Book Recommendation: Glass Universe
Classroom Resources: Astronomy in Action- Angular Momentum

How-To: Confronting Gender Bias in the Sciences

Girl Stars1

By Stacy Palen

The article from Nature Ecology & Evolution, How the Entire Scientific Community Can Confront Gender Bias in the Workplace, came across my screen recently, and it occurred to me that many astronomy professors might not see it…

I find that while evidence of gender bias is well-documented, approaches to changing that bias are harder to come by. Near the end, this article provides some scientifically-minded suggestions for tackling the gender bias problem that we may all find helpful. It’s important to note that this article is coming from the biological sciences, which statistically have a smaller gender bias problem than the physical sciences.

As I read the piece, I was reminded of a particularly formative interaction I had as a young scientist. When I interviewed at graduate schools, I talked to lots of professors of both physics and astronomy, since I hadn’t yet decided how I would specialize.

As an undergraduate, I had taken one subpar introductory astronomy course which didn’t make the field seem very appealing—the class primarily focused on memorizing which stars were in which constellations that were visible at what times of the year. (There was also a lot of talk about epicycles, which took me nearly two years to eradicate from my brain, in order to make room for ellipses.) So astronomy was on my radar, but only peripherally. At the time, it seemed to me that something closer to industry might be a wiser choice.

During a visit, one professor made an off-hand comment that would alter the trajectory of my life: “Of course,” he said, “there are lots of women heroes in astronomy…” And that was it. In that moment, I decided I wanted to find out more about those women heroes, and the obvious way to do that was to specialize in astronomy and astrophysics.

Go figure. Sometimes the smallest, most insignificant interactions can change a life…

I’m positive that this professor doesn’t remember the interaction. I know this because I later asked if he remembered my visit (for another reason), and he didn’t recall it. I don’t blame him—I too have had former students say to me, “You said this one thing, one time, that changed my life…” and had absolutely no recollection of it. It’s difficult to know how our most off-hand interactions affect other people.

Lately, I’ve been trying an experiment in which I include more women and minority scientists in my classes but do NOT make a big deal of pointing them out; instead, I just mention them casually, as though it happens all the time. I’m interested to see how this affects my students in the future.

I'll have the luxury of interacting with some of these students again in later years, both in other classes in the department and across campus. And I’ll probably devise some sneaky way of asking a question on a homework or exam to find out if they noticed. I’ll let you know how it goes…


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