STUDY: Women of Color Astronomers Face Most Racism, Sexism at Work in Field

By Yessenia Funes Jul 11, 2017

Planetary scientists and astronomers who are women of color face more harassment than any other group in the field, according to a study published yesterday (July 10).

The Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets study found that 40 percent of women of color working as astronomers and planetary scientists reported feeling “unsafe in the workplace” due to their gender or sex, while 28 percent associated the feeling with their race. Furthermore, 18 percent of women of color have skipped professional events (which serve as career opportunities) because they didn’t feel safe going. Survey questions surrounding safety included verbal and/or physical harassment encounters. 

Researchers decided to embark on the study after realizing the frequency of workplace hostility reports in astronomy and related fields, as BuzzFeed reported on in October 2015 and January 2016.

“This isn’t something anyone can point to and say, ‘These results are padded by something that happened in 1967,’” said Kathryn Clancy, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and lead author of the paper, to BuzzFeed News. “These are all current issues that women of color are facing right now. They’re feeling unsafe today. They’re skipping professional events today.”

The study sent an online survey to 474 astronomers and planetary scientists between 2011 and 2015. Most study participants were White, but one was Native American, three Middle Eastern or Arab American, three Black, 17 Asian or Pacific Islander, 16 Latinx and 26 multiracial.

The study puts it bluntly: “In this sample, in nearly every significant finding, women of color experienced the highest rates of negative workplace experiences, including harassment and assault.”

What this translates to is underrepresentation in the field, Clancy argues, in a separate interview with While Black and brown girls may stargaze early on, dreaming of a career related to space, these realities make grown women more hesitant to join the field. The study notes:

Women of color faculty in STEM are also more likely to experience the dominant culture of their disciplines as outsiders, with their views validated less than the dominant group. Further, the number of women of color science faculty has recently decreased, even while the number of white women science faculty has increased. These marginalities are further compounded by power differentials, as women of color are more likely to be junior in rank compared to those with majority identities.

The study does offer some ways to fix the problem: create codes of conduct, implement diversity and cultural awareness training, model proper behavior in organization leaders who define what’s an “inclusive, equitable culture” for the workplace and, lastly, hire more women of color.

“You can’t keep putting women of color in the position of being an only, or being in such low numbers that they’re tokenized,” Clancy told BuzzFeed News.