APS News

Inclusive Astronomy Conference Confronts Diversity Issues

By Emily Conover

Inclusive astronomy
Photo: Don Pickert, Vanderbilt University

Attendees at the first Inclusive Astronomy conference at Vanderbilt University in June 2015.

Astrophysicist Jedidah Isler has not always felt welcomed by the scientific community. “Being part of a minority group can feel very daunting and very lonely,” says Isler, an African-American woman and a postdoc at Vanderbilt University. And although scientific communities — physics and astronomy included — have paid great attention to the status of women in recent years, other underrepresented groups have remained in the shadows. Among those are scientists who are members of racial or ethnic minorities, who are lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual/intersex/queer or questioning (LGBTIQ), who are neuroatypical (e.g., have autism), and who belong to more than one underrepresented group — like African-American women such as Isler.

But change is on the horizon. Isler and others recently convened the inaugural Inclusive Astronomy conference, held June 17 - 19 at Vanderbilt University, to explore how to make astronomy accessible to all. Following two influential Women in Astronomy meetings in recent years, the group “felt that the field was really ready to think about … diversity and inclusion more broadly,” says Keivan Stassun, a professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt and the chair of the local organizing committee for the meeting.

The goal is not just diversity, but also an atmosphere where everyone is welcome. “It’s not just having people at the table, it’s making sure that they feel like they … are encouraged to be who they are,” Isler says.

Making science more inclusive is crucial for its success, the meeting’s participants say. “Talent is not restricted to one group, so when you limit yourself to one group, you’re necessarily excluding a lot of talent, a lot of genius,” says Jesse Shanahan, a graduate student at Wesleyan University. “A lot of people in science like to claim that this is a true meritocracy, and that’s not true.”

Organizers designed the conference not only to help attendees understand the issues, but also to give them tools and strategies to improve the inclusiveness of their communities. It was also a chance to introduce people to one another, allowing attendees to meet and learn from people of different underrepresented groups and connect with astronomers like themselves.

One issue the conference participants tackled was how to promote access for underrepresented groups. “One of the most important and very concrete barriers that we talked about is the use of standardized tests — for example, the GRE — as part of admission to graduate programs,” says Stassun. Research has shown that the GRE is a poor predictor of performance, Stassun says, and also that it is biased: “If you rank-order applicants to your program even just in part based on their GRE scores, you will systematically exclude women and minorities.”

Participants also discussed the concept of intersectionality — the idea that people who fall under more than one underrepresented group can’t be treated as if they fall solely under one group alone. “The lived experiences of people with intersectional identities don’t fall along one particular facet, because they live all of them,” says Isler. “It’s unfair to ask me to identify either as a woman or a black person, when the fullness of my identity is seated in both.” And while the percentage of female astronomers has grown over the years, female African-American astronomers are still few and far between.

Although scientific organizations like APS have paid significant attention to addressing the underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities, says APS Diversity Programs Administrator Arlene Modeste Knowles, “I think those efforts have still been limited in scope, and the commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in the scientific community does not seem to be as widely held as the commitment to women.” Furthermore, she says, “Although APS has not focused on intersectional issues, I think this is an area of great opportunity for us.”

In traditional academic spaces, Shanahan says, “When there is an issue, people don’t feel like they can speak up.” But the Inclusive Astronomy meeting was different. “The organizers worked incredibly hard to create a space where people would be respected, listened to, and a space that would accommodate as many people as possible,” says Shanahan.

Shanahan participated in a panel on establishing inclusiveness in astronomy, in which she focused on disability issues. Shanahan, who is disabled and often walks with a cane or wears braces, says, “I feel like I’m excluded kind of on a daily basis because a lot of people don’t think about including people with disabilities.”

Transgender scientists as well still face many hurdles, says astronomer Jessica Mink of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, a transgender woman and one of the organizers of the meeting. “There’s still a prejudice that people have that doesn’t come to the surface very easily,” she says. And there can be negative career repercussions for young scientists. “If you’re early in your career you’re dependent on what a lot of people think about you,” which can make coming out as transgender a scary prospect.

The meeting had its snags. A banquet was held on the other side of campus, an unmanageable journey for some attendees with disabilities. And other types of exclusion cropped up along the way. Mink, who does not have a Ph.D., pointed out that much of the discussion centered on the academic pipeline. It is also important, Mink says, to appreciate the contributions of scientists who have not followed the traditional path.

Despite the hiccups, the meeting “was incredibly supportive,” Shanahan says. “People were really willing to learn.”

Talking about racism, sexism, ableism, and other exclusionary practices was a challenge, participants say. “One of the ground rules they put up was ‘it’s okay to be uncomfortable,’” says meeting attendee Meredith Rawls, a graduate student in astronomy at New Mexico State University. “As the conference went on, people would actually call each other out in a very friendly way,” if they were excluding someone, Rawls says.

One aim of the Inclusive Astronomy meeting was to produce a concrete set of recommendations for improving diversity and inclusion in the field, following in the footsteps of previous Women in Astronomy meetings. Conference organizers are collecting and synthesizing feedback from the meeting’s 160 attendees for a report that they will share with the community and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) leadership in 2016.

AAS President Meg Urry, who also attended the meeting, noted that the AAS leadership is looking forward to seeing the recommendations. “The AAS supported this meeting because we believe deeply in equity and inclusion, and in making sure that qualities that aren’t relevant to the practice of astronomy not be used in determining one’s suitability for it,” Urry wrote in an email.

The meeting left a big impression on attendees in how they viewed diversity and inclusion. “The more you are aware of this stuff, you start seeing it everywhere,” says Rawls.  “When I first learned calculus it changed the whole way I saw the world,” she says. “Learning about all this — how inclusivity is necessary to do good science … that realization was equally big in my mind.”


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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Emily Conover
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