Survey Reveals Widespread Gender and Racial Biases in Astronomy and Planetary Science

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

There are many factors that appear to justify the low numbers of American women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)—from the low interest that young girls express for STEM subjects, to issues involving work-family balance.  However, recent research indicates that one of the major factors pushing women out of science is bias, not low interest or personal choices.  In addition, there is evidence that bias plays out differently depending on a woman’s race or ethnicity.  Implicit biases—which reflect stereotypes people may not realize they have—appear to be more common.  At the same time, there is evidence that old-fashioned, explicit racial stereotypes are alive and well.

Astronomy tool. Photo credit: Guilhem Vellut, CC BY 2.0

Here, we have a new example of bias in STEM.  Results from a study published a few days ago (July 10, 2017) show that there is widespread bias in astronomy and planetary science, the field that focuses on celestial objects and processes.  The study used an intersectional approach, taking into account the so-called “double jeopardy”—being not only a woman, but also a woman of color.

The survey, which involved more than 400 women and men, consisted of 39 questions administered online in early 2015, and focused on workplaces experiences they had in their current career position over the previous 5 years.  Participants were recruited through astronomy and planetary science professional meetings, media outlets, blogs and social media.

Respondents included a total of 474 individuals, representing academics, students, postdoctoral researchers and administrators in the astronomy and planetary science field.  Of these respondents—which represented every demographic group and every rank in the academic hierarchy—88 percent reported hearing, experiencing or witnessing negative language or harassment relating to race, gender or other physical characteristics at work within the last five years.  In addition, 39 percent reported having been verbally harassed, and 9 percent said they had suffered physical harassment in the workplace, resulting in an undermined sense of safety.  About a third of white men reported hearing sexist and racist remarks at work or in classrooms and laboratories.

In nearly every significant finding, women of color experienced the highest rates of negative workplace experiences, including harassment and assault.  Notably, about 40 percent of women of color reported feeling unsafe in their place of work as a result of their race and gender.

Overall, the undermined sense of safety resulted in about 13 percent of the female respondents skipping at least one class, meeting, fieldwork opportunity or other professional event.  Some minority men also skipped events as a result of hearing racist comments at school or work.

Kathryn Clancy, first author of the study, said in a press release: “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,  And the fact that something like a third of the white men are overhearing these remarks is more evidence that this is kind of a hostile environment in general. It appears that this is a discipline that has some bullying and intimidation issues.”

In their published paper, the authors conclude that “Never has awareness of hostile workplace behaviors in the sciences been so strong, and the possibility for change so great.  We are living in a time when advances in the culture of science could match the advances in science and technology.  This should lead to an increase in the diversity of questions we ask, hypotheses we test, in the way we interpret our data, and the priorities we make in our disciplines.  These data point to a problem, but they also point to a solution.  More than ever before, we have the opportunity to create conditions for the best possible science to happen.”

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.

12 comments

  1. I like what this article is talking about because I , a woman of color, want to be in the Science field, and hearing how people are biased, and how women of color are in fear because of racism, makes me fearful of my own future. Why is no one trying to do something for this issue? No one should feel unsafe in where they work or study. Also, what I think is very true to what the article mention was that having people from different cultures also bring in various strategies, different ways of thinking. Which can make more advances in science, and come up with better technology, better medicine, etc. I believe that this is true because as I was saying before, people all over the world have different learning strategies if you have a diverse work group much can be completed! Woman of color in the workplace should have as much right as any other person to be in a position where she feels safe and secure.

  2. I agree with Camila’s statement that different backgrounds help improve a variety of work fields. By increasing the the diversity of outlooks on a certain task or project, a company can increase their profits, creativity, demographics, etc. For example, person B might have a perspective on a children’s toy that Person A did not think about because person B had a different childhood growing up, and this could help increase the chances of the toy’s success. What concerns me most when reading this blog post and the article itself, is the issue of safety. It is not surprising because I, a woman, feel unsafe daily. It stems from this concept that women are not human beings, capable of doing things and figuring out solutions to problems. Women are seen as an item that can be bought and taken advantage of and because of this women do not feel safe. What’s worse is I would hope that if I was in a dangerous situation or another woman was, that someone would step in and help and speak up. I would easily! There have been studies done that have shown that people do not step in, it is not as often as we would like it to be. If people do not speak up and intervene, these people who think they can mistreat a woman get away with it and it decreases women’s feelings of security.

