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Female Astronomers Are More Likely to Be Harassed Than Their Male Peers—and Female Astronomers of Color Most of All

A new survey of astronomers and planetary scientists reveals a workplace harassment problem in the space sciences.

When anthropology professor Kate Clancy first received the data files from her graduate student, she says, she burst into tears: The numbers were even worse than she feared. Clancy and her student, Katharine M.N. Lee, were analyzing the results of an online survey that asked astronomers and planetary scientists about whether they had been harassed at school and work. Forty percent of survey respondents who were women of color indicated that they had felt unsafe at work because of their gender. Twenty-eight percent of female, non-white respondents reported feeling unsafe because of their race.

"It's one thing to know your friends and colleagues are operating in a hostile environment, are being limited in their productivity and their career success in a way that's different from you," says Clancy, who is white. "It's another thing to see a number that high."

Workplace Culture in the Space Sciences—by the Numbers: A few figures on the demographics of astronomers in the U.S.

This week, Clancy and her research team published their paper about the survey in the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets. The paper finds that female survey-takers were more likely than their male counterparts to report having heard racist and sexist remarks and to have experienced both verbal and physical harassment at school or work within the last five years. Respondents of color were more likely than white respondents to have heard racist and homophobic remarks, and to have been harassed. These experiences seem to have affected some scientists' ability to perform their jobs. Twelve percent of respondents who were white women, 18 percent who were women of color, and one man of color—representing 6 percent of his cohort—said they'd skipped at least one class, meeting, or other professional event because they felt unsafe.

"If we have such an unwelcome environment where people don't feel safe and they're no-showing, then we are directly leading them to not being successful scientists," says Christina Richey, a co-author on the study and a planetary scientist and astronomer. (The distinction is whether one studies bodies in the solar system, or stuff further out in space.)

"If we have such an unwelcome environment where people don't feel safe and they're no-showing, then we are directly leading them to not being successful scientists."

Clancy and Richey's work highlights what they call an under aspect of harassment in the sciences: other minority identities besides gender. "We haven't really discussed race as one of the key figures in combating harassment, including sexual harassment," says Richey, who is a past chair of the American Astronomical Society's Committee on the Status of Women. "It's the next topic we need to address."

Richey, Clancy, and their colleagues' findings come from a survey they distributed online in early 2015, which received answers from 474 planetary scientists and astronomers. The respondents differed greatly from the general population of astronomers: They tended to be earlier in their careers, were more likely to be women and racial minorities, and were probably savvier about social media than average, Richey says. So the survey can't say, for example, that X percent of all female astronomers of color have felt unsafe at work before. Still, "it answers basic questions as to whether or not there's an issue," Richey says.

"Close to 300 people say, 'I have heard negative language from my peers in the workplace in the last five years,'" she adds. "I don't even care if that really is the only 300 people in these entire communities to have heard that. That's a disturbing statistic."

Richey and Clancy's work comes at a time when many scientists are worried about the issue of harassment in their fields. In recent years, some high-profile instances of workplace hostility in the science fields have made headlines, including biochemist Tim Hunt's disparaging comments directed toward female scientists during a speech, and allegations that, for decades, astronomer Geoff Marcy inappropriately groped female students and colleagues. It's these sort of unwelcome environments that are thought to play an important role in the lack of diversity in the sciences.

In their paper, the researchers offer their recommendations for reducing discrimination and harassment in the space sciences. They suggest schools and labs have a code of conduct and diversity training for scientists. They call for leaders in the field "to model appropriate behavior" and to sanction harassers quickly and fairly. Over the phone, Richey notes some progress she has already seen and appreciates, calling out the American Geophysical Union and American Astronomical Society for positive steps, such as the latter rewriting its ethics code.

"Now that we have the numbers to show the problem, how do we solve the problem?" Richey asks. "This community can do that. I would not be a part of this community if I didn't believe that."