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Good Intentions Are Not Enough: A note about the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship

We are tremendously proud of the eight new 51 Pegasi b Fellows announced earlier this week. They are among the finest in the field, and we celebrate their selection. But we also realize that our program has room for improvement with respect to gender diversity, and we’d like to thank our astronomy colleagues for calling us on where we have fallen short. Their feedback has brought reflection, self-critique, and, hopefully, change and improvement. We are especially appreciative of the feedback because our Foundation is funding projects to address gender inequities in physics and astronomy in the U.S.

Given our commitment to addressing gender inequities, how is it that only one of our eight fellows this year is a woman? While we did some things right – having clear criteria against which we evaluated all candidates, informing universities about our desire for gender diversity, and employing an external evaluation panel that was 50 percent female – that was not enough. Our process only got us part of the way. The submission pool to the Foundation this year was only 21 percent female. We need to examine the total process, from how universities determine who to nominate, to the application process, and finally to the awards themselves.

Even with our good intentions, we find ourselves part of a system that drives to less rather than more diversity. We commit to working to change our Fellowship and that system for the better. Already we have begun having difficult, yet candid, conversations with our colleagues. These include: members of the astronomy community; our eight-member, all-female Physics and Astronomy Leadership Council; and leadership at university departments. We will spend the weeks and months ahead learning even more before we start soliciting the next class of fellows. We’ll engage with our colleagues within the physical and social sciences to better design the application process and procedures. We’ll get further training on best practices and share those practices. We’ll continue our grant making dedicated to increasing gender diversity in astronomy and physics that we hope will bear fruit in coming years.  And we will remain open to feedback and suggestions from programs and people that are doing well at gender issues.

Are we proud of this new Fellowship so far? Absolutely. We have exemplary scientists in planetary astronomy who will make incredible discoveries and increase our knowledge of the universe in the years to come. Do we think we can do better? Always. We still have much to learn and incorporate while we are running this program. While it is difficult to learn these lessons publicly, I am reminded of the words often attributed to Confucius: “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”