< Back to All Articles

The Women in Astronomy Forum at STScI: Affecting Change in the Local and Global Astronomical Communities

A. Nota, A. Aloisi, S. Hernandez, L. Watkins, I. Momcheva, T. Ashley, T. Beck, M. Boyer, A. Calamida, F. Cashman, C. Christian, M. Decleir, G. De Rosa, S. Deustua, S. Gezari, K. Gilbert, B. James, S. Kassin, N. Kumari, A. Moro-Martin, C. Pacifici, A. Petric, L. Prichard, E. Rickman, K. Rowlands, A. Roy, J. Roman-Duval, E. Sabbi, L. J. Smith, P. Sonnentrucker, and the WIAF (ask_wiaf[at]stsci.edu)

WIAF web banner

The Women in Astronomy Forum is a self-organized group of women scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute who have research time as a contractual agreement. We welcome cis-women, trans-women and non-binary people who feel comfortable in a space centered on the experiences of women. Our goals are to provide support and mentoring to others in the group, and to advocate for more inclusive and equitable practices both within the institute and more broadly in the astronomical community. In this article, we introduce ourselves and some of our recent initiatives, including: concrete recommendations to improve diversity in conferences, and specific guidelines for improving diversity on committees and activities coordinated by STScI, analysis of long-term trends in the astronomical work force, and unconscious bias in astronomy. We hope that other institutions can use these guidelines and recommendations to improve their own practices. We also hope that our experience can help others to form similar groups, and we offer some advice and resources through our website.

Background 

With different names, shapes, and forms, the Women In Astronomy Forum (WIAF) has existed at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) since the institute was founded in the early eighties. The women on the research staff have always felt the need to get together, meet informally and discuss shared challenges and solutions, while at the same time providing much needed support to each other. At first, the meetings were informal lunches, organized every few weeks. The number of women scientists was very low (<10), and many times the lunches were canceled because of lack of participants. Still the women's lunches survived, because the need was always present. The women's lunches continued even when most women scientists had departed from STScI in the early 2000s and only a handful were left. The growth finally restarted under the leadership of Matt Mountain, who prioritized the hiring of women scientists and replenished their ranks. He also instituted best practices of respect, civility, and bias awareness that are continued to this date. As soon as the group reached critical mass (defined as a sufficient number of women who could hold a productive meeting even if 50% of the members could not attend), we collectively decided to give the group a formal name and identity, and this led to the Women in Astronomy Forum (WIAF) that we are introducing today.

Introduction—Who We Are

The WIAF is a grassroots, self-organized group of women scientists at STScI who have research time as a contractual agreement. Broadly, WIAF members share similar career challenges: balancing science and functional responsibilities, balancing work and family life, and career goals such as renewals, promotions, and for some, tenure. Recently, COVID has created an additional layer of uncertainty and stress.

The WIAF includes career astronomers and post-docs employed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). More recently, we have opened up membership to students working at the Johns Hopkins University under the direction of STScI researchers. As already mentioned, for a very long time the WIAF did not have critical mass, but now it counts more than fifty actively engaged members. This has allowed the WIAF to start tackling issues of common interest in a tangible and constructive way, and to become a credible voice within the institute on matters related to diversity and inclusiveness.

Typically, the WIAF meets once a month and discusses items that are proposed by the members. When the WIAF identifies a topic that the group feels should be addressed with priority, we create a working group to research the issue. An action plan is generated and discussed with the rest of the WIAF. Several important projects have been completed this way. Following extensive discussion, the WIAF generates clear, tangible and realistic recommendations that are proposed to the interested constituency at STScI, starting from the STScI Director and the institute senior leadership.

The WIAF also serves as a networking opportunity and a resource to its members. Because WIAF members work in very diverse areas of STScI, each brings their own experience to the table, and everyone benefits from hearing different viewpoints and solutions. The WIAF has been an excellent resource during the COVID situation, particularly in providing feedback to the STScI leadership on the additional challenges faced by the women scientists.

Finally, the WIAF serves as a support group to its own members. It offers its knowledge and resources to its newest members, and provides organized and efficient help. WIAF members all "lean in" for each other!

Meeting participants in virtual meeting grid
Figure 1: Several members of the WIAF at a virtual meeting in November 2020.

Our Past Initiatives

In the last few years we have successfully identified critical issues impacting women and under-represented minorities in the scientific community at the institute. We have collected and analyzed data, and distilled data-based recommendations and best practices, increased diversity and retention in the local community first and then through lessons-learned, outreach, and advocacy in the global astronomical community.