    • Yes, I like how you thought this thru Amrina. Woman need to help each other out so we can stop feeling threatened in the work field! It is the only way we can help prevent this issue. Also, it is not the point that someone else should come step in to defend you. I feel like women should know how to protect themselves ! If you wait for someone else to step in, then you depend on something can probably not even happen, but if you stand up for yourself, I bet that person would stop messing with you.

    • In my opinion, the summative point could not have been said any better than you have put it Amrina. Taking in to consideration safety and causing feelings of helplessness to employees, companies are ultimetly hurting themselves by participating in the racistness that can be corprate America. To further add, i would like to tell you about a recent encounter that i had at my internship. For me, i would like to enter the science/medical world and become a Occupational Therapist which is why i have taken on a internship at a outpatient rehab facility. So upon my first day, i took notice that all the employees from the desk clerks to my supervisor and even the “big boss” were all women. This fact was very pleasing to me but the acknowledgement that came after was not so uplifting. Every last one of these women were caucasian. as well as approximently 85 percent of the patients that came in. This fact alone certainly made me feel excluded. However, i quickly became a person of great relevance to the few african-american mothers who came in with their children. The fact that i have the avility to provide that type of support in my opinion alone provides the company a greater profit as you mentioned as above a diversity benefit. What lead me to make this conclusion is that the mother told me about a previous incident that happened while one of her kids was getting therapy there. The gist of it was that while working on the skill of hair brushing, the OT thought it was alright to utalize a plastic brush on her sons curly hair. She informed me that this day ultimately left her sons hair a matted mess and had to be cut. After confiding in me she added that she will continue to come for the time being because now that i am there she feels trusting that i will beable to properly inform the all white staff of more suitable tools to implement in order to get the hair brushing goal acheived. My own expierence as a black girl will allow me to use creative strattegies as you stated to keep clients happy and hopefully diversify the company. I would like to challenge you to think of potential incidences that may occur in you career that your knowledge as a women of color can put you one or two steps ahead!

  3. In this article, it was not alarming to find out that women of color in the STEM like astronomy experience racial biases. In my sophomore year at another college, I took some astronomy classes, and women tend to cling to there male counterparts for the answer. I think because my professor tended to react more positively to males than females not because the women lack the intellect. I presume because the professor showed more favor to majority group of men in the class. Furthermore, me being women of color in my Astronomy class I had raised my hand to answer a question, and the teacher may pick me and listen to my answer, but the professor passively ignored. On the contrary, when a white male responded to the question and gave the same answer, the professor became more enthusiastic and acknowledged there answer as correct. Also, in the article states that the minority males herd “sexist or racist remarks in the classroom or work;” this did not surprise me. In today’s society, women of the minority group are often criticized and harassed in the just regular day to day activities such as getting gas or eating at a restaurant with friends. I think as more women in these STEM sciences start to speak up against racial biases, then gradually there will be a positive change, in the work and classroom environment.

  4. The salient point that this article identified is that “explicit racial stereotypes are alive and well.” Therefore, taking that into consideration, it is a foregone conclusion that gender and racial biases impact all aspects of the professional environment and has been a common reality for quite some time, inclusive of astronomy and planetary science and other roles that are traditionally held by white males. That said, the article highlighted the staggering statistics of how the individuals on the receiving end of the bias interaction are impacted. Hopefully, this article will increase awareness of the atrocious behavior that women are subjected to in their professional endeavors, and also be the catalyst that initiates a dialogue about change.

  5. I’m saddened to hear the fact that so many women of color work in fear because of a hostile work environment. We as women live in constant fear, and I know those of color even more so. With the news of so many women speaking out against employers about sexual harassment situations handled either not at all or poorly is both distressing that it took this long and grateful that it’s happening at all. I hope with this change in some work environments other companies will see how not to handle situations in the future. I hope by having more diversity and a better HR department more women and women of color will join science fields and all together we could make this a better place for our girls today before they have to go into these fields.

