A spotlight on gender equity and inclusion in astronomy

By: Guest contributor, Wed Feb 24 2021

A post by May Chiao, Chief Editor of Nature Astronomy


Author: Guest contributor

Women scientists are leading ground-breaking research across the world. But despite their remarkable discoveries, women still represent just one third of researchers globally, and their work rarely gains the recognition it deserves. 

Nature Portfolio has several ongoing initiatives in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) that help level the playing field in science. In this blog post, Nature Astronomy’s Chief Editor May Chiao talks about transparency in peer review and the journal’s efforts to support gender equity. 

Blog Women in Science © Springer Nature
May was a Senior Editor for Nature Physics, with responsibility for its astrophysics and condensed matter content, and has previously been an editor for Nature and Nature Materials. After starting out in radio astronomy, she went on to obtain her PhD from McGill University, in low temperature physics. She undertook postdoctoral research at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge and the Solid State Laboratory at ETH-Zürich, investigating fundamental properties of exotic magnets as well as superconductors and superfluids.

Championing women authors, commissioning women reviewers

Gender discrimination is very much an issue in academia, generally, and in astronomy, specifically. Can you tell us what Nature Astronomy does to eliminate potential bias in the peer review process?

We offer double-blind peer review as an option for authors wishing to remain anonymous. In addition, we always invite a range of reviewers in terms of gender, geographical location, seniority, etc, with the aim of having at least one woman per paper.

In an analysis of more than 1,000 manuscripts submitted to Nature Astronomy, Senior Editor Paul Woods found no evidence of negative bias towards submissions from women, for either editors or referees. In fact, women authors were more likely to have their papers accepted than men, though I cannot speculate on why that might be!

When women are asked to review Nature Astronomy articles, what trends do you notice? Are women less likely to accept than their male counterparts?

I’m afraid that with fewer women in research, each one does tend to receive more invitations -- not just for peer review but for all sorts of committees and panels -- and many are simply unable to find the time to referee for us. However, I find more women suggest other women or younger researchers as alternatives when they decline to review.

Besides the biological and epidemiological factors, Covid-19 seemed to affect every aspect of research. Did you notice lockdown effects on gender inequality in the Nature Astronomy peer review process?

It has been more difficult to find reviewers during the Covid-19 pandemic, full stop. Anecdotally, it does seem that fewer women are agreeing to review. We haven’t looked at the reviewer data, but we did publish a Correspondence that quantifies how Italian women in astronomy have been negatively affected as authors.

Can you share examples of impactful research by the women authors who have published in Nature Astronomy?

We have published so much great research with women as lead authors! Last year, a paper by Thankful Cromartie, on the most massive neutron star ever observed, made a huge splash. We were also really happy to publish a Mission Control by Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Sciences of the United Arab Emirates and Deputy Project Manager, on the Hope Mission to Mars, which successfully arrived at Mars last week. 

Supporting DEI

Nature Astronomy sponsors the DEI session at global conferences each year. Can you tell us what this stands for and why it is important to support these sessions? Are there specific examples you can share?

It is important for Nature Astronomy to show a tangible commitment to improving gender balance at all levels in research, as we are part of the research ecosystem, and it takes all of us to effect lasting change. In our launch year, we sponsored a DEI session at the European Astronomical Society meeting (formerly EWASS). It started as an extra lunchtime session and since then it has grown into a more mainstream event.

Are there other diversity initiatives that Nature Astronomy supports? 

We often give workshops to help young researchers with their writing and presentation skills. One particular symposium I attended was organised by Minorities in STEM. They invited Nature editors, a BBC presenters and other working journalists to give workshops to a diverse audience. I hope we gave them some useful skills, but also a confidence boost to just get out there and promote their work. 

In addition, two Nature Astronomy editors have served as judges for the Nature Research Awards for Inspiring and Innovating Science, in partnership with the Estee Lauder Companies -- one award for individual scientific achievement and the other for scientific outreach. These are only open to applicants self-identifying as women, trans women, genderqueer and non-binary people.

Marios Karouzos, a Senior Editor at Nature Astronomy, is leading a new working group on the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG5; Gender Equity), to leverage company-wide expertise to promote SDG5-related content published by Springer Nature and initiate new internal and external-facing projects to increase relevant content and highlight our commitment to achieving SDG5.

Agents of change

Are there some ways Nature Astronomy has encouraged women to embrace science early on? How important is representation in science?

We published a series of Focuses on Gender Equity in Astronomy, its follow-up on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion best practices and solutions, on Careers Beyond Academia (to show it isn’t a failure to quit a system that doesn’t work for you) and on Astronomy for Development. Not only have we tried to show that things are changing, we hope that hearing from a wide range of voices will help readers identify with someone, as representation is so important.

Can you speak to any wider Nature Portfolio initiatives to address gender bias?

The company provides unconscious bias training to help editors become aware of their blind spots. And those of us who want to push for change have a diverse group of diversity groups available for joining, from task forces to steering groups to working groups! We now have a Diversity Commitment for the Nature Portfolio, and Nature Conferences have made a No-manel pledge to ban all-male panels. And I already mentioned the new working group to tackle UN SDG 5 on gender equity.

Personal experience & advice

What was it like being a woman in your field? Did you encounter any negative biases and how did you overcome them?

There are many more women in the physical sciences now than when I started out! During a visit to the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, I was the only woman out of 40 users of the Maunakea observatories. I was still an undergraduate so I was probably the youngest one as well. The whole experience was overwhelming but my adviser was very supportive.

There have been people who didn’t take me seriously, and then I realised that with the competitive nature of academics, if it wasn’t my gender it would be something else. I basically did what I thought was interesting and found my tribe. 

What kind of obstacles have you experienced? 

I remember telling my parents that I wanted to switch out of biology into physics after my first year of university. My father said physics was hard. He was right, but that didn’t stop me. It turns out the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UBC was on the lookout for more girls and I had many constructive conversations with members of staff who helped me take a leap of faith. 

What are your hopes for the future of women in planetary science?

When I was watching the landing of NASA’s Perseverance Rover, it struck me how many women were featured in the NASA live programming. ESA is currently on a recruitment drive for new astronauts, and they are explicitly looking for more women. They even have a Parastronaut Feasibility Project to attract applicants with disabilities. 

Looking specifically at NASA’s robotic planetary science space missions, the percentage of women on the science teams was very low until about 1995, and grew slowly to the 15% level until 2010. With the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample-return mission, the percentage jumped to 35% and the future Dragonfly mission to Titan (the largest of Saturn’s moons) is at 42%! Thus I would say that things are looking up for women in general, but for women from underrepresented groups there is still a long way to go.

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Author: Guest contributor

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