When Hidden Figures premiered in theaters this past December, it drew attention to a less discussed issue: The discrimination and sexism faced by women of color in the early days of the space race. The movie was based on a true story of three black women at NASA in the 1960s. Sadly, the challenges the movie addresses are far from over.
In a study released this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research, researchers found that women of color in astronomy and earth sciences face a disturbing amount of harassment in the workplace. According to the survey of over 400 people in the two fields, women of color said they felt unsafe at work 40% of the time (28% of which they attributed to their race), while 18% said they avoided work events because of these concerns.
"How do you become a fantastic scientist if you're not in the room to do science or learn science?" Christina Richey, one of the study's authors and the former chair of the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, told Refinery29. "And how can we say that we're creating the next generation of the best scientists possible if we're creating an environment that also makes them feel too unsafe to attend an event?"
Richey said she has observed these issues in the workplace for years, but that when she has raised them with leadership, her superiors brushed them off as anecdotal. Now, with the stats to prove what she and many other women see, the issues won't be so easy to dismiss. The study notes how women of color have to deal with gender and racial discrimination, a "double jeopardy."
"When I started looking at the results, I realized that it wasn't just that the community wanted to discuss the issue, it was that we had serious, serious issues going on, and that the community was desperate for an outlet," Richey said. "As someone who's worked on this issue for many years within this field and with these people, I know these respondents. I know their faces, I know their lives. They are my friends and my colleagues. I'll admit that I had a very stiff drink and cried myself to sleep that night [after I first looked at the results]."
Though we're used to hearing about the challenges women face in Silicon Valley, astronomy and earth sciences don't get as much attention. One key moment for this issue came up in 2015, when it was revealed that renowned astronomer Geoff Marcy had engaged in decades of sexual harassment.
Richey said she feels the reality check that's happening in the tech industry at the moment, especially as the aftermath of Susan Fowler's Uber experience plays out, is overdue within the earth sciences and astronomy. While she says that the American Geophysical Union and American Astronomical Society have taken important steps to further the discussion around these issues, including holding a racism town hall, more needs to be done — especially in terms of research.
In response to a request for comment on the study, a NASA spokesperson provided Refinery29 with the following statement:
"NASA does not tolerate sexual harassment, and nor should any organization seriously committed to workplace equality, diversity and inclusion. Science is for everyone, and any behavior that demeans or discourages people from fully participating is unacceptable. The agency takes very seriously its obligations, both legal and ethical, to make sure that when it provides federal dollars to a STEM educational program that the program is extending equal opportunity to all of its participants."
If we're going to make strides in space and science, we definitely need women. Making sure these women feel safe at work should be a guarantee, not an uncertainty.