Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The pursuit of gender equity in astronomy: how do we know what’s working?

By Isabelle Kingsley, Office of the Women in STEM Ambassador, Australia

Many organizations and individuals have been trying for years to address the gender imbalance in astronomy. Efforts include programs such as educational activities, work and industry experience, mentoring schemes, and many more. These programs seek to dismantle barriers to attract and keep more girls and women in astronomy. We’re spending time, energy, and millions of dollars on programs, but are they working?

The trouble is, we don’t know. That’s because most programs are not evaluated.

Inequity in astronomy

Women are underrepresented in astronomy. They face barriers at all levels from their years of undergraduate and graduate education to senior levels in the working world. In the US, gender differences in salary, fewer career resources and opportunities, and career compromises for family reasons are just some of the barriers that affect the retention and progression of women in physics and astronomy. The barriers stack up even more for women from marginalized groups, like women from Hispanic and African American descent.

Tackling inequity: an Australian perspective

The gender imbalance isn’t unique to the US—it exists across the globe. In Australia, for example, the data paints a similar picture. In fact, it is not just an issue in physics and astronomy, but across the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) sector. While there are hundreds of programs in Australia to tackle gender inequity in STEM, a recent Australian National University study found that only seven of 337 initiatives in 2018 had publicly available evaluation findings. Herein lies a problem. How do we know what efforts are working, or how to improve what isn’t, if we are not evaluating?

The Australian Government raised concern and jumped into action. Evaluation is one of the main recommendations of the Australian Women in STEM Decadal Plan and Advancing Women in STEM 2020 Action Plan. The intent is to measure outcomes and use data to target efforts and scale up programs that are effective and proven to work.

Astrophysicist, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, is the Australian Government’s inaugural Women in STEM Ambassador. Her role is to drive systemic change that will make the STEM sector more inclusive and diverse. As a scientist, Professor Harvey-Smith is data-driven and approaches evaluation through a scientific lens. “To evaluate our actions effectively we need to engage scientific principles. We start by defining the outcomes we want. What does success look like, and how do we measure it? Then we look at the data to see whether we achieved what we wanted.”

Making evaluation simple and embedded

To help with this, the Office of the Women in STEM Ambassador produced a free evaluation guide to make evaluation simple and easy for anyone running a gender equity program. ‘The Guide’ is a user-friendly, downloadable, how-to resource that breaks evaluation down into five simple steps. Taking a scientific approach, the Guide helps users define what they want to achieve, plan and design how they will measure it, and transparently share the findings—the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is a vital step. Evaluation is not about ‘good news’ reporting or cherry-picking results to prove success and justify our efforts. We must share both our triumphs and tribulations so that others can learn what works and what doesn’t, and draw insights from each other’s progress. Evaluation is about holding ourselves to account.

If evaluation is going to help us understand what works, everyone needs to jump onboard the evaluation train. How can we make this happen? We must create a culture of evaluation. Evaluation needs to be embedded into all programs, and government and other funders can support this by requiring rigorous evaluation of outcomes and impact as a condition of funding. This will create a culture of evidence-based practice that makes decisions based on data—not just what seems intuitively good to do.

It starts with you

If you’re a senior leader, you have the formal authority to make evaluation a priority throughout the organization and your spheres of influence.

If you are not in a formal leadership role, speak to your peers and leaders and request evaluation of your organization’s inclusion and diversity efforts. Bring to their attention the value of data-driven practice. Empower them to act by pointing to evaluation guidance and resources. Hold them to account to understand if their actions are creating positive change. Equity and diversity efforts should be based on the same standard of empirical and measurable evidence as astronomy itself.

The Evaluation Guide for STEM gender equity programs is freely available for download from https://womeninstem.org.au/national-evaluation-guide/.

Isabelle Kingsley is a Research Associate for the Office of the Women in STEM Ambassador at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Isabelle investigates gender issues to drive systemic change for gender equity in STEM. Specifically, Isabelle developed an evaluation guide to measure and assess what works in STEM gender equity programs. Isabelle is also leading an Australian national study that examines the effects of anonymizing the assessment of research grant proposals to reduce gender bias.

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