Women of Colour Face a Staggering Amount of Harassment in Astronomy

By Rae Paoletta on at

The sciences are overwhelmingly hostile to women, and in astronomy, it’s doubly bad for women of colour. New research published yesterday in The Journal of Geophysical Research affirms what these women have been saying for years: As a result of persistent harassment by their male colleagues, many women of colour feel unsafe at work, attending conferences, and conducting field research.

Kate Clancy, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, has been researching discrimination within the sciences for years. In 2014, she and her team published a study in PLOS One that found of the 600 women field researchers they surveyed, 71 per cent said they had experienced inappropriate sexual remarks while in the field and 26 per cent said they had experienced sexual assault.

In her new study, Clancy and her team surveyed 474 astronomers and planetary scientists between 2011 and 2014. All subjects identified as women or non-binary, and came from various races and “career rank categories” such as graduate, post doc, and more. Subjects were asked about everything from verbal harassment to physical assault. Not only did the study find depressingly high rates of harassment among all women surveyed, it concluded that “women of colour experienced the highest rates of negative workplace experiences,” including harassment and assault.

“40 per cent of women of colour reported feeling unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex, and 28% of women of colour reported feeling unsafe as a result of their race,” the researchers wrote. “Finally, 18% of women of colour, and 12% of white women, skipped professional events because they did not feel safe attending, identifying a significant loss of career opportunities due to a hostile climate.”

Sexual assault is among the most underreported crimes in America. While the reasons why women choose not to report their assaults or even harassment within the workplace are myriad and complex, the hurdles within academia can make the process even more excruciating. Since permanent staff positions are difficult to come by, many women don’t want to risk their career by being branded as the “one who complained.”

“There are a lot of barriers to reporting, and there are severe consequences for victims who dare to report because it’s re-traumatising,” Clancy told Gizmodo. “It requires [victims] to do things in an official capacity, when maybe they just want to talk to somebody about it and sort out their feelings. But there are very few opportunities for those intermediate conversations, because in most academic settings, the second you talk to somebody about what happened, the university requires you to report it up the chain.”

For many scientists who have experienced harassment or assault, there’s also the fear that the perpetrator won’t be reprimanded. Even if the perpetrator is held accountable, it often happens too late.

In astronomy, the case of former Berkley professor Geoff Marcy is probably the most widely reported instance of this in recent years. The potential Nobel laureate resigned in 2015 after a six-month investigation by his university found he had violated sexual harassment policies by kissing, groping, and inappropriately touching his female students. It took Berkeley almost a decade to do anything in an official capacity.

About a year after Marcy’s case, Representative Jackie Speier—a Democrat from California—proposed legislation that would better address “problem” professors who resigned or were expelled due to gender-based harassment. Meanwhile, women in astronomy had begun using the hashtag #AstroSH, or “astronomy sexual harassment,” to share their experiences in the field.

#AstroSH has grown into a collection of voices speaking out against injustice. But it’s critical to note that women of colour across the sciences have been speaking out about this for years.

“It’s hard,” Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical astrophysicist who has written extensively about racial and gender inequality in STEM, told Gizmodo. “I think in our macho-oriented culture, being ‘right’ and winning is usually an exciting thing. But this is a hard thing to be right about.”

While Clancy’s study focused on astronomy and related fields, it’s unclear whether astronomy is particularly misogynistic, or if cases like Marcy’s have brought more media attention to this area of study. Clancy says she and her team will be conducting qualitative analyses on 20 interviews they’ve already conducted to better answer this question.

“It seems to me—though this is anecdotal—that the physical sciences, partly because they’re historically more male-dominated, have a very different workplace environment in terms of what’s considered acceptable behaviour,” Clancy said. “Bullying and intimidation are a workplace norm in some of these places...my guess is while it’s maybe not a great workplace for everybody, it might be especially bad for folks who are underrepresented minorities.”

While it’s important to interrogate workplace culture within astronomy, it’s also critical to investigate how other fields of sciences treat women, particularly women of colour, who are woefully underrepresented across the sciences. A study from the National Science Foundation found that between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men received physics PhDs. Over the same period, 66 Black women received physics PhDs.

“Why is it that the number of women in physics in graduate programmes seems to be lower in physics than in astronomy, but we’re hearing far fewer stories [about sexual harassment and assault] in physics,” Prescod-Weinstein said. “Do we really think that’s because it doesn’t happen in physics, or is it because the culture in physics is even more toxic in silencing?”

Clancy’s new study is not a revelation to the women of colour living these experiences, but it is an affirmation that they are heard and believed.

“I think that the lesson that needs to be taken away from this study is that data is important and useful, but actually one of the most important things that this report could be doing is providing affirmation to the women who already knew it was true,” Prescod-Weinstein said. [Journal of Geophysical Research]


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