Below we briefly describe a few of the initiatives we have identified and investigated, as well as the findings and recommendations put forward to provide guidance to STScI Leadership and to inform the community at large. The WIAF has submitted four white papers on these topics to the US 2020 Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Enhancing conference participation to bridge the diversity gap

Conference attendance is critical for a successful career in astronomy, but several factors limit such attendance in ways that can affect women and minorities disproportionately at a higher level than the rest of the community. We investigated these factors, and in an effort to better understand the limitations indirectly imposed by conferences, we launched an exploratory survey at STScI composed of 27 questions. This survey was designed to examine three aspects of conference attendance: factors motivating researchers to attend conferences, factors limiting researchers' ability to attend conferences, and practices that have been, or could be, implemented to facilitate conference participation.

The analysis of this survey culminated in several key recommendations. The first is offering two-way remote participation. This will allow broader participation from women who are more likely to be unable to travel because of young children, and other under-represented groups from smaller institutions with less funding available. The second is to strive for gender balance at all levels of a conference, from the Scientific Organizing Committee to the speaker list and ultimately the attendees. Another key recommendation is to provide flexible funding for dependent-care support, since early- and middle-career astronomers are the groups that benefit the most from conference participation, but are also the ones more likely to have young dependents. And last but not least, allocation of institutional or conference funding to be used by participants to attend conferences. In particular, conference funding could be primarily used to target junior researchers and specific under-represented groups, improving overall diversity and inclusiveness at conferences. For a detailed description of our findings, we refer the reader to Prichard et al. (2019) and Hernandez et al. (2019).

Increasing gender diversity and inclusion in scientific committees and related activities at STScI

Our group has also introduced a new initiative to increase gender diversity and inclusion in the scientific committees at STScI, and the activities these committees generate. These committees are in charge of a variety of activities, including making decisions on the hire, renewal, and promotion of researchers, allocating grants for science projects, evaluating the scientific productivity of the staff, and organizing a variety of science meetings. All these activities play a significant role in shaping the careers of internal and external scientists, and need to be carried out in the most unbiased way possible. By analyzing data of 3–5 years of activities of each scientific committee, we created a baseline that will be used as a reference to measure progress going forward. By relying on the notion that a diverse committee produces a diverse outcome, we created guidelines for the composition of committees that mainly focus on binary gender representation, but that can be adapted to support other under-represented groups.

These activities include the following. First, we have systematically introduced unconscious bias training to increase awareness. Second, we have created an accountability mechanism by requesting each committee chair to provide a self-assessment report explaining the results of the committee with respect to gender membership guidelines and goals. Finally, we have implemented a reward system by recognizing successful examples. The ultimate goal is to establish a virtuous cycle that will help reshape the scientific culture and modify the outcomes without external enforcement. For more detail on this work we refer to De Rosa et al. (2019). STScI is currently actively working to expand the guidelines presented in this paper to include all committees at the institute, not just the scientific committees. 

Long-term trends in the astronomical workforce: Analysis and recommendations based on the publication histories of >10,000 US astronomy PhD recipients

Aiming to investigate what fraction of PhD recipients stay in the field overall and as a function of gender, members of our group analyzed the publication histories of >10,000 US astronomy PhD recipients from 1970 to 2018. The data presented in the recent publication by Momcheva et al. (2019) do not support the claim that there has been an over-production of Astronomy PhDs in the US in recent years. While the number of PhD recipients has more than doubled in the last 45 years, the job market has expanded accordingly to absorb this increase, resulting in a constant retention rate. Due to the diversification of the job market, the paper recommends to diversify the training at the PhD and postdoc level to better prepare young researchers to a successful astronomical career both within and outside academia. 

The historical data presented in the paper do not support the claim of a leaking pipeline either at the undergraduate level or beyond for women. This means that in order to increase women's representation in astronomy beyond the 30% level, efforts need to be invested in the transition phase from high school to college. On the other hand, under-represented minorities, and minority women in particular, are still not represented at the same rates through all professional levels, and targeted efforts are needed to improve in this area. Due to the lack of senior women astronomers, the paper recommends to consider more junior female researchers in scientific activities where seniority is more relevant to level the playing field.

(Un)conscious bias in the astronomical profession: Universal recommendations to improve fairness, inclusiveness, and representation

(Un)conscious bias affects every aspect of the astronomical profession, and for many it is still the major hurdle to be successful. Over the past few years, STScI has invested significant efforts in overcoming (un)conscious bias and increasing diversity representation and outcome in science activities. This includes introducing the dual-anonymous peer-review process in the selection of the Hubble Space Telescope (and soon James Webb Space Telescope) observing proposals. One of the WIAF members led the white paper Aloisi & Reid (2019), recommending the standardization of the methods successfully adopted by STScI. These include the introduction of unconscious bias training in every activity that involves a committee where discussion is necessary and selective decisions are expected. While making this training mandatory is still controversial, our experience is that it greatly improves awareness and makes the subsequent process fairer. Another recommendation is the introduction of explicit and objective criteria before the start of an evaluation process and the consistent use of such criteria throughout. Similarly, dual-anonymous peer review should be introduced whenever possible, including during recruitment, speaker selection and funding allocation. Ultimately, every institution and organization should put in place tools to track progress towards a level and fair playing field. 