  6. I am not surprised by the fact people are over hearing racist comments within the workplace. Racism is still prevalent today without any repercussions to those involved. In the workplace, I believe there should be a system that allows people to report racist incidents or remarks. I know that people can report to human resources, but some may be discouraged to report. They might feel embarrassed that they are “making something out of nothing”. An anonymous system should be implemented in which the person who said the racist remark is confronted about what they said. The person making the remark might not have know that it was a racist comment; however, if the person intentionally said it, then it is the duty of the company to enforce that racism is not tolerated in the workplace.

  7. After reading the article, I do not know what I found more surprising the statistics within the article or the comments I read based on the article. As a African-American woman who has always been interested in career fields that left me to feel excluded my whole my life, I was not surprised to hear how they feel. I have felt unsafe and threatened before on multiple occasions. I have experienced extreme sexual harassment on multiple occasions and I am only eighteen years old. When I tell others my experiences, they feel shocked and newly awakened to the parts of my life I feel accustomed too. It is sad that there is not more awareness to the fact that women, more specifically women of color experience these types of discrimination in every career they choose. My mother, a nurse has experienced more sexual harassment based on her race, proving that this issue exists in fields that women that prevail. It is exists everywhere. We need to understand that this is an issue that is serious and prevents women from achieving their full potential. Instead of closing our ears and expecting that things are going as planned. we need to be vigilante and aware that there needs to be changes. My body is not up for grabs and my I do not desire to be desired. This is something that I have unfortunately accepted as a part of my choice to be a career-driven woman and it is something that the rest of us, men and women, have to understand that they are accepting too by not being proactive about reformations. I wonder how the men who partook in violating me would feel if my older brother did the same to their daughters.

  8. For my Women Lead interview, I spoke with Sandra Steiner, who is from Colombia. I was curious about what kind of bias she experienced throughout her career. Surprisingly, she told me that the bias she experienced in the workforce was present, but not nearly as bad as the prejudice she faces in the real world. She mentioned how at times, she felt completely unwelcome. I can imagine she may have felt unsafe as well. I think all women can relate to this fear and anxiety on some level. I have personally felt intimidated when in the presence of many males, due to fear of being sexually harassed. I may face the bias and harassment of being a woman, but I have never experienced (and never will) being in a woman of color’s shoes. It saddens me that even in places of high intelligence, racism is still present. More people need to be aware of the bias, prejudice, and harassment in the workforce, and more of an effort needs to be made by companies to eliminate it. No one should feel unsafe in their place of work, where they spend a large amount of their time. We all hope that we will one day leave the workforce a safer and better place for the women to come after us.

  9. Thank you Alex for your comment about Sandra Steiner. I’m actually not surprised about Dr. Steiner saying that she experienced more bias out of the work place. Being in the science field, she was surrounded by highly educated people who are more likely to be trained against biases and stereotypes. Unfortunately, I think there are many other jobs/careers that experience a lot of biases towards women of color. I also think that it is important that the only people who can truly understand how women of color feel is women of color. That is why I liked the survey that found that 40% of women of color have felt afraid in the work place. We need to give these women a platform to tell us where the problems lie and where we should focus our attention. I want to further explore where it is that women of color are being mistreated. This is starting to be done with Planetary sciences which is a huge step. However, I would like to see it not only done with prestigious careers but at all levels because I think, as a society, we should be very concious to not be forgetting about anyone because they do not have an “important” enough job.

  10. Similar to May, I am not completely surprised by the issue at hand. I believe that this issue is the reason many African American female students do not even think to pursue careers in planetary science or astronomy. They hear of the issues women in this field face and are turned away from this area. I feel that it is our job as a generation to break down barriers in the sciences and allow the next generation to feel that they can integrate into these fields. What we, as minority students, are doing now in the sciences is excelling in order to break stereotypes regarding our ability to venture into the scientific field. Sadly, as Alex mentioned, many of these women face heightened discrimination in the world outside of their workplace as well. Hearing these accounts can sometimes be discouraging; however, it is helpful to know that we as women have come a long way in equalizing the workplace and defeating some discrimination.

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