Why do astronomers care about inclusivity?

Posted by Korey Haynes
on Thursday, January 7, 2016

The American Astronomical Society is being clear this year that all its members should feel safe and respected. // Korey Haynes
The astronomy community has faced a lot of controversies in the past year. From the clash between the Thirty Meter Telescope and Native Hawaiian interests, to prominent astronomer Geoff Marcy stepping down over reports of sexual harassment, astronomers have spent a lot of time talking about things that are not, strictly speaking, science.

As an astronomer who was actively doing research only a year ago, I can tell you that I wish I weren’t talking about it. But not talking about uncomfortable facts doesn’t make them disappear. And only by talking about issues can we begin to hope to solve them. 

Last June, Vanderbilt University hosted the first ever Inclusive Astronomy conference, designed specifically to gather input and formulate guidelines on how the community could do better at making astronomy accessible to everyone, along lines of race and gender, but also sexuality and physical ability. They revealed their work at this week’s 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Kissimee, Florida.

And in case you're wondering where the astronomy is in all this, I want to say that advancing the science of astronomy is exactly what inclusive astronomy aims to do.

If it’s possible for you to ignore the impact that sexist and racist language and actions have on your community, then congratulations: You are lucky in many ways.

But I heard rumors for years that some people in my profession were known sexual harassers and that if I went to dinner to discuss research with a fellow scientist, or tried to engage in friendly conversation, I could be putting myself in danger.

When I found it difficult to converse with my colleagues without second-guessing whether they were interested in my research or my body, that affected my science.

When my graduate classmate asked me out repeatedly after I told him no, and then commented on my body, my makeup, my clothing, until I had to switch offices in order to perform my work in peace, that affected my science.

And I consider myself lucky. These were minor events in my life that I could brush off with relative ease.

But other researchers have been driven out of the community. An astronomy town hall meeting on harassment yesterday drove this point home. According to a recent survey of over 400 astronomers, fully a quarter of respondents reported feeling unsafe at some point in their professional position because of their gender — not offended, or uncomfortable, but unsafe. Numbers on harassment of people of color in astronomy are difficult to report because of the shockingly low rate of representation. Less than 100 black women have received astronomy related PhDs in the United States. Ever.

It is not that women and people of color are less capable of doing astronomy; it is that their science is constantly being disrupted, sometimes by hurtful language and sometimes by physical assault — by their colleagues, no less. Is it any wonder that women and people of color (not to mention LGBT people or those with disabilities) leave astronomy in droves compared to white men?

Astronomy is missing out on capable scientists who might have performed crucial discoveries if we only let them do their jobs. The onus is not on them to shrug it off. It is on the entire community to ensure that all astronomers are able to perform their science, just as we ensure the existence of other community infrastructure: large telescopes, observing databases, and funded research positions.

The most heartbreaking moment at the town hall came from a high school teacher who questioned whether to recommend astronomy to her female students, if the situation is so bad. And the equally heartbreaking response is that other fields are just as culpable. Sexism, racism, and other forms of harassment are societal problems, and in fact astronomy is on an upward trajectory by talking about these issues and bringing them to light. New committees are now in place to tackle the next steps. Meg Urrey, president of the AAS, has been outspoken about supporting change. And more people than ever are aware of the problems plaguing astronomy.

There is hope. But we have a long way to go

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