Astronomy and geophysics are filled with bullying and harassment
It is a general insurance policy from adults to teenagers and adolescents who are constantly exposed to the threat of violence, cyberbullying and marginalization: “It gets better.” Once you graduate, when you are adult and entering work, all abuse will be and stop mistreatment and people will appreciate you for who you are. All of the hard work and perseverance you have shown over these many years will finally pay off.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case and the MINT fields are not immune either. This is the conclusion of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) based on a recent survey of 650 astronomers and geophysicists. They found that 44% of respondents reported workplace bullying and harassment in the previous year, which was disproportionately high among women and minorities.
The survey was commissioned by the RAS Committee on Diversity in Astronomy and Geophysics and conducted by two key people – Aine O’Brien, the RAS Diversity Officer; and Dr. Sheila Kanani, RAS Education, Public Relations and Diversity Officer. The results were presented by O’Briend during the National Virtual Astronomy Meeting held on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Specifically, the first results of the survey showed the following:
- Disabled and Black and Ethnic Minority Astronomers and Geophysicists are 40% more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled and white counterparts (respectively).
- Women and non-binary people in the field are bullied and harassed 50% more often than men.
- 50% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer astronomers and geophysicists have been bullied in the past 12 months, and 12% of bisexual astronomers reported having been bullied at least once a week.
Jerrie Cobb was the first woman to undergo the same selection tests as the Mercury astronauts. She and 12 others became the Mercury 13 candidates, none of whom became astronauts due to NASA’s recruitment policy. Photo credit: NASA
As O’Brien explained in a recent RAS press release, the results of this survey make it clear that STEM subjects also suffer from a culture of discrimination:
“This is the first time that such data is being collected in our area. It’s grim, unfortunately not surprising, but it’s clear evidence that we need to improve the workplace culture in science. We have a well-reported STEM diversity problem and that doesn’t help. Women and minorities feel they are being ousted. “
These results may surprise many, considering that the STEM areas are seen as bastions of tolerance, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of scientific truth. However, this does not change the fact that science and science have suffered from systemic gender and racial discrimination for so long, which is evident in the underrepresentation of women and people of color in all areas.
In short, the MINT subjects and their related professions have long been considered “boys’ clubs”. That this attitude will persist well into the 21st century is worrying, to say the least. Professor Emma Bunce, President of the RAS said:
“The results of the survey are indeed very worrying and we must act to change this unacceptable situation. The RAS is doing important work to uncover these facts, and we are committed to working with the community to urgently improve the astronomy and geophysics environment. “
Katherine Johnson, a NASA “computer” that helped make the Mercury program a reality. Photo credit: NASA.
Unfortunately, attempts to be more representative have often encountered difficulties in the past due to a culture of harassment and eligibility in the workplace where certain people felt unwelcome. Although progress and movement has been made over the past few decades, it is clear that significant work remains to be done. Dr. Natasha Stephen, Chair of the RAS Committee for Diversity in Astronomy & Geophysics (CDAG):
“Our RAS community is becoming more and more diverse, but anything but fair. This survey highlights the inequality of lived experiences in our global community and paints a worrying picture of how people from marginalized communities are often treated. We recognize that these largely intersectional issues cannot be resolved overnight, but CDAG will work with RAS fellows and the wider field to understand and address these systemic issues. “
The data was collected as part of a broader survey aimed at characterizing workplace culture in astronomy and geophysics based on the experiences of its employees. The main objective was to identify and combat all cases of suffering, bullying and harassment that were allowed to continue. The full survey results will be released by the RAS later this summer.
While these results are cause for concern, it is comforting to know that there is no shortage of people in the scientific community willing to look into the problem.
Further reading: RAS
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