A new study has highlighted the widespread gender and racial harassment of women of colour working in astronomy and planetary science – harassment at levels unseen by any other gender or racial group in the field.
40 per cent say they feel unsafe in their workplace because of harassment targeted at their gender, and 28 per cent feel unsafe because of harassment targeted at their race, and this 100 per cent needs to change.
About 13 percent of the study’s female participants reported skipping at least one class, meeting, fieldwork opportunity or other professional event for this reason. Some men of colour also skipped events as a result of hearing racist comments at school or work.
A substantial number of participants – 88 per cent – reported having heard remarks within the last five years that they interpreted as racist or sexist or that disparaged someone’s femininity, masculinity, or physical or mental abilities. 39 per cent reported having been verbally harassed, and 9 per cent said they had suffered physical harassment at work.
These negative experiences are taking a toll on the scientists’ sense of security at work, leading to a loss of professional opportunities and under-representation of women and minorities in science, according to Anthropologist and lead author of the study, Kathryn Clancy.
“For 40 per cent of women of colour 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,” Clancy said.
Previous research has found that women generally experience subtle, indirect or unintentional discrimination in the sciences. The authors of this study wanted to look specifically at the experiences of those who fit into two minority groups – women of colour – and their study is among the first to do so.
The results suggest the astronomy and planetary science communities need to address the experiences of all women, but especially women of color, to create more inclusive workplaces for all scientists, according to the authors.
But what is the solution?
They suggest a “four pronged approach” to minimising harassment. This involves implementing a code of conduct for all trainees and employees regarding appropriate workplace behavior, making diversity and cultural awareness training mandatory, having leaders in the field model appropriate behavior and dealing with reported abuses “swiftly, justly and consistently”.
“I think that this is a great start to studying the problems of women and race in astronomy and planetary science,” said Research Scientist Christina Thomas.
“As a scientist, people respond to numbers, to data. So actually having this all written out in such a comprehensive way could do a lot to change the perception from a sort of anecdotal understanding that these things might happen, to more of a quantitative understanding of what the actual problems are.”
Harassment in the workplace
More than 450 academics, students, postdoctoral researchers and administrators in astronomy and planetary science responded to the survey, which was carried out online from January to March, 2015. The participants represented every demographic group and every rank in the academic hierarchy and were recruited through astronomy and planetary science professional meetings, media outlets, blogs and social media.
Women, and in particular, women of colour, were most likely to report hearing racist and sexist remarks, according to the study. About one-third of white men also reported hearing sexist and racist remarks at work or in classrooms and laboratories. Most negative comments came from peers, but a significant number of sexist comments originated with supervisors, the survey found.
“When we started looking at the results, we realised it was actually signaling that there were a lot of people in the community desperate to let us know that they were seeing issues,” said Planetary Scientist and co-author of the study, Christina Richey.
Momentum for positive change
Richey said she is impressed with the work that has been done to change the culture of harassment over the past several years, but says there is still a great deal of work to be done to fulfill the four-pronged approach discussed in the study.
Many professional associations have created new committees and events where members of the communities have been able to discuss the issues of sexual harassment, racism, and implicit bias. They have also implemented policy changes at their meetings and for their membership after realising how rampant harassment is in these fields, Richey said.
“Being a leader means being responsible for the people around you, and for the people who put you into a leadership role,” Richey says. “I commend our leaders who understand that and take that role responsibly. I hope that using the results from this study and the suggestions for minimising harassment, we continue to improve our work climate.”