Study Shows Gender & Sexual Minorities in Astronomy & Planetary Science Face Increased Risks of Harassment & Assault
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Scientists like to think of themselves as enlightened, but when it comes to prejudice too many are still in the dark ages. That’s the sobering implication of a new study showing that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, pansexual, asexual, and/or nonbinary (LGBTQPAN) women and gender minorities experience a more hostile workplace climate in astronomy and planetary science compared to cisgender, straight women.
In a survey of workplace experiences over the preceding five years among astronomers and planetary scientists, 21% of LGBTQPAN women and gender minorities reported experiencing physical harassment, more than twice the incidence for cisgender, straight women, which at 9% is already quite alarming. Similarly, 47% of LGBTQPAN women and gender minorities experienced verbal sexual harassment compared with 40% of cisgender straight women (and just 3% of cisgender men). And whereas 62% of cisgender male respondents indicated that they had heard sexist comments from their peers at work, the same was true for 78% of cisgender straight women and for 81% of LGBTQPAN women and gender minorities.
These distressing findings and other results are published today in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society (BAAS). The interdisciplinary team of authors includes planetary scientist Christina Richey (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), astronomer Erica Rodgers (Space Science Institute), and anthropologists Katharine Lee and Kathryn Clancy (both University of Illinois). More than 450 academics, students, postdoctoral researchers, and administrators responded to the survey, which was administered online in early 2015. The participants represented every demographic group and every rank in the academic hierarchy and were recruited through scientific conferences, media outlets, blogs, and social media. The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) funded the study.
Typically, the sexual violence experiences of straight, white women are highlighted and responded to the most. An earlier paper by the same authors and based on the same survey revealed a higher frequency of sexual harassment toward women of color. With this new publication the researchers highlight the experiences of the LGBTQPAN community.
“One of the rationales of this paper was to acknowledge people who are especially vulnerable but don’t get a lot of attention,” says Clancy. “The fact that more than one in five people in the LGBTQPAN community were physically harassed between 2011 and 2015 is unacceptable.”
These negative experiences are taking a toll on the affected scientists’ sense of security at work, leading to a loss of professional opportunities and underrepresentation of LGBTQPAN people in astronomy and planetary science. Meanwhile studies focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion not only in the sciences but also in other professions show that diverse perspectives lead to better solutions to problems, better decision-making, and better outcomes.
The new paper makes numerous specific recommendations on steps that organizations and their leaders can take to reduce incidences of harassment. Among them are to prioritize the physical, sexual, and psychological safety of all workers; to develop a code of conduct for appropriate professional behavior; to ensure equal access to bathroom facilities for people of all genders; to provide sensitivity and bystander intervention training; and to swiftly, justly, and consistently sanction transgressions of behavior.
“We wanted this paper to be accessible to people who don’t do complex social science statistical methods,” says Lee. “They should be able to read the paper about their community and find ways to make their workplace better.”
“We are not the first people to say this is an important issue,” adds Clancy. “These recommendations have been made across many reports, and people need to start following them. There needs to be more support from leadership, and scientists who wish to make a change should work with both subject-matter experts and advocates in this area.”
“Leaders in the LGBTQPAN community in astronomy and planetary science have been raising awareness and advocating for change for a number of years,” says lead author Richey. “I’m glad we now have findings that reveal the extent of the problems faced by our LGBTQPAN colleagues. I look forward to discussing our research with the broader community of astronomers and planetary scientists and working with them to make things better."
"Gender and Sexual Minorities in Astronomy and Planetary Science Face Increased Risks of Harassment and Assault," Christina R. Richey (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology), Katharine M. N. Lee (Dept. of Anthropology, Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Erica Rodgers (Space Science Institute), and Kathryn B. H. Clancy (Dept. of Anthropology & Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), 2019 Dec. 9, Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society.
Image & Caption
Social scientists Kate Clancy (left) and Katharine Lee (left center) collaborated with space physicist/astrophysicist Erica Rodgers (right center) and planetary scientist Christina Richey (right) to conduct a study of workplace climate among planetary science and astronomy professionals. Credits: L. Brian Stauffer, Katharine Lee, Mark Heusinkveld, and David Estrada Larrañeta/Explora, respectively. Click image for high-res version (2372 x 715 pixels @ 96 dpi, 472 kilobytes).
Resources & More Information
- “Supporting LGBT+ Physicists and Astronomers: Best Practices for Academic Departments” (PDF) by the AAS Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy (SGMA) and LGBT+ Physicists; available on the SGMA webpage
- “American Institute of Physics (AIP) Adopts Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”
- “National Academies Issue Recommendations on Mentoring to Improve Diversity & Inclusion”
- “AAS Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion in Astronomy Graduate Education”
- “New Survey Highlights Gender, Racial Harassment in Astronomy”
This press release incorporates text from a related release issued by the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
About the AAS
The American Astronomical Society (AAS), established in 1899, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. Its membership of approximately 8,000 also includes physicists, mathematicians, geologists, engineers, and others whose research interests lie within the broad spectrum of subjects now comprising the astronomical sciences. The mission of the AAS 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.