Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why I think diversity is good, but the wrong target

There have been many posts on this blog and elsewhere calling for increased diversity in astronomy. I've written about it. My student has written about it. Diversity has many benefits, and we're missing out on those benefits by not having a more diverse field of science. However, I'm becoming less and less enamored with diversity as a target or goal in and of itself.
This stock photo shows more diversity than exists in astronomy today, but illustrates
what counts as diversity in most campus discussions. The out-of-focus Black person
is particularly apropos to this discussion.
Short Version

If we only focus on diversity, we'll be like a CEO saying that her goal is to "make money." Ohhh-kay. But how, specifically? By what strategy and mechanisms will the CEO make money? 

It'd be like a coach of a sports team saying, "Our goal is to score more points than our opponents!" By what strategy? What offensive and defensive approach will you use? "Nope, we're just focused on scoring points!"

Diversity is something we should strive for. But how will we get there? I contend that we'll only get to diversity by attacking the power structures that hold us back and stand in the way of diversity. For gender diversity, the roadblock is sexism. For racial diversity, the roadblock is racism

So rather than focusing on diversity as a target, we should instead aim at equal opportunity. Sexism and racism aim to deny equal opportunities to those outside of the white-male power structure. White women have made gains by directly attacking sexist power structures. But this process has left women of color behind. Gains for women (and men) of color will only be made once organizations such as the CSWA start taking an intersectional approach that recognizes that women of color face not only sexism, but racism as well in their daily lives (note how this direct attack on power structures contrasts with "multiculturalism"). 

Long Version


My views on diversity have been evolving thanks in large part to my ongoing discussions with Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. In her guest post last summer, she focused on the need for more precise language in our discussions of the lack of inclusion in astronomy. I have to admit, when I first read it, I missed the point. In fact, I was kinda frustrated on her focus on language, when I felt like she could have been naming more impactful actions we could take to improve things. But after talking with her and re-reading her post, a few things stood out to me that have changed my approach.

The first change is that I no longer say "women and minorities," as she suggested in her post. Chanda points out how the "and" often, in practice, becomes an "or." I have definitely seen the "or" rear its ugly head many times in my attempts to discuss the intersection of race and gender, and it is well known that white women have been the top beneficiaries of affirmative action in the US workforce. 

Because astronomy is >90% white when we say the word "women," even if we mean it in an all-inclusive manner, we are talking about white women in the main. It just comes down to the numbers: of every 10 women in astronomy, on average 9 are white (at least as of 2007 according to Donna Nelson's statistics of top-40 astro depts), but <0.1 are Black. The phrase "women and minorities" reads "white women and minorities," while ignoring the fact that women of color exist as a distinct group facing a separate set of challenges than white women (more on this further down). As a result, I now say "Women and men of color, and white women." Women of color need to be explicitly recognized in our discussions of inclusion.
Racial demographics in top-40 astro departments as of 2007
(data from Donna Nelson's study)
How is it that white women have made such impressive gains in representation in astronomy over the past 25-30 years, while e.g. Black women like Chanda make up less than 1 out of 100 of those women? To answer this, we need to assess how white women made their gains. The reasons (white) women were so underrepresented in astronomy 30 years ago is not because they weren't interested in science, or because they were bad at math, or because of anything intrinsic to women. Women weren't present in astronomy because they were actively excluded. That exclusion was an action undertaken by men as part of a sexist societal and institutional structure based on the false notion that men are superior and women are inferior (i.e. the social construct of gender). 

While there is no scientific evidence for inherent differences in ability between men and women, much of our society is structured around this assumption. Girls were (and often still are) steered away from math and science in high school. Women in the work place face sexual harassment and assault at rates orders of magnitude higher than experienced by men. But it's the smaller things, too. Toys for girls are single-purpose (a doll!), while boys play with toys that increase their spatial reasoning abilities and other skills needed for careers in STEM (Robotic Legos!). Movies starring men are just "movies," while those starring women are "chick flicks." Men who speak with authority are "leaders" while women who talk the same way in the same group are "loud" or "overbearing" or "bitchy." And for decades (and still today) when two equally qualified individuals apply for a job, without active intervention, the application with a man's name will be selected at higher rate than the one with a woman's name. 


The power in society generally, and astronomy in particular, has and does still largely reside with men. Fortunately, sexist attitudes among men (and women) are changing. If you doubt this, just check out what happened with the recent #ShirtStorm incident (here's a handy guide to what went down). Wearing a shirt objectifying the bodies of women is not acceptable in modern science settings, whereas 30 years ago there wouldn't have been enough women in the field to take notice and one would be hard pressed to find a man willing to speak out against such a sexist action. Today, there are large numbers of men who are unafraid to confront their colleagues about their sexist actions. Yes, trolls came out in force and said truly idiotic things. But they didn't get to just say things without educated feminists pushing back. Again, in absolute terms, there's still progress to be made. But in relative terms, things have improved a great deal for white women in astronomy. 

