Hubble Telescope Study Reveals Evidence Of Bias Against Women Astronomers

Research shows that sexism remains a problem for female scientists here on Earth, and a disturbing new study suggests it may also exist in space--at least as high as the orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

The study shows that women astronomers are less likely than their male counterparts to be granted observation time on Hubble, Scientific American reported.

Conducted internally by the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute--which oversees operations of the telescope--the study involved an analysis of data from the last 11 cycles during which astronomers' proposals were selected or rejected. It showed that proposals with female "principal investigators" (PIs) were significantly less likely to win approval than were proposals with male PIs.

What precisely explains the disparity?

Dr. Meg Urry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University and a former leader of the committee that reviewed Hubble proposals, told The Huffington Post in an email that while it was possible that the proposals submitted by women PIs were of lower quality, it was far more likely that women's proposals were more frequently rejected because "subtle bias" against women exists in the review process.

"First of all, HST proposals are written by teams of both men and women, each of whom contributes to the proposal and ensures it's a good one," she told The Huffington Post. "So the PI alone doesn't have that much impact on the quality of the proposal. More importantly, biases against women in STEM and other male-dominated professions have been seen in hundreds, perhaps thousands of social science experiments. So it would be very unusual if somehow astronomers were immune to the biases shared broadly by men and women in the U.S."

In any case, steps are being taken to counter bias against women astronomers who apply for Hubble time, according to a paper describing the study. These include briefing reviewers on the potential for unconscious bias and revising the proposal format so that the principal investigator is no longer listed on the front and that the PI is indicated by initials rather than first name.

The institute's director, Dr. Matt Mountain, did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment about the study.

The paper will be published in an upcoming issue of Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

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Images From NASA's Hubble Telescope