Impact of our Initiatives on the Local Community and How They Can Be Easily Expanded to the Global Community

All initiatives led by the WIAF have been developed and are deployed in scalable fashion at STScI, with the support of the STScI Director Ken Sembach, Deputy Director Nancy Levenson, and the STScI Leadership Team. Our process is simple and can be easily replicated at other institutions. First, we research the topic thoroughly. We create a working group (WG). The WG works collaboratively, in a "sprint" or "hackathon" fashion, during which they collect relevant data and identify possible solutions. Their recommendations are brought to the entire WIAF and thoroughly discussed. Once we have reached a majority opinion on the recommendations, we deploy them in the smallest venue first, for example within the research staff at STScI (a body of ~150 scientists). Sometimes we pilot the recommendations within the WIAF itself. This offers the possibility to refine the recommendations. When these are mature, we submit them to the STScI Director and Deputy Director. For example, the recommendations on "Increasing Gender Diversity and Representation on Committees" were adopted by the STScI Research Staff, are now being extended to the entire institution. The recommendations from "Enhancing Conference Participation" were adopted by the STScI Research Staff and have resulted in new guidelines for the organization of all STScI conferences (Brooks et al. 2020). You can read more about the impact of these initiatives for conferences organized by STScI in the article by Carol Christian in this Newsletter.

We believe that the WIAF recommendations for best practices can have a huge impact on the global astro community if they are consistently adopted and followed. The WIAF is willing to share experiences and offer support to your institution if you are interested in joining the effort to create a professional community that is inclusive and fair to all.

The WIAF Website: A Resource for All

The WIAF has a website that is accessible to all and is designed to be a resource to groups and institutions in the global community who want to be agents of change. 

You can find information on our membership, our past and current initiatives, our presentations and additional resources at https://www.stsci.edu/~women.astro/index.html

Please reach out by email if you have questions and we will be delighted to help you.

Call to Other Institutions to Do the Same: You Can Do It Too!

When we present our work at worldwide conferences, we frequently encounter groups who are experiencing the very same issues, but feel they do not have a voice because of the lack of a critical mass. Here are a few suggestions on how to overcome this issue:

  • Reach out to neighboring institutions, invite them to your meetings. You will find that, most likely, they also feel they don't have a voice, they don't have critical mass, but together, you will be stronger.
  • Identify issues that are relevant to your community and can be tackled. Investigate the issues and identify realistic solutions that work in your environment. Pitch your ideas to your leaders. Use metrics to evaluate impact. Advertise your work at conferences and on your website. You will inspire others.
  • Take baby steps. You cannot solve all the problems in a day. Changing culture takes time, persistence and commitment. The effort has to be sustainable to be effective. It is also OK to lose some battles. We are all here for the long haul.
  • Reach out to the WIAF if you feel we can help.

This is what we can offer:

  • A shared vision for a community that is inclusive, fair and welcoming to all, including cis- and trans-women, as well as non-binary people who are comfortable in a space that centers the experience of women.
  • Support through advocacy. WIAF members may virtually visit other institutions and share their experiences in organizing such an advocacy group.
  • An expanding website that offers useful tips, resources, relevant literature, and pointers.

The WIAF continues to be committed to diversity and inclusion at STScI and in astronomy in general. We have come far towards equality and balance, but there is still so much more to be done. Join our journey!

References

Aloisi, A., Reid, N. 2019, BAAS, 51, 7, id. 41

Brooks, B., Brooks, K., Hagen, L., Hathi, N., Hoffman, S., Paranilam, J., Prichard, L. 2020, "Recommendations for Planning Inclusive Astronomy Conferences," arXiv:2007.10970

De Rosa, G., Oliveira, C., Pacifici, C., Aloisi, A., Alatalo, K., Ashley, T., Beck, T., Boyer, M., Calamida, A., Carlberg, J., Christian, C., Chen, C., Deustua, S., Gilbert, K., Hagen, L., Henry, A., Hernandez, S., James, B., Kassin, S., La Massa, S., Meixner, M., Momcheva, I., Moro-Martin, A., Prichard, L., Ravindranath, S., Roman-Duval, J., Sabbi, E., Sacchi, E., Wakeford, H., Temin, T. 2019, BAAS, 51, 7, id. 25

Hernandez, S., Prichard, L., Oliveira, C., Aloisi, A., Roman-Duval, J., Pacifici, C., Momcheva, I., Women in Astronomy Forum, 2019, STScI Newsletter Articles, Volume 36, Issue 03

Momcheva, I., Flaherty, K., Prichard, L. 2019, Astro 2020

Prichard, L., Oliveira, C., Aloisi, A., Roman-Duval, J., Hernandez, S., Pacifici, C., Momcheva, I., Women in Astronomy Forum, STScI, 2019, BAAS, 51, 7, id. 22