In more recent times, institutions have taken active measures to affirm the place of women in the astronomy (and scientific) workplace by countering the effects of unconscious (and conscious) bias in hiring, and by incentivizing the hiring of women. Yes, men are crying out about "reverse discrimination." But what is happening is that the playing field is being leveled for the first time in history, and the result is a ton of extremely talented women being hired into tenure-track professor positions. This is progress.

Thus, women have made gains by directly confronting, challenging and dragging out into the light the structures of sexism that have held them back for so long. Men might complain, but it's just because they are facing something approaching a meritocracy for the first time. The centuries-long system of male affirmative action is coming to an end. There's plenty of work to do, but progress thus far is impressive. 

However, as Chanda and I have pointed out, and as the statistics attest, the rising tide does not lift all boats. Women of color have made no significant gains over the same period that white women went from ~1% representation to >30% of our field. Why is this? Well, if you talk to white people, you'll hear that "the situation is complicated." However, I'll now argue, the situation is rather straight-forward. The reason women of color haven't made progress is because of racism, where 


White readers: I challenge you to look inside.
Women of color not only face sexism in the workplace, but also racism. In society at large, Blacks and Latino/as face a gigantic ~20:1 wealth gap that is a direct result of centuries of US policies that have prevented people of color from accumulating wealth. This wealth gap results in people of color living in highly segregated communities with highly segregated schools; increases their likelihood of living near poverty, even when they have good incomes; and all of this and more greatly limits their opportunities to attend college. 

Once in college, microagressions from white people abound; (racial) stereotype threat impedes their performance on exams; the denial of the existence of racism and doubts about the racial experiences of people of color deprives them of agency over their lives; reduced access to communities of people like themselves isolates them socially; reduced expectations, differential treatment and general racism from professors results in lower performance, reduced research opportunities, less mentoring, and poorer advising (Imposed invisibility and general neglect are all-too-common failure modes for women of color.); they have a near total lack of role models in the sciences; universities are run almost completely by white administrations; and the list goes on and on.

This brings me back around to why "diversity" is the wrong target. As Chanda argued, we need to aim for equal opportunities for all people who wish to pursue science. Opportunities are becoming more equal for women because of a direct attack on sexism and its associated power structure. But women (and men) of color still face a strong, racist headwind that denies them an equal opportunity to participate in the study of the Universe. 

"We need diversity!" says the university provost. Okay, but by what strategy? I contend that it won't happen until we acknowledge and confront racism in our community. Until we have a plan to take on the existing racist power structures in our world, we'll continue to work in one of the most segregated corners of American society. White women will continue to make gains, while women of color continue to drop out because of hostile work environments, sub-standard advising/mentoring, reduced job opportunities, and their numbers will continue to hover at the 1% level. And if that continues to happen, then the CSWA will ultimately fail in its mission and this blog will be about (White) Women in Astronomy.

(Note: I decided to remove the sexist advertisement because it didn't really advance my greater point, and because it was such a ridiculous anachronism that it was more distracting than instructive.)

Want to help? Here are some suggestions
  1. Beware of white silence. Your silence on matters of race is a manifestation of your privilege and it only serves to promote and maintain racism in our world. 
  2. Read. See my extensive bibliography in my previous posts
  3. Read. Seriously. Learn your real history, not the propagandistic tripe taught in K-12. As long as white astronomers remain ignorant about the way the world actually works, people will continue asking me the #1 FAQ: "So what can I do?"
  4. Read. Learn about your privilege (see links above). Once you learn to recognize your own privilege, from your family's history to your present-day interactions, you'll start seeing white privilege all around you. You'll start seeing the world as non-white people see it. And you'll start seeing solutions rather than relying on non-white people like me to do all the reading and spell things out for you.
  5. Search for a local anti-racism group. I'm part of the Boston Knapsack Anti-Racism Group, which stays in touch via Meetup.com. Many Americans have fooled themselves into thinking they live in a "diverse," racially-mixed world. We so do not. Sitting in a room of 30 people talking openly about race and racism---talking together as Black people and white people as they really are---was one of the first times I saw meaningful interactions between disparate racial groups. It was amazing. An inclusive, open, honest, accountable community is extremely powerful when you actually see and experience it. I'd love to have such a community in astronomy.
  6. Once you learn how anti-racism discussions work, initiate one (some) in your own department. 
If any or all of this sounds too hard (I don't have time to read books. It's job application/proposal season.), just remember one thing: It's hard to be non-white in America. It's hard every damn day, and the associated difficulties cannot just be set aside by non-white people while they try to do astronomy. So please share the burden by forgoing that marathon session of House of Cards, or some other Washington DC-based web series with a white-dominated cast.

Want to learn more? 

Here are some excellent blogs that cover the intersection of race and gender (and more):

The Other Sociologist (Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos)
This is...White Privilege (Tumblr)
The Angry Black Woman Blog - Required Reading
Franchesca Ramsey
Black Girl Dangerous
Spectra Speaks

I've been writing extensively on race and racism on my personal blog (and references therein):

How I explain racism to my child
What is race and why does it matter?
A Brief History of Whiteness
Race and racism: Why won't you believe me?
What would racial equality look like?
If Black people talked white