Jul 12, 2017

Minority women in astronomy more likely to face harassment

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

A new study finds that not only is discrimination widespread in astronomy and planetary sciences (88% of respondents said they've seen or experienced racial or sexual harassment in the last five years), women of color are much more likely to face it.

  • In a survey of 424 scientists, 40% of women of color said they felt unsafe in the workplace because of their sex, compared to just over a quarter of white women surveyed.
  • 13% of all women said they had skipped a professional event, like a meeting or a class, because of harassment.

Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist and author of the study, says it's clear that women of color are more vulnerable to workplace harassment than white women. "Women of color have been telling us this for decades," she says, "I think it's time we decide to start listening."

Why it matters: Not only is there a constant emotional labor that comes from feeling unsafe at work, Clancy notes that harassment drives people out of science. In a field like planetary science and astronomy, where women are already a minority, this can have a huge impact on the literature produced. Racism and sexism have a trickle-down effect: White men are cited more often, more likely to get published, get better letters of recommendation and are more likely to get grants.

"There's research, grounded in evidence, that shows that when we use categories like race and gender rather than expertise to evaluate someone's worthiness, we do science a disservice. We miss out on brilliant minds doing brilliant things," says Clancy.

Recent high-profile sexual harassment cases have made one thing clear: the structure of academia can make reporting harassment very difficult. Graduate students' and post-docs' futures are often tied to the success of their labs. Their ability to get jobs, or pass their dissertation, relies on the whims of their lab leaders and their review committees. Students report they're concerned that complaints will be ignored, swept under the table or even retaliated against.

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