The first CASCA Climate Survey: A snapshot of our community’s shared experience

By / par Brenda Matthews (NRC/U Victoria) & Kristine Spekkens (RMC/Queen’s U)
(Cassiopeia – Winter / hivers 2018)


In late 2017, the Equity and Inclusivity Committee (EIC) of CASCA executed the first climate survey of its membership. This survey was modeled after surveys done by the AAS DPS (Division of Planetary Sciences) and others, and was over one year in design. The goal of the survey was to better understand the experiences of the CASCA membership to guide the CASCA Board in future decisions.

The design of the survey conformed to Canadian legal constraints in that it requested some specific personal information (though not names or other such identifiers) from respondents. It is legally problematic to request racial or similar information on a survey in Canada, so these demographic specifics were not requested.

An initial presentation of some of the survey results was done via a poster presentation at the 2018 CASCA meeting in Victoria. Here, we summarize those results and augment with additional information from the survey responses, particularly regarding harassment across a broader range of parameters than gender, which was emphasized in the CASCA 2018 poster.

Figure 1. Career stage and gender of respondents to the climate survey.

Survey Distribution and Response

The survey was distributed via the CASCA exploder with a month given to receive responses. In all, 152 members provided useable responses to the survey. Figure 1 shows the breakdown of career level and gender of respondents. Comparing to recently compiled demographics of the CASCA community, about a third of CASCA members responded in all three career stage categories of CASCA membership (Student, Postdoctoral Fellow and Ordinary, i.e., faculty level). The lowest response rate was from students (25%). The fraction of women who responded to the climate survey is comparable to that within the CASCA membership for PDFs and students, but women disproportionally responded relative to men among Ordinary members (i.e., women comprise 21% of Ordinary CASCA members, but 35% of the Ordinary level respondents to the climate survey were women). Notwithstanding these statistics, one must keep in mind that respondents to the climate survey likely don’t represent a random subsample of CASCA members.

Key goals of the survey were to poll members’ feelings of safety in their work environment and understand their experiences with regard to negative interactions in the workplace. We note here that while we did preface the survey with a request to comment on events from the past 5 years only, it is clear from the comments that many respondents instead provided a summary of their work life experience. This does not negate our ability to achieve our goal of understanding the experiences of our members in their academic life, but it does mean that events included in their responses may or may not be recent.

Reported Incidents of Harassment or Sexual Harassment

In all, 75% of women respondents and 25% of men respondents reported a significant negative incident of some kind in their work life.

Figure 2. Experiences of the survey respondents. For the 45% of the respondents who reported a serious incident of harassment or sexual harassment, the breakdown by women and men is shown here. Cisgender and transgender have been combined in this histogram. Men are shown in blue; women are in green.

Figure 2 summarizes the reported incidents as a sex-disaggregated distribution (we have included results for all women – cisgender and transgender, and results for all men – cisgender and transgender, combined). A very significant number of respondents (45%) experienced at least one serious negative interaction during their careers. All incidents of physical and sexual assault, though few, were reported by women; 15% of women respondents reported experiencing uncomfortable/inappropriate touching while over 20% of women respondents reported experiencing requests for “dates” or other inappropriate personal interactions during their work life.

Both men and women reported incidents of sexual harassment, staring or comments on appearance, invasion of personal space, sexual/gendered communication and “harassment of some sort” (as distinguished from sexual harassment – we include the definitions of both that were provided with the survey below in an Appendix). Only in the latter category was the rate of reporting higher for male respondents than for female respondents.

Figure 3. Responses regarding experiences of negative comments based on queried categories from peers versus supervisors.

Interactions with Peers and Supervisors

The responses suggest that our members are more cautious and inclusive in their actions with those who they supervise than they are with their peers. The survey requested information about the frequency with which respondents heard negative comments or experienced or witnessed harassment related to several categories (religion or lack of religion; gender; gender identity; mental disability; physical disability; race and ethnicity). The optional answers were “Never; Rarely; Sometimes; Often”. Figure 3 summarizes these responses. In all categories, the incidents of negative comments in interactions with peers greatly exceeded those with supervisors. We note however, that the category in which the most incidents of negative comments were reported (responses of “Rarely”, “Sometimes” and “Often” were all taken as positive responses) was race, and this was the highest reported fraction for interactions with supervisors by far.

