Gender equality in astronomy doesn’t end with the male/female gender binary. In a study conducted by non-binary astrophysicist Kaitlin Rasmussen, researchers looked at gender equality in astronomy and what activities could address outstanding issues that leave out or have a negative effect on researchers who do not fit into binary male or female gender identities.
This study, published in 2019, was inspired by surveys conducted by astronomers who looked at gender equality in astronomy. They and others in the field, as noted in this study, have mentioned that many of the published papers on gender equality in astronomy are led by astronomers instead of gender experts, said Rasmussen in a recent interview with Space.com. “It was all men versus women, and sometimes nonbinary people were not even addressed or would be addressed as a footnote.”
Although other studies have not adequately included non-binary scientists, Rasmussen said, there have been numerous studies that have, over the years, looked at problems in the space sector and developed approaches that could be used to enhance the lives of those disadvantaged minority groups that work in the field. Previous studies have also shown that there is an increased risk of assault and harassment in the fields of astronomy and planetary science for people who are part of gender and sexual minority groups.
“I’m privileged in that I am White and I am masculine presenting,” V Wegman, a former NASA intern who completed two internships at NASA’s Langley Research Center who went on to work on a third internship at the agency and who has also worked at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was not involved in these studies, told Space.com. However, they shared, when they came out as nonbinary, “I was really intensely discriminated against, I guess you could say, with my fellow students … it was impossible for me to complete labs because they just never let me participate.” This prejudice has also led Wegman to leave his last internship at NASA.
For this new paper, the researchers were trying to take a deeper look at gender inequality common to non-binary people in areas such as “who’s getting postdoc positions, who’s getting tenured,” Rasmussen told Space.com. They hope that by making improvements, like who is working on these studies, the field can develop to better and more efficiently support its non-binary members.
“The thing with the identity of being nonbinary is that more and more people are realizing that they do not fall into the man category or the woman category,” Rasmussen said, adding that the more non-binary people there are, the more people there would be who are not handled equally in the industry.
In the study, researchers made several recommendations on how to change the field in order to better support its non-binary members. Such recommended changes include improvements to the methodology, in particular with regard to the collection and reporting of gender data.
The study also indicated that gender data should never be accessed outside the context for which it was collected and that privacy remains a key factor to consider for such information. The group also recommends that while institutional reform is “beyond the scope of this paper,” they wrote, to actually achieve gender equality, institutions must adopt a “more complex model of gender than has historically been employed by equity initiatives.”
In addition, they note that a person’s gender is often believed to be based on external traits such as name or physiology. Yet, they emphasize, making such conclusions is “unavoidably discriminatory.”
“For nonbinary people in particular, there is simply no acceptable outcome here: we are either misclassified into a binary gender or considered uncategorizable and discarded. While this may sound trivial, experiences of misgendering and erasure have very real psychological and professional consequences for nonbinary, transgender, and gender non-conforming individuals,” the authors wrote in the paper.
“Our final, and perhaps most important recommendation,” the authors added, “is to listen. Look around your communities to see who the most marginalized, most vulnerable members are, and make sure their voices are not just included but prioritized in conversations about equity and inclusion — that their needs and ideas are heard and valued.”