Women in Planetary Science and Exploration Conference Highlights Humanity as Well as Research

Women in Planetary Science and Exploration conference group photo. Credit: Women in Planetary Science and Exploration conference.

In the first annual Women in Planetary Science and Exploration conference, women and non-binary researchers presented their work that ranged from understanding the oceans of Titan to how to land a Mars Rover. Uniquely however, the conventional research presentations were interspersed with panels discussing visible minorities, the LGBTQ community, and harassment in STEM, as well as professional topics such as public outreach and career options outside academia.

“I got a sense that this was something really unique and special,” said Cailin Gallinger, a master’s student at the University of Toronto where the conference was held. “We don’t talk enough about the human side of doing science. Seeing how much that was going to be a focus this weekend was extremely important to me.”

Gallinger, who identifies as queer and transgender, spoke on a panel addressing LGBTQ issues in STEM. “The fact that I was even invited to speak on a panel about LGBTQ community issues in STEM was kind of like ‘I can talk about this here. I can be myself here.’ That’s revolutionary,” said Gallinger in an interview.

The panel discussed how members of the LGBQT community each have very individual experiences and the challenges when their experiences are grouped together. “LGBTQ is such a large umbrella term–it covers such a diversity of experiences, stereotypes, and interactions with people. I think it’s hard to summarize that as a single issue,” said Gallinger. Gallinger also discussed the importance of intersectionality: “All of those experiences will intersect and contribute to what barriers you face. It’s hard to condense all of that into a single recommendation.”

Julie Rathbun, a physics professor from University of Redlands in California, also appreciated how researchers were able to draw upon each other’s diverse academic expertise as well as discuss shared hurdles as women. “It was really interesting and incredibly powerful to put it together—to have us talk about our science and bring our whole selves to the conference. It’s so rare that you can do both in one space.” said Rathbun. “I loved that I got to hear people’s science and I got to hear them as people.”

Rathbun’s poster on membership of women of colour in planetary sciences was a popular topic of discussion. The poster illustrated a “pipeline problem” that showed a wide disparity between the proportion of visible minority women in the population versus their representation in planetary sciences. “White women are only a third of white men, but black and Latina women are another order of magnitude underrepresented,” said Rathbun. “It just really showed to me how much worse it is for racial minorities than it is for gender minorities for women in STEM.” Rathbun recommended concentrating outreach efforts on racial minorities in addition to women.

Rathbun also found that 15% of women participated in spacecraft teams–a number that has stagnated over the past 15 years. “This suggests to us that there are barriers to success,” said Rathbun. Factors that can prevent women from advancing in their careers can include perceived or realized racism, stereotyping, microaggressions, or non-inclusive work environments. “People are just treated differently and maybe not as competently as others based on certain attributes,” said Rathbun.

A study published last year in Journal of Geophysical Research found that women of colour experienced the highest rates of negative workplace experiences such as harassment, with 40% reporting feeling unsafe as a result of their gender. A panel on harassment allowed women to share their experiences as well as discuss different forms of harassment and how to identify and report it.

Debarati Das, a PhD candidate in geology from McGill University, experienced the brunt of discrimination while she studied at Okayama University in Japan. Das said she felt targeted as a both a woman and racial minority as the director of the program frequently used racial slurs and restricted students from publishing their work. “I had 3500+ data points and I cannot publish any of it. It’s just heartbreaking because having to start over was just awful,” said Das. “It would always have this implication that you’re female and you’re an inferior creature. I would just feel really disgusted and I couldn’t say anything about that because I felt like I was standing against a culture.” Since moving to Canada, Das said she’s had an entirely different experience but the trauma still “plays in the background.”

Contributed by: Marina Wang is a graduate of the Masters of Journalism program at Carleton University and was an apprentice with SpaceQ.

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