How the Hubble Telescope is helping fight gender bias

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The push for gender equality in the workplace and during application processes has found an unexpected ally: The Hubble Space Telescope. 

In collaboration with researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder‘s Leeds School of Business, as well as the University of Memphis, the committee in charge of portioning out time on the telescope among scientists have developed a novel new way to ensure that gender bias doesn’t influence the application process. 

Just remove all personal information from the applications. 

This way, it’s impossible for anyone person’s bias to influence the decision-making process. It’s an incredibly simple solution, but perhaps that’s why it works so well. Most importantly, it makes sense; why should it matter if a scientist is a man or woman when applying to use the Hubble Telescope?

Furthermore, there’s no reason why this approach couldn’t be adopted across a wide array of industries, job application formats, and hiring practices. 

First launched in 1990, the Hubble Telescope has remained in Earth’s orbit for the past 29 some odd years and produced over 1.4 million pictures of distant space. Data collected by Hubble has made over 16,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies on the subject of space possible. With these numbers in mind, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Hubble Telescope has quite literally changed how humanity sees and interacts with the cosmos. 

This gender equality study all started in 2016 when the committee in charge of allocating time on the Hubble Telescope approached Stefanie K. Johnson, associate professor at the UC Leeds School of Business. They were interested in her advice on how to ensure that acceptance rates among male and female scientists with Hubble projects in mind were fairly and evenly approved.

So, Johnson first decided to observe and analyze 16 application cycles for the telescope. In all, those cycles encompassed 15,545 applications. To start, far fewer applications included a lead female scientist, with only 3,533 fitting such a description. Just that statistic alone is troubling on a number of levels, as it indicates that less women than men are getting involved in STEM careers in general. But, even after separating acceptance rates by just gender, 23% of male scientists saw their projects gain approval, while only 19% of female scientists saw the same response.

“The director of the Space Telescope Science Institute was looking for a solution to that gender gap,” Johnson says in a press release. “Our business research background was a perfect fit for finding insights.”

After thoroughly examining the entire application process, Johnson and her colleague, Jessica F. Kirk, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, concluded that male team members on the Hubble time allocation committee were clearly grading proposals made by female scientists on a harsher scale than male-led projects.

Even dating back to 2013, long before Johnson became involved, the Hubble committee had been playing with ideas on how to eliminate gender bias during this process. They had tried taking scientists’ names off of proposals’ front covers, replacing all first names with just initials, and listing scientists by alphabetical order to hide the identity and gender of the project’s leader.

All of these approaches ultimately yielded middling results. So, Johnson suggested that absolutely all identifying personal information be removed from the applications. Applicants submitting proposals for this round of applications were explicitly told to make their pitch in a way so that it would be very difficult for the reader to know who wrote it. This anonymous application approach is called dual-anonymization. 

The subsequent results were promising; female-led projects performed slightly better than men’s. Overall, committee members rated male and female-led projects equally well during this round of applications, leading the study’s authors to conclude that their dual-anonymization approach was indeed effective at largely mitigating gender bias.

“You’re making the fairest decision based on the science,” Johnson explains. “It’s not proof that women will always do better, but hopefully the gender balance will be closer than in years past.”

Dual-anonymization is hardly a new concept, it’s been used by various companies and organizations for decades. However, Johnson believes her results in this study point to the need for more widespread adoption.

“Until now, there hasn’t been a lot of data on whether it works or not,” she concludes. “What this shows is that taking gender out of the equation does allow women to perform better.”

This piece of research goes to show there is still a lot of work ahead of us in terms of realizing true gender equality in professional and scientific settings. Sometimes, though, help can come from the most unexpected of places.

The full study can be found here, published in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.