Social scientists say that culture is the trickiest part of the equity problem to solve. Cultures tend to shift organically in ways that are hard to foresee. And efforts to intentionally change cultural beliefs often result in backlash and resistance.
Women in physics and astronomy enter a historically white, masculine culture that works against them in countless ways. Numerous studies and personal accounts of inequality in the field show us that women face both overt and subtle cultural challenges. Measurable problems include:
- Laboratory size¹
- Number of women on a committee or panel
- Words used to describe them in letters of recommendation²
While harder to detect cultural issues include:
- Expectation to adhere to masculine “defaults” in culture³, such as prescribed definitions of success, procedures, and leadership
- Lack of a sense of belonging or identity within the culture4
- Sexual harassment and microaggressions that further alienate women
While it seems daunting to try to address these myriad and overlapping problems, it is absolutely possible. In fact, some scientific departments and institutions have already taken clear steps to address them5.
It begins by carefully taking stock of an entity’s culture—the norms, values, practices, and beliefs—and then identifying the core ways in which it needs to better address fairness, inclusion, and opportunity.
Of course, this methodology applies not only to gender equity in science, but also to racial, social, and even economic equity.
We know that when we welcome talented scientists of all backgrounds and identities, the entire community of physics and astronomy grows more vibrant and innovative.
¹ Ivie and Tesfaye, 2012
² Dutt et al, 2016
³ Cheryan and Markus 2020
4 Perez 2020, Biggs et al 2018
5 Posselt 2020, Colwell et al, 2020