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LGBTQ+ individuals face harassment in astronomy, planetary science

Illustration of a telescope being overshadowed by a person's outline.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

LGBTQPAN* women and gender non-conforming individuals in astronomy and planetary science face harassment in their workplaces, according to a new study in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society.

Why it matters: The study is a stark look into the hostile environment many members of the astronomy and planetary science community face at work.

"We have very real issues with harassment and negative language being either heard more or being pushed towards highly underrepresented intersectional groups like women of color and LGBTQPAN women and gender non-conforming people within our society."
— study co-author Christina Richey to Axios

What they found: The study found that 21% of LGBTQPAN women and gender non-conforming people surveyed in astronomy and planetary science were physically harassed in their workplaces between 2011 and 2015.

  • By contrast, the percentage for heterosexual, cisgender women during that time period was 9%.
  • The study — which surveyed a total of 474 people in the field — also found 47% of LGBTQPAN women and gender non-conforming individuals were verbally harassed in that timeframe.

Context: The new study comes on the heels of research in recent years attempting to characterize the hardships women, people of color and other groups face in the sciences.

  • Another study from this group of authors published in 2017 found that 40% of women of color surveyed in astronomy and planetary science felt unsafe at work due to their gender or sex, while 28% of women of color felt unsafe because of their race.
  • An extensive 2018 report from the National Academies found, in part, that institutions need to look past just legal compliance with harassment policies and actively create a climate of respect, transparency and safety.

What to watch: The influx of studies and high-profile cases revealing prominent astronomers’ histories of harassment has led to broader awareness of these problems in astronomy and science as a whole.

  • According to some, however, there’s still a long way to go before academia is a truly safe space for marginalized individuals.
  • "Our first recommendation from our paper is that institutional leadership should prioritize the physical, sexual and psychological safety of all their workers," Richey said. "I feel like that should never have to be said, and yet it has to be the first recommendation in our paper."

* LGBTQPAN refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, pansexual, asexual, and/or nonbinary.

Go deeper: Sexual harassment remains rampant in tech