Similar to many other STEM fields, astronomy has a serious representation problem; it’s a significantly homogeneous field with nearly 90% white and 80% male astronomers. BIPOC in physics and astronomy have had to sustain stereotypes, microaggressions, and discrimination. From elementary school to graduate school, substantial changes must be made to promote the future of BIPOC physicists and astronomers.
Beginning in primary education, Latinx and African American students already have less access to the science and math classes that provide fundamental skills for or exposure to fields like astronomy and physics, because their schools have traditionally received less funding.
“Public schools are financed by taxes,” Dr. Sylvester Gates, the Theoretical Physics Center director and Ford Foundation physics professor at Brown University, explained. “If you have students from diverse backgrounds competing in a highly competitive area, then those students whose backgrounds were less well-resourced are obviously going to need greater amounts of academic support.”
“If you have students from diverse backgrounds competing in a highly competitive area, then those students whose backgrounds were less well-resourced are obviously going to need greater amounts of academic support.”
— Dr. Sylvester Gates, Physics Professor at Brown University
Even for students who do pursue higher education, many astronomy positions require students to obtain a PhD, which can cost significant time and money that students from low income or marginalized backgrounds may not be able to afford.
Fewer than 100 African American women earned PhDs in physics, only 22 of which are in astronomy — primarily a result of a variety of systemic factors in the education system and continual stereotypes. The subjects that Black women have tended to study within physics are also deemed less prestigious than other subjects, due to the historical construction and supposed belief of white people being more objective and intellectuals. This leads to an inequitable distribution of social resources for Black women in the field.
A sustained lack of ethnic representation in astronomy and physics can lead to BIPOC not feeling like they belong.
“I’ve faced a lot of people not thinking that I’m doing my job well enough, or just not respecting me or respecting my decisions,” Sara Ahanchi, the president of the University of Washington’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students, said.
Another individual who experienced marginalization, Lauren Chambers, earned her undergraduate degrees in astrophysics and African American studies from Yale in 2017, but ultimately left the field of astronomy.
“It’s predominantly white men and, [when] you walk into classrooms you’re the only person in a skirt or the only person with any sort of texture in your hair … how alienating [is] that experience when you do it over and over and over again for an entire career,” Chambers said.
The American Institute of Physics National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP) investigated systemic issues perpetuating the underrepresentation of African American students in the physics and astronomy fields, creating a report and recommendations on these findings.
“As students matriculate in a discipline, the stronger their sense [is] in identifying as someone in [that] discipline, [and] the more likely they are to persist to be successful; [and], finding ways to support that is incredibly important,” Gates, who is also a member of the TEAM-UP task force, said.
TEAM-UP states that the most important factors to increase African American enrollment in physics and astronomy is to create a sense of belonging and a physics identity. In other words, students must not only feel welcomed, but they must also see themselves becoming physicists or astronomers in the future — grappling with the many stereotypes that they will likely have to overcome in their career. The report then mentions that academic support, personal support, and leadership are next in prioritization.
Chambers was a part of the Banneker Institute, which is a summer program for students of color studying astronomy. The program not only helps students with research and programming skills, but also provides a social justice curriculum.
“It opened me up to this world of students who had somewhat similar backgrounds to me and definitely similar interests, and we really formed a close-knit community,” Chambers said. “You don’t have to explain certain ways that you might feel when particular headlines come up in the news, and [we had] an innate desire to give back to [the] community and change the field for the better while being part of it.”
A myriad of factors including the public education system, stereotypes, and the cost of higher education have deterred students from marginalized groups to pursue physics or astronomy, so it is vital to instill inclusion and community to support the students who are currently there. Until these changes materialize, institutionalized inequities prevent many BIPOC students from pursuing a field out of pure curiosity or wonder.
“What I would like for students of color and of the African Diaspora is to feel [that] they have a right to have no bounds on their limits,” Gates said.
Last updated 12/2/20
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