Thursday, July 27, 2017

Is Astronomy a Hostile Workplace for Women and Minorities?

The authors of a recent paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research think so. In a survey they conducted in early 2015, astronomers reported how often they heard negative language, experienced verbal and physical harassment, felt unsafe, and skipped work activities due to concerns about their safety.

88% of respondents reported hearing negative language from peers at their current career position, 51.9% reported hearing negative language from supervisors, and 88% reported hearing negative language from others. Thirty-nine percent of respondents report experiencing verbal harassment at their current position, and 9% report experiencing physical harassment. Twenty-seven percent of respondents report that they have felt unsafe at their current position, and 11% report that at their current position they have skipped attending at least one professional event such as a class, meeting, conference, or fieldwork opportunity because they felt unsafe attending.

They go on to say that their results "suggest there is not only a hostile climate in the astronomical community but that the community is experienced differently depending on one’s gender and race." The paper has received broad coverage in the press,* where "widespread harassment" in astronomy is now reported as an established fact. "The sciences are overwhelmingly hostile to women," wrote Rae Paolotta at Gizmodo, "and in astronomy, it’s doubly bad for women of color." Kate Clancy, the lead author of the paper, called it "great piece" on Twitter.**

The astronomy community appears not to have any objections to this characterization. The American Astronomical Society and the American Geophysical Union issued a joint statement, acknowledging the findings and promising "positive change". When I asked the executive director of AAS, Kevin Marvel, to comment specifically about the paper's claim that there is "a hostile climate in the astronomical community" he offered the following response:

We are glad the report has come out and it is now important for the community think carefully about the information it presents and the resultant recommendations. Although we have made good progress in some areas regarding harassment, there is more to do, and reports like this play an important role in moving the ball forward as we say in the US. We will use this, and other sources of information and recommendations to constantly work toward ensuring a professional environment free of harassment. Let us hope we achieve it sooner rather than later.

As far as I know, no one other than me has publicly challenged the assertion that astronomy is a hostile workplace for women and minorities. If the representatives of the astronomy community wanted to defend its members and its culture against this charge it could easily do so by looking more closely at the results. The AAS's Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy sponsored the survey, and one the authors is a member, so I assume they have access to the raw data. As I never tire of pointing out, this would allow them to disaggregate the results according to the never/rarely/sometimes/often scale of the questionnaire. Since the authors of the study completely ignore me, I have been estimating what this would reveal based on the slides of the preliminary results that were presented at DPS in 2015 and AAS in 2016.

Here is why I don't believe the hype. Although 39% reported verbal harassment, less than 13% appears to have reported it occurring more than "rarely", and less than 2% seem to have reported it happening often. That's about seven people in a sample with a strong self-selection bias towards people who have something to report, including witnesses and allies, and an (intentional) oversampling of women. In the most extreme self-selection scenario we can imagine, everyone in the astronomy community who feels they're often harassed would have reported. In that case, .07% of astronomers (pop. 10,000) experience verbal harassment often. I estimate the upper bound on the amount who experience verbal harassment often at 60 people (2% of female astronomers); in that case, about .6% of astronomers (men and women) experience verbal harassment often.

A similar approach applies to all the other results. First we disagreggate the total percentage into never/rarely/sometimes/often and discover that a majority of respondents in the sample report the measured experiences of "hostility" never or rarely. Next, to get a realistic sense of prevalence in the whole population of astronomers, we adjust (always downwards) for the self-selection of victims, witnesses and allies, and the oversampling of women.

I believe astronomers are being let down on multiple fronts. Journalists are clearly not covering this story in an impartial, or even competent, manner. They are not applying even a modicum of skepticism to some obviously sensational claims being published with obvious political ambitions. They don't seem to have even a basic understanding of sampling bias or the now very well-known problems associated with significance testing. (We'll get to that in another post.) Social science is also letting astronomers down by making overblown claims based on underpowered studies and promoting their spread through the media. The journal editors and reviewers here also don't seem to have thought about the reputations of astronomers, either as a field or as individuals, when accepting this study for publication (and promoting it thereafter). Finally, I think the political bodies that are supposed to tend to the interests of astronomers have let their membership down. Not only did the AAS fund this study, they have not offered any critical pushback on behalf of the community it smears as steeped in sexism and racism.

All this, of course, is just my opinion as an outsider looking on a field that I used look at with awe and envy. I hope astronomers will find a way to get their house in order. To riff on Kevin Marvel's statement: let us hope they achieve it sooner rather than later. I am here to help in any way I can.

*Here are some representative headlines: "Women of color face staggering harassment in space science" (Sarah Kaplan, WaPo). "Women of Color in Astronomy Face Greater Degree of Discrimination, Harassment" (Calla Cofield, "Survey data point to widespread problems" (Colleen Flaherty, IHE). "There’s a lot of bias in astronomy" (Angela Chen, The Verge). "Female astronomers of colour face daunting discrimination" (Rachael Lallensack, Nature). "A new survey of astronomers and planetary scientists reveals a workplace harassment problem in the space sciences" (Francie Diep, Pacific Standard). "Unprecedented study reveals widespread bias in space science, and it's particularly terrible for women of color" (Miriam Kramer, Mashable). "Astronomer survey reveals gender and racial harassment" (Michael Banks, Physics World). "Widespread harassment reported in astronomer survey" (Toni Feder, Physics Today).
**Update: I forgot to mention that Clancy endorsed Paelotta's article even though it got the study's methodology completely wrong. "Clancy and her team surveyed 474 astronomers and planetary scientists between 2011 and 2014," says Paolotta, though the study was conducted from January to March of 2015. "All subjects identified as women or non-binary," she also says, though the sample was almost one third male.

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