Getting access to observation time on the Hubble Space Telescope is not easy. However, if you're a female astronomer, it could be even harder. A new study shows that Hubble's review board turns down more applications from women astronomers than applications from men astronomers.
It's no secret that sexism and discrimination exist in science. Gender bias, then, should also come as no surprise. So the results of this study aren't all that surprising. However, many find it part of a disturbing trend.
"I made a lot of efforts to have women on the review committees, and during the review I spent time listening to the deliberations of each panel," says Yale University's Meg Urry, who once led the Hubble proposal review committee. "I never heard anything that struck me as discrimination— and my antennae are definitely tuned for such things— so it's clear the bias is very subtle, and that both men and women are biased."
The review board turns down more than 75 percent of proposals for observation time each year. However, in the past 11 proposal cycles, men were always more successful during each cycle in receiving observation time than women.
Although the disparity is small, the fact that it happens every cycle raises alarms. The Hubble scientists have no reason for the bias, but they plan on analyzing their current processes to prevent it in the future.
Urry suggests that making applications blind, without names, before submissions could be a valid solution. However, this could prove difficult because those who grant the proposals need access to the credentials of the people they're reviewing. There also aren't a great number of astronomers, so often, even without a name, reviewers may know who submitted which application.
Those in charge of the review process are making changes that could help reduce gender bias. Before, the principal astronomer's name was on the proposal. Now, that is no longer the case and first names are now just initials. However, the question remains if these changes are enough. Some believe that gender bias is going to happen, no matter what.
"More importantly, biases against women in STEM and other male-dominated professions have been seen in hundreds, perhaps thousands of social science experiments," says Urry. "So it would be very unusual if somehow astronomers were immune to the biases shared broadly by men and women in the U.S."