Mar 10, 2020 - Science

Astronomy's continuing harassment problem

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Astronomy is still dealing with its own sexual harassment reckoning that came two years before the #MeToo movement swept through the entertainment industry.

Why it matters: Harassment, bias and discrimination lead to the underrepresentation of women — and particularly women of color, women with disabilities and LGBTQ+ women — in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine.

  • "The frontier for the U.S. STEM field is to attract and keep women and underrepresented minorities so that they can succeed," France Córdova, the National Science Foundation director, told Axios.
  • "Without addressing those challenges, the U.S. will continue to exclude major percentages of its population from the STEM workforce, something that as a country, we cannot afford."

Driving the news: A new report from the National Academy of Sciences calls on federal funding agencies, universities and science organizations to take systemic action to address the factors that keep women from advancing in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) careers.

  • The NAS report draws on multiple studies published in the past few years that found women scientists face widespread harassment.
  • In one study, 74% of female physics majors reported experiencing sexual harassment.
  • And 40% of women of color in astronomy and planetary science reported feeling unsafe in their workplace.

Background: In 2015, a BuzzFeed News investigation led to the resignation of Geoff Marcy, a prominent astronomer who had been in the running for a Nobel Prize at one point in his career.

  • Other prominent academics in various fields were also ousted after their own sexual harassment investigations came to light.
  • The scandals led to a frank conversation on social media — using the hashtag #AstroSH — about the everyday harassment women in astronomy face.

What's happening: The American Astronomical Society (AAS) launched a program last year that sends a site visit team, if invited, to audit university astronomy departments to evaluate and help improve their cultures with an eye toward inclusivity.

  • The AAS and universities also instituted policies to aid in reporting harassment and protecting those who come forward.
  • As of 2018, the National Science Foundation requires organizations to notify the agency of harassment by grant awardees and may terminate, suspend or transfer funding in those cases. So far there have been 24 such "term and condition" notifications, according to the NSF.

Yes, but: While astronomy and other academic institutions responded to the sexual harassment problem, some say it hasn't been enough — or fast enough.

  • "There still needs to be a lot of education and a lot of awareness," astronomer Nicolle Zellner told Axios, adding there are still departments around the country that likely aren't countering harassment and discrimination effectively.
  • Countering more subtle forms of gender harassment — like implying that women are less capable than men — is less straightforward and can also contribute to women leaving astronomy or the sciences as a whole.
  • "Programs aimed at improving the representation of women in STEMM have largely benefited White women and have not paid enough attention to the experiences of women with multiple intersecting identities," per the report.

Go deeper

International Women's Day and the glass ceiling

Data: Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Women running for national and state office may be on track to break the record-setting runs and gains of 2018, as Republicans try to catch up with their Democratic counterparts.

Yes, but: The Super Tuesday results, and Elizabeth Warren's withdrawal, effectively ended any chance that this will be the year a woman wins the presidency. On International Women's Day this weekend, it's worth remembering that the struggle to reach the White House masks a lot of real progress at lower levels.

Female protesters often lead to effective mass movements

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images, and ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

Gender-based violence, WhatsApp message taxes and the rising cost of bread have set off some of the largest protests in the past year, and women were among the first in the streets, often risking their personal safety.

Driving the news: Women in Mexico have organized "A Day Without Us," a national strike on March 9, to coincide with International Women's Day. Women are encouraged to "disappear": to stay at home, away from work, out of stores and off the streets to highlight their vital role, The New York Times writes.

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The women who set Twitter on fire in 2019

Ariana Grande performs. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Singer Ariana Grande was the most tweeted about woman in the past year, topping politicians like Hillary Clinton and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, according to data reported by Twitter.

The big picture: In the past three years, of 125 million tweets about feminism and equality, 3 million specifically mentioned "intersectionality," where race, gender and ethnicity meet. Last year's International Women's Day was among the top topics.