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Hubble and Webb and Unconscious Gender Bias!

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

One would think that the ability to look through either the Hubble or James Webb Space Telescope (and the other NASA major space telescopes) would not present an issue of unconscious gender bias.

I found out differently listening to NPR the other day. In a story on January 11, 2022, by Nell Greenfield Boyce, it seems that in a 2014 study conducted by Iain Neill Reid (the associate director of science at the Space Telescope Science Institute), he discovered that proposals for research using the Hubble telescope proffered by women had a much lower acceptance rate than those proposals for research using the telescope proffered by men. In 2003, 25% of the proposals accepted were by men whereas only 14% were by women: an 11% difference. This difference in acceptance remained the same throughout the decade that Reid studied.

So, after trying a few different solutions that did not resolve the discrepancy, Reid brought in some experts- Stefanie Johnson of the University of Colorado and Jessica Kirk, now at the University of Memphis who sat in on the review sessions in which the proposals were evaluated and ranked. What these experts noticed was that a good deal of the discussion centered on who submitted the proposal rather than on the content of the proposal itself or its scientific merit. In short, decisions were being made on who was known and not what the scientists wanted to learn by using the telescope. The well-established astronomers were getting special consideration.

As a result of sitting in on this process, the experts suggested that the committee start using a process that is completely blind and anonymous. All names of the scientists making the proposal would be removed from the proposal, and the proposals would be written in such a way to render it impossible to discover its author.

Before instituting this new procedure, the institute surveyed the astronomy committee and found that about half favored the idea. That half – not surprisingly – were women or the younger less established scientists. Others objected.

Nevertheless, the director of the institute decided to start using this double-blind procedure. As a result of its use in 2018, the acceptance rate of proposals by women was now higher than those proposed by men. “The gender difference had flipped.” (Id.) When the names were revealed to the committee, its members though surprised, never objected to the selection they had made. (That is, no buyer’s remorse!)

So, when it comes time to decide who among the thousands of applicants will have research time on the Webb telescope, the selection will be conducted in a double-blind manner in the hopes of eliminating unconscious gender bias.

Unconscious bias- it is everywhere- even a million miles away from Earth!

… Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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