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Scientific community: Affirmative action can achieve gender equity in Australian astronomy by 2050

Nature Astronomy

April 20, 2021

Gender equity in the Australian astronomy workforce is attainable only through affirmative action, but it would still take 25 years to achieve, according to a study published in Nature Astronomy.

Discussions around the representation of women in astronomy have been picking up over recent years, as part of — and often leading — the broader discussion about discrimination and equity within science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Despite multi-pronged initiatives, including targeted hires and improved and flexible working conditions, demographic data from various international sources show that gender representation has not improved in mid- to senior-level positions over the last decade.

Lisa Kewley analysed data gathered by the Mid-Term Review of the Australian Astronomy Decadal Plan (a strategic plan for Australian astronomy for the next decade), taking into account not only hiring patterns but also promotion and drop-out rates for women and men. She found that women leave astronomy two to three times more frequently than men, which is a significantly higher attrition rate. Kewley then created nationwide workforce models that — for given hiring, promotion, retiring and departure rates — can predict the fraction of Australian women astronomers at every level of academia. If the current status quo is maintained, women will not represent 33% of the Australian astronomy workforce at any academic level by the end of this century. Affirmative action — a set of policies and practices seeking to increase the representation of women in the workforce — on the other hand, can attain 33% representation within 11 years and gender parity within 25.

Kewley concludes that increased hiring rates for women astronomers and improved retention is necessary but not sufficient to achieve true gender equity in astronomy. Clear action against sexism, insults, microaggression, exclusionary behaviour and other forms of discrimination is also required, she argues.

doi: 10.1038/s41550-021-01341-z

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