Women In Science

My colleague, Dana Hurley, wrote an Eos forum article, “Women Count,” published last week, addressing the issue of the underrepresentation of female scientists on planetary mission teams. This is an important reminder of a rather sad state of affairs in space and planetary science: a dearth of women in leadership positions. I highly encourage you to read it.

A main point of the article is that this imbalance is probably not overt sexism, but rather a subconscious instinct to surround ourselves with those very similar to ourselves. At the formation of a team for an upcoming mission, the mission PI chooses instrument PIs that he knows, who in turn form a small science team for that specific instrument. Because the field was historically dominated by men in the senior positions, this system of team formation leads to selection of more men on the instrument teams, which aggregate into a mission team that is seriously out of balance with the gender proportion of the community. This imbalance applies far beyond the specific example of planetary mission teams analyzed in the article. This is true across many leadership positions across a number of scientific communities.

Then, of course, there is the bigger issue of recruiting and retaining women in science, let alone being in a leadership position. The article cites a number of 27% for the female population of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Science. AGU’s membership is about the same: according to the 2012 AGU Annual Report, it was 65% male, 22% female, and 13% not reporting (so, ~25% of those reporting were female). We shouldn’t be satisfied with these numbers that are so out of line with the general population.

The article ends with a call to action: count. Pay attention to the number of women “on the team” or “in the room.” Even more importantly, ask the leaders about how the team is being formulated, and pose the question: “Are there candidates for this team who are female/early career/international/minority?” We should all, men and women alike, feel empowered to ask this question and offer suggestions for improving team diversity.

Furthermore, we should expand our usual definition of “team” and “room” here to include any group or cohort, be it a research project investigator team, an advisory committee, a special session organizing crew, a proposal review panel, or a dinner group at a conference. It would be great to be blind to gender in our professional lives, but until we have equity, it is important to follow Dr. Hurley’s advice and take it into account.

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5 thoughts on “Women In Science

  1. Mike,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    Do we really know why the situation is as it is? You certainly provide a plausible explanation. It’s not clear to me that it is the unique explanation.

    We should certainly strive for greater participation of women on planetary science teams. However, the metric of success might not be tied to the number of women in the general population. The success metric could perhaps be tied to the perception of inclusion: is serious consideration being given to being more inclusive, and how is this perceived and documented? That seems to be what the forum article is asking for.

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