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Astronomy funder finds that gender diversity takes more than good intentions

Rebecca Jensen-Clem, Marta Bryan, and Clara Sousa-Silva (left to right) have received support from programs at the Heising-Simons Foundation to aid women in astronomy and physics.

Drew Bird Photography

By Jeffrey Mervis

Two years ago, the Heising-Simons Foundation launched a grants program designed to attract and retain more women in the male-dominated disciplines of physics and astronomy. It also started a postdoctoral fellowship aimed at developing talent in the emerging field of planetary astronomy.

Foundation officials assumed the two efforts would be synergistic, in particular, that the fellowship would not only lead to more people studying objects outside the solar system, but would also contribute to the foundation’s goal of erasing the gender imbalance in physics and astronomy. They were wrong: Only two of the 12 awardees in the fellowship’s first two cohorts were women.

That low ratio sent shock waves through the small family charity, which is based in Los Altos, California. “We realized we needed to self-reflect before we went any further,” says Cyndi Atherton, who oversees both the women in physics and astronomy initiative and the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship program, named for the first Sun-like exoplanet to be discovered outside our solar system. “We wanted to understand some of the biases that go into how people evaluate candidates so we could create a cohort that would be both excellent and diverse. And we recognized that we are not the experts in this area.”

Getting outside help

With that goal in mind, Atherton contacted Joyce Yen. “We need your help,” Atherton told Yen, an industrial and organizational engineer who leads the long-running ADVANCE program at the University of Washington in Seattle, which works to improve the academic climate for female faculty in science and engineering. “What should we be doing to promote greater diversity?”

Atherton and Yen spent 1 year revamping the process by which young scientists applied and were chosen for the 3-year, $375,000 fellowships. Yen describes the changes in a new paper in Nature Astronomy.

One key difference: Both candidates and institutions must now describe their efforts to promote equity and inclusion. In another change, applicants are no longer nominated by one of the participating universities, a step that meant finding a sponsor ahead of time and that gave universities the power to exclude applicants right off the bat. Instead, the candidates sent their applications directly to the foundation, along with a list of their top choices of a university.

Atherton also hired Yen to lead the panels rather than using a scientist from the discipline. As facilitator, her role was to watch out for comments that might bias the process by straying from the stated criteria for selection.

The changes had the desired effect: Four of the six fellows in this year’s class are women. The process also drew a larger and more diverse pool of applicants. The foundation reviewed twice the number of applicants as in the previous year, and a higher percentage were women. (Exact comparisons are impossible because Atherton doesn’t know the number or gender of applicants the universities rejected in 2017 and 2018 before forwarding their favored candidates to the foundation.)

Atherton admits it’s a tiny sample. But both she and Yen feel the new rules have fostered greater diversity without affecting the quality of the pool and the foundation’s goal of supporting scientific excellence.

“The level of the science is still amazing,” Atherton says. “But in a field that should be working toward greater gender equity, we felt we should be part of the solution. And we’ve been able to do that by working with Joyce.”

Learning about bias

Yen says the first step to achieving such results is overcoming inertia. “Nothing in the paper is new,” Yen admits. “But what’s new was the foundation’s willingness to blow up the whole existing system and examine what practices needed to be changed.”

One problem, she says, was that requiring applicants to find a willing sponsor allowed institutions to become gatekeepers. “Do they like me enough to nominate me?” she says about how applicants viewed the previous process, noting that studies have shown women tend to set a higher bar for themselves than do men. “Now, applicants can make their case directly [to Heising-Simons], and their entire packet goes to the university.”

Another problem, she says, was that the original application didn’t make clear the foundation’s interest in diversity. “It’s easy to assume you’ve conveyed that message” even if you haven’t spelled it out, Yen says. Applicants are now asked to discuss personal experiences and their “willingness to engage in activities that would advance diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and reviewers score the statement as part of the overall evaluation.

A face-to-face meeting of reviewers makes it easier to deal with implicit bias, Yen says. And Atherton believes that using a facilitator with Yen’s expertise to run the meeting is also essential. “It’s really important not to have an astronomer or physicist lead the panel,” she says. “You need a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] diversity expert.”

Atherton served on peer-review panels for several government agencies while working as an atmospheric scientist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. But she says that didn’t prepare her for managing the fellowship program. “Even though I had read the papers on diversity and was aware of the issue, I hadn’t internalized it until we brought in Joyce.”

She’s not alone, Yen says. “You can’t will yourself to be unbiased,” Yen says. “You need to learn how to do it.”

Yen also helped Atherton put together a committee to advise the women in physics and astronomy program that consists of eight prominent women in those disciplines. That gender imbalance is deliberate, Atherton says.

“We wanted to create a safe space, where women would feel comfortable speaking frankly and honestly about the issues they face and what we can do to help,” she says. “At some point the leadership council may include men, but right now it’s working very well with only women.”

Atherton knows that scientists of color are also vastly underrepresented in physics and astronomy, and she says that “in 30 years, I would love for the field of astronomy to look like my neighborhood supermarket.” But the foundation’s limited budget doesn’t allow her “to tackle diversity in those fields across many dimensions,” she adds. For now, she says, “Our primary focus is gender diversity.”

Source: Science Mag