Nonbinary astronomers need better support from their field, study finds

Our largest galactic neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy (or M31) sits about 2.5 million light-years away and spans some 260,000 light-years across.
Our largest galactic neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy (or M31) sits about 2.5 million light-years away and spans some 260,000 light-years across. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Gender equality in astronomy doesn't end with the male/female gender binary. 

In a study led by nonbinary astrophysicist Kaitlin Rasmussen, researchers took a look at gender equity in astronomy and what practices could address outstanding issues that leave out or have a negative impact on researchers who do not fit into binary male or female gender identities. 

This study, released in 2019, was inspired by surveys that were done by astronomers who looked at gender equity in astronomy. They and others in the field, as they point out in this study, noticed that a lot of the papers that have been published about gender equity in astronomy are led by astronomers instead of gender studies experts, Rasmussen told in a recent interview. "It was all men versus women, and sometimes nonbinary people were not even addressed or would be addressed as a footnote."

Related: Women of color in astronomy face greater degree of discrimination, harassment

While other studies have not sufficiently included nonbinary scientists, Rasmussen said, there have been a number of studies that have, over the years, examined issues in the space sector and developed methods that could be used to improve life for people in these marginalized, minority groups who work within the sector. Previous studies have also shown that people who are part of gender and sexual minority groups face increased risk of both harassment and assault in the fields of astronomy and planetary science. 

"I'm privileged in that I am White and I am masculine presenting," V Wegman, a former NASA intern who completed two internships at NASA's Langley Research Center who went on to work on a third internship at the agency and who has also worked at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was not involved in these studies, told However, they shared, when they came out as nonbinary, "I was really intensely discriminated against, I guess you could say, with my fellow students … it was impossible for me to complete labs because they just never let me participate." This discrimination even led Wegman to leave their last internship at NASA.

With this new paper, the researchers aimed to take a closer look at gender disparity specific to nonbinary people with regard to aspects such as "who's getting postdoc positions, who's getting tenured," Rasmussen told They hope that, by making changes including who works on these studies, the field can improve to better and more effectively support its nonbinary members. 

"The thing with the identity of being nonbinary is that more and more people are realizing that they do not fall into the man category or the woman category," Rasmussen said, adding that the more nonbinary people there are, the more people there will be that are not treated fairly within the field. 

Making changes

In the study, researchers made a number of recommendations for ways that the field can change to better support its nonbinary members. These recommended changes include alterations to methodology, especially with regard to both collecting and reporting on gender data. 

The study also suggests that gender data should never be shared outside of the context for which it was collected, and that privacy remains a significant consideration with such data. The group also recommends that while institutional reform is "beyond the scope of this paper," they wrote, to actually achieve gender equality, institutions must adopt a "more complex model of gender than has historically been employed by equity initiatives."

Additionally, they note that often, people's gender is presumed based on outward traits such as a name or physiology. But, they stress, making such assumptions is "unavoidably discriminatory." 

"For nonbinary people in particular, there is simply no acceptable outcome here: we are either misclassified into a binary gender, or considered uncategorizable and discarded. While this may sound trivial, experiences of misgendering and erasure have very real psychological and professional consequences for nonbinary, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals," the authors wrote in the paper. 

"Our final, and perhaps most important recommendation," the authors added, "is to listen. Look around your communities to see who the most marginalized, most vulnerable members are and make sure their voices are not just included but prioritized in conversations about equity and inclusion — that their needs and ideas are heard and valued."

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd joined as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music, singing, playing guitar and performing with her band Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.