclusive in their decision making.

4) Establishing a community of inclusive practice, e.g., using active rather than passive measures to ensure that astronomers’ groups, events, and institutions are inclusive.

The Inclusive Astronomy recommendations are meant to serve as a roadmap for equity and inclusion in astronomy. Just as roadmaps need to be changed as communities grow and evolve, the recommendations will be expanded and revised with significant input from the astronomical community, especially from members of marginalized groups, at future Inclusive Astronomy conferences and semiannual AAS meetings. In other words, they’re a work in progress. The AAS Council endorsed the vision statement accompanying the draft recommendations; it describes the underrepresentation problem and explains why equity, diversity, and inclusion are important for the astronomical sciences.

“I am very pleased that the AAS Council has endorsed the Nashville vision statement for making astronomy more inclusive,” says AAS President Christine Jones (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics). “Offering equal opportunities for people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and physical abilities to participate in astronomy will benefit both our science and our nation.”

Dr. Rick Fienberg
AAS Press Officer
+1 202-328-2010 x116

Dr. Kevin B. Marvel
AAS Executive Officer
+1 202-328-2010 x114

The organizers of the Inclusive Astronomy 2015 conference wish to acknowledge generous financial support from the National Science Foundation; the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy; Associated Universities, Inc.; the American Astronomical Society; Vanderbilt University; and the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS), established in 1899, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. The membership (approx. 8,000) also includes physicists, mathematicians, geologists, engineers, and others whose research interests lie within the broad spectrum of subjects now comprising contemporary astronomy. The mission of the American Astronomical Society is to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe, which it achieves through publishing, meeting organization, education and outreach, and training and professional development.

Inclusive Astronomy Vision Statement

[Excerpted from the Inclusive Astronomy 2015 Recommendations (the “Nashville
Recommendations”); see the online version for details, citations, and references.]

Statement of the Problem

The demographics of our nation are changing, but professional astronomy is not keeping pace. Only 2.1% of astronomers identify as Black or African-American and 3.2% as Hispanic, Latina/o, or of Spanish origin, and extremely few are Native or indigenous. Disappointingly, these numbers for physics and astronomy have remained essentially constant between 2004 and 2012. This underrepresentation is most acute in leadership roles and on the key committees that shape the future of our field.

This underrepresentation for people of color is reminiscent of that experienced by women in decades past, and this gives cause for hope. White women have made great progress in astronomy since the 1992 Baltimore Charter, owing in large part to the courageous leadership of those women and their allies who rallied the community and organized action, including the 1992 Baltimore Women in Astronomy meeting, the 2003 Pasadena Women in Astronomy II meeting, and the 2009 Goddard Women in Astronomy meeting. While the accomplishments of women continue to be systematically undervalued and they remain underrepresented in senior leadership positions, the gains made over the past 25 years served as inspiration for an inaugural Inclusive Astronomy 2015 meeting in Nashville, focusing not only on women but on all underrepresented individuals.

Much of the work toward equity and inclusion in astronomy has focused on single dimensions of identity. However, a one-dimensional approach leaves behind people with more than one marginalized identity. Intersectionality is the well-established concept that different forms of discrimination intersect for people with multiple marginalized identities; identity and oppression are matrices, not scalars. But the significant underrepresentation of individuals with particular intersectional identities can magnify marginalization with the additional challenges of isolation and lack of common voices for advocacy. For example, in 2012 there were fewer than 75 faculty members in physics or astronomy in the United States who are both female and African-American or Hispanic.

There are little data available on the numbers or experiences of persons with disabilities in astronomy, but anecdotal reports make clear that people with disabilities still experience significant lack of access to both physical spaces and to the tools of the profession. Similarly, there are little data published on LGBTIQA* individuals in astronomy, but studies in other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields point out negative experiences and outcomes for these groups. In one study, LGBT professionals in STEM and military-related federal agencies were found to be more underrepresented and report more negative outcomes in workplace experience than those in non-STEM agencies, despite federal protections and formalized advancement procedures. LGBTIQA* scientists are far less likely to be open about their sexual and gender orientation than are individuals in the wider population, a situation linked to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and burnout,. Asian Americans in astronomy are often overlooked in discussions of inclusivity, but data highlight pervasive stereotyping and reveal that Asian Americans are disproportionately excluded from leadership positions.

As these examples suggest, the ongoing underrepresentation of individuals from various groups is not just a problem of experiences and barriers within our profession. We live in societies that host systemic biases and power differences based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability status, and class. As we work for equity and inclusion in our field, we cannot ignore the broader society and the negative impacts it produces on current and potential colleagues from historically marginalized groups. We can repair the “leaky pipeline” within our profession only by also understanding the broader society within which our profession operates, the lived experiences of our students and colleagues when they are “out in the world,” and the biases that we all bring with us from the broader society into the places where astronomers work and learn. Indeed, most astronomers who are some combination of female, LGBTIQA*, disabled, or a person of color, can tell stories of overt discrimination, microaggressions, and hostile climate; the literature tells that same story. The situation is clear: Astronomy must become more inclusive.

Creating a more inclusive field is not just the right thing to do: The current lack of diversity and inclusivity within astronomy harms our profession. Research shows that diversity leads to greater innovation, more creative thinking, and higher-quality science. The breadth of knowledge and experience brought by people of color, women, LGBTIQA* people, people with disabilities, other traditionally marginalized individuals — and most particularly, anyone who shares more than one of these identities — is necessary to achieve our full potential for discovery and exploration, and to recruit and retain the many creative minds we need to solve fundamental questions about the universe. Making astronomy more inclusive and thus diverse is also necessary for maintaining the appreciation of our field by the increasingly diverse public who fund our exploration.

Our Vision: Astronomy Can and Must Become Inclusive

We believe that people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and physical abilities are capable of doing excellent science and shaping the future of our discipline. We know that identity is intersectional, and we see connections among barriers facing communities of color, women, people with disabilities, and LGBTIQA* people in science. We believe in equal opportunity. We share a vision of a more inclusive, more productive profession. We know that true inclusion and diversity require hard work from individual astronomers, organizations, and our profession as a whole to re-examine our professional culture, modify our existing practices, and remove barriers to inclusion. We assert that progress can and should be measured, and should be pursued with the same zeal as other strategic scientific goals. We have faith that we all — as colleagues and as a profession — can learn and improve.

We invite all to join in the hard work of creating an inclusive astronomy by endorsing this vision and by committing to implement the Nashville Recommendations for Inclusive Astronomy.