Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has a fantastic essay on Medium up exploring all the various statistics that have been collected on researchers themselves in the field of astronomy:
But ultimately in a world where people who are professional data gatherers and interpreters seem to reject an overwhelming amount of evidence that women (and others) experience systemic and individualized gender discrimination (Tsang 2013; Brinkworth et al. 2016), there is a lot of value in a study that asks the simple question: how do women-lead paper’s citation numbers in astronomy compare with those of men-lead papers? The question is not insignificant, given the way that citation number is used in hiring. The next question is: does this represent a systemic bias against women? If the answer is yes, then it becomes clear that while the non-human objects that we study in astrophysics may be doing their operational calculations objectively, we scientists have some way to go before human structures do the same.
Indeed, Caplar et al. find that papers written by women receive about 10% fewer citations than comparable papers by men. The metaphorical playing field, as we call it in American English, is not level. Since citation numbers are used for hiring, fellowships, and granting, this means that the average woman publishing in astronomy may be starting out with a 10% deficit compared to male applicants for the same programs and jobs. This puts in stark relief the debates about affirmative action — or the rather loaded term “positive discrimination” as they call it in the UK — and whether women should be given extra consideration simply because of their gender. If white men start with a systemic 10% leg up, isn’t it negative discrimination not to affirmatively promote people who are not white men?
Of course, for those of us who work in Women’s Studies and the interdisciplinary field of Science, Technology, and Society Studies (STSS), the result is not surprising. Although one might hardly know it from the increasingly popular “diversity and inclusion” discourse in physics and astronomy, STSS has produced intellectual work for decades that tackles the ways in which gender and sex hierarchies and discrimination are deeply embedded in the human production of scientific knowledge. In such works, it is standard to begin with an intersectional analysis (Harding 2011). As defined in Vivian May’s excellent 2015 book, intersectionality “approaches lived identities as interlaced and systems of oppression as enmeshed and mutually reinforcing: one aspect of identity and/or form of inequality is not treated as separable or subordinate” (May 2015) Intersectionality articulates a critical framework for data analysis: the way sexism and racism (among other forms of discrimination) can combine in the life of a woman of color cannot be disaggregated separately into “the sexist stuff” and “the racist stuff,” and the power associated with one’s social positioning with respect to systemic discrimination matters.
This work compliments the fundamental view that science and society co-construct (Jasanoff and Kim 2015; Subramaniam 2014) and not just in discussions of gender. This is in academic parlance a matter for “Science Studies 101,” but quite absent in mainstream discussions by scientists about science and society. (Cheng 2017) In other words, it is no surprise to those of us in STSS that as we excavate data that reflects women’s experiences in astronomy — and science in general — that we are finding that scientific communities mirror the sexism and racism of the broader society in which they exist. Noting that astronomers like Cassini and Huygens played a role in deploying research programs that helped improve the efficiency of shipping enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and their low-cost work product to Europe, it is evident from this and many other examples, that science can be a tool of the oppressor by aiding those who are engaging in oppressive practices such as slavery. (McClellan, 2010) By the same token, the invention of Pasteurization revolutionized public health and changed lives for the better. Science and society are processes working in tandem with each other, unified not (yet) by a Grand Unified Theory of the Universe but rather by humans.
That bit about science and society co-constructing is of vital importance–while people oppose my work for a large variety of reasons, a misguided invocation of “science” is often one of them. This argument fails to comprehend that scientific analysis may neglect a subject because the scientists themselves neglect the subject, to say nothing of how any work in any field may also be subject to interference from outside scientific communities. With respects to gender variance specifically, it also ignores the fact that we have data these days, and that a reasonable analysis ought to account for it.