Figure 4. Percentage rates of personally experienced harassment (blue) and witnessed harassment (orange).

When asked about personally experiencing or witnessing “harassment” which takes different forms than just negative comments passed about an individual or group, the highest rate of experienced harassment was reported as gender-based (see Figure 4). Over 60% of respondents reported witnessing gender-based harassment, while the number who reported experiencing it personally was approximately half that. The rate of respondents who reported harassment due to gender was 32% (8% of men and 61% of women) while 62% of respondents (50% of men and 77% of women) reported witnessing harassment based on gender.

We note that only the race category produced results in which the rate of personally experiencing harassment exceeded the reported witnessing of such harassment.

Figure 5. The majority of respondents feel safe in their workplace.

Health of the Community in Equity and Gender Issues

The survey suggests that members feel a stronger sense of equity and inclusivity in their own institutions than they do at CASCA meetings. Figure 5 shows the responses to a query about feeling unsafe in their place of work; it is clear that the very strong majority of respondents feel secure in their workplace, while just 14% of respondents felt unsafe or were unsure about their feelings of safety.

When respondents were polled about the degree to which the astronomical community is healthy with respect to equity and gender issues in their own workplaces and at CASCA meetings, respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their environment was healthy in their workplaces at rates between 60% and 70%, but at CASCA meetings, they agreed or strongly agreed at rates of just 50%. This lower response rate regarding the health of the environment at CASCA meetings is compounded by the fact that respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they knew how to report harassment at their place of work at the 75% level, whereas they knew how to report issues of harassment at CASCA events at only the 40% level.

Equity Initiatives

At the end of the climate survey, we asked respondents several questions about future initiatives related to equity and harassment. A majority (~92%) felt that efforts to improve equity and halt harassment should be continued or augmented by CASCA. Very few (4%) felt CASCA should do less.

The last questions of the climate survey introduced the ATHENA Swan UK (UK) and SAGE (Australia) programs of accreditation to encourage and reward strong equity and inclusivity performers and the Pleiades awards program from Australia. Respondents were asked whether or not CASCA should endorse and work towards implementation of such programs.

The positive response rates to the Athena SWAN/SAGE model and the Pleiades awards were both ~55%. Most respondents (85%) who said yes to either Athena SWAN/SAGE or the Pleiades awards model said yes to both; i.e., respondents either supported both ideas or neither. The fraction of positive responses did not depend on academic level to within a few percent. By gender, the fraction of positive responses from men was lower (~50%) than the fraction of positive responses from women (~70%) and these fractions didn’t vary significantly with career stage.

The number of respondents who were ambivalent or not sure about these awards and incentives programs exceeded the number who were against them, by a factor of 4 for the Pleiades awards and a factor of 2 for Athena SWAN/SAGE.

Future Plans

The climate survey has yielded a very rich dataset. This article has presented some of the broad results of the survey. A much more detailed analysis of the data will be reported to the CASCA Board. This report will be useful in understanding past experiences of the members and inform future initiatives, including adoption of accreditation programs, award programs designed to increase equity and inclusivity and mentoring programs.

Appendix: Definitions used in the Climate Survey

Equity is the principle of fairness and impartiality toward all. Equity implies giving as much advantage, consideration or latitude to one party as is given to another.

Harassment is conduct that includes, but is not limited to, the following: epithets, slurs, or negative stereotyping; threatening, intimidating or hostile acts; denigrating jokes and display or circulation of written or graphic material that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group. In the case of academia, persons in authority must again be cautious about using intimidating or aggressive behaviour since those they supervise are dependent on them into the future for job prospects and be reluctant to confront harassers. Harassment is different than bullying in that harassment is a form of discrimination.

Sexual harassment refers to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. More specificially, sexual harassment is words or actions that are: unwanted; directed at you; based on your sex, sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity, and harmful or damaging in some way. Sexual harassers either know or ought to know their behaviour is unwelcome because it would be judged to be so by any reasonable person. Individuals must use discretion to ensure that their words and actions communicate respect for others. This is especially important for those in positions of authority since individuals with lower rank or status may be reluctant to express their objections or discomfort regarding unwelcome behaviour.

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