When anthropologist Kathryn Clancy saw the results of her recent survey on harassment in the space sciences, she burst into tears.
Forty percent of women of color said that they felt unsafe in their current job as a result of harassment about their gender.
“It shocked and saddened me,” said Clancy, an associate professor at the University of Illinois. She called the statistic “one of the strongest pieces of evidence that something is terribly wrong.”
The survey results, published Monday in the Journal of Geophyscial Research: Planets, illuminate the environment endured by many people in astronomy and planetary science, particularly women and especially women of color. Almost 90 percent of the more than 400 participants in the survey said that they had witnessed sexist, racist or otherwise disparaging remarks in their workplaces. Nearly 40 percent said they had been verbally harassed and almost 1 in 10 had been physically harassed. Most nonwhite respondents said that they had seen their peers make racist comments, and 22 percent said they had heard such remarks from their supervisors.
The reported rates of sexual harassment were invariably higher for women than for men, and highest of all for minority women. More than 1 in 10 white women and nearly 1 in 5 women of color said they had skipped a class, field work opportunity or professional event because they felt unsafe. In addition to the 40 percent of women of color who felt unsafe in their workplaces, 27 percent of white women said they felt unsafe at their jobs.
“What is different or striking about these data is we were tying it to some extent to outcomes,” Clancy said. The survey results demonstrate not only that women and minorities face harassment while at work but also that this harassment limits their careers.
The survey asked respondents only to consider experiences at their current job and only within the last five years. “This is not something that happened a long time ago,” Clancy said. “It's happening now.”
For many women working in space science, the survey confirms what they already knew: The field has a serious diversity problem.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a dark matter expert at the University of Washington at Seattle and the 63rd black woman in America to earn a PhD in physics, tweeted: “Spent the last two decades being gaslit when I said this was true. Now we have the data. Very emotional day.”
Prescod-Weinstein was a contributor to the June issue of the journal Nature Astronomy devoted to gender equity, which also featured studies reporting that women are consistently underrepresented on NASA's planetary science spacecraft teams and that women astronomers have their research cited 10 percent less often than men. In her article, Prescod-Weinstein called attention to intersectionality, or the way that the effects of racism and sexism (or homophobia or other forms of bias) compound for people who are at the intersection of multiple underrepresented groups. Having been the only black student in her doctoral program, she recalled being the target of racist remarks, being objectified by men, and having to explain to white women why race was relevant to efforts to increase diversity.
“There are unspeakable things too that are not daily or casual,” she wrote. “These are the conversations that won’t come up in Facebook discussions because our names are attached to them, and outing your PhD adviser — or pretty much anyone — as a racist or sexist harasser is like getting in an express shuttle to career death.”
Efforts to make the field more inclusive, Prescod-Weinstein argued, often don't consider intersectionality — and they need to.
“For decades women of color have been telling us this, and we just haven’t been listening,” Clancy said, emphasizing that her survey is indebted to work already done by these women.
Clancy's survey results reflect Prescod-Weinstein's description of the double jeopardy faced by women of color. These women were more likely to report seeing harassment based on race than minority men, and are more likely to witness sexist remarks than white woman.
The survey was conducted online, and participants were recruited through the American Astronomical Society and its committee on the status of women in astronomy. That may have influenced who chose to respond, Clancy said. But she and her colleagues were careful to construct the survey so that they would get the most conservative results.
They intentionally asked about “harassment,” rather than “insults” or “negative remarks,” because past research shows that people are less likely to identify with such a harsh, legal term. In addition, research shows that people who have been victims of harassment are less likely to participate in a survey about harassment because of the potential to bring back to mind past trauma.
“We were very intentionally conservative and still ended up with appalling numbers,” Clancy said.
The survey results are sobering, but Clancy and her colleagues note in their study that awareness of science's diversity problem has never been so high. Recent research has made painfully obvious the underrepresentation of women in STEM, especially in the physical sciences. Almost all major scientific conferences now include sessions on the issue. Conversations about sexual harassment have gotten louder online, often using the hashtag #astrosh. The high profile investigation into Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, which concluded he had repeatedly sexually harassed students but was initially let off with only a light warning, pushed the problem even further into the spotlight.
“We are living in a time when advances in the culture of science could match the advances in science and technology,” the study authors write.
They suggest that the experiences of women and minorities in astronomy could be improved by hiring “cohorts” of underrepresented minorities. A 2013 survey of American Astronomical Society members found that nearly three-quarters were men and 84 percent were white; many women and people of color find themselves in labs or faculty meetings where there is no one else who looks like them. Reducing this isolation can make it easier to cope with and call out harassment.
The authors also propose that schools, labs and other astronomy workplaces hold diversity and cultural awareness trainings — not just the standard sexual harassment training that many offices require. And the authors point out past studies that found swiftly punishing perpetrators of harassment can go a long way toward making workplaces more inclusive.