We assessed the participation of community members in AAS meeting press conferences between 2010 and 2022. Results show inequities among women and gender minorities, people of color, institution type, and career stage. We present recommendations for addressing these inequities.
The Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) undertook a study to assess the participation of community members in AAS press conferences at meetings between 2010 and 2022. 130 respondents answered both free-response and multiple-choice questions. In general, selection of AAS press conference presenters broadly represents AAS membership but subtleties in who is selected to participate shows inequities among women and gender minorities, people of color, institution type and career stage. By implementing several recommendations, including continuing dual-anonymous peer review of meeting abstracts for inclusion in press conferences, the AAS can diversify participation, better serve its broad membership, and work toward achieving goals set forth in its Strategic Plan.
In 2021, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) introduced a five-year strategic plan to enhance its mission by focusing on five priority areas: addressing significant global issues that affect astronomy; building equitable, diverse, and inclusive (EDI) practices within the astronomical community; supporting astronomy education, professional development, and dissemination of astronomical science; cultivating the network of partnerships within the AAS and with related organizations; and improving transparency and efficiency within the AAS. As part of its own strategic plan, the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA1) is focusing on four areas, including professional development2. In this focus area, the CSWA identified the subgoal of “promoting equitable awards and paper reviews.” To quantify this subgoal and ensure fair selection processes are taking place at the AAS, the CSWA sought to “work with the AAS to determine how press conferences are selected, and get demographic analysis of those who participated in previous AAS press conferences” and to “evaluate whether or not there are statistical biases in who is involved with AAS press conferences.”
In an effort to investigate the logistics of AAS press conferences and the demographics of participants, a survey was designed in the summer of 2021 that not only investigated the demographics of these events, but also sought to better understand the possible impact that press conferences can have on the careers of astronomers and how various demographics viewed these media events in relation to their careers. AAS press conferences occur twice yearly (in the summer and winter), and this survey was sent to everyone who had participated in at least one AAS press conference between 2010 and 2022.
While this survey is a direct fulfillment of a goal set in the CSWA’s Strategic Plan for the 2020s, the survey also supports the AAS’s values of inclusion and empowerment and multiple goals set forth in the AAS’s Strategic Priority 2, as well as other goals detailed in Strategic Priorities 3 and 5. This project supports the AAS’s values of “Inclusivity”, to have fair and accessible practices to create a diverse and welcoming scientific community, and “Empowerment”, to mentor and support our early career members, using our resources to create a positive environment for them and for our astronomical community. Further, collecting these data and publishing the results will increase the transparency of the AAS (Strategic Priority 5).
Understanding the demographics of the AAS membership is a continuous endeavor, and workforce surveys are regularly conducted. In 2018, the Workforce Survey of 2018 US AAS Members sought to better understand the makeup of AAS membership and the context of members' careers and demographics, and there have been three surveys in the series. Topics investigated in these surveys have included degree level, institution location, employer type, field challenges, disability, and career field, and the surveys comprehensively reported demographic, career, and educational questions in order to gain a more holistic overview of AAS members and their work. With a response rate of about 60%, the 2018 Workforce Survey  reported that
63% of the respondents identified themselves as men;
29% of the respondents identified themselves as women;
82% of respondents identified themselves as White; and
32% of respondents were early career.
In a study to investigate the gender ratio of who is asking questions at astronomy meetings, Schmidt and Davenport  reported on observations of questions-and-answer sessions after conference talks at 12 events, five being AAS meetings. The study identified that, in the science sessions, women are less likely than their male colleagues to ask a question following a talk. In addition, the study also found a correlation between the total number of questions asked in a session and the fraction of the questions asked by women: as the number of questions increases, the fraction of questions asked by women steadily increases. This implies that it is possible that men may raise their hands more quickly and women may think about their questions for longer. A similar finding was made in a study of question-and-answer sessions at bioinformatics meetings . These authors reported that even though parity was reached in the audience, women asked half as many questions as men.
The lack of questions asked of and by women is not isolated to scientific conferences. In a study of journalistic practices, Rattan et al.  highlighted the fact that globally, women are much less likely to be seen in the media compared to their male counterparts. This phenomenon was also reported by the Pew Research Center , which found that white male Americans are more likely than any others to be approached by journalists. The lack of women being interviewed, either in front of the camera or otherwise, can perpetuate gender stereotypes and inaccurately reflect to the world that women are not seen to be subject matter experts. Rattan et al.  suggested that improvements in diversity, equity, and inclusion could be made if journalists followed three guidelines: asking “what can I do differently?”; following the data about the actual numbers regarding female representation; and believing in others’ ability to change their behavior.
AAS meetings and press conferences typically occur in the Spring and Winter. In terms of the organization of AAS press conferences, the press office reports that they gather some of the most newsworthy and interesting results and organize them into press conferences based on specific themes , and research presented by survey respondents reflected the broad range of astronomical topics. AAS press conferences last no more than 60 minutes and each participant speaks for 6-8 minutes, with around 30 minutes left at the end for questions. Potential press conference topics and presenters are identified in two ways. First, PIOs (Public Information Officers) from the AAS PIO List are asked to scan through abstracts from researchers also at their institutions, search for interesting topics, and speak with the researchers on those projects about potentially doing a press release or briefing . Second, the AAS press team reviews the abstracts for AAS meetings using an anonymized and two-independent-rater system to find fascinating research, and authors and their institutional PIOs are contacted about press releases and press conference participation . This dual anonymous system has been in place since 2018.
The survey3 was conducted in collaboration with members of the AAS Press Office who provided input at all stages of the project. Emails were sent out by the Press Office to individuals who had participated in AAS press conferences between 2010 and 2022; the email included a brief introduction to the study and a link to the survey.
To develop the survey, inspiration for question structure and wording was drawn from the Pold and Ivy  2018 AAS workforce survey. While most questions and wording were preserved, a different approach for collecting demographic information such as gender identity and ethnicity was taken: instead of having a list of options and an “other” selection, participants were given free-response boxes to type in their identity the way they wished and felt most comfortable.
The survey length and the time to complete it were dependent on the number of press conferences that the respondent had participated in. Google forms were utilized to facilitate the survey and data collection and to enable accessibility, printed copies of the completed survey were accepted. To give space for elaboration on answers to multiple-choice and open-ended questions, spaces for short responses were included in the survey.
Once the survey was finalized, it was sent to 616 individuals who had participated in at least one AAS press conference since 2010. To maximize participation, reminder emails were sent once over the duration of data collection (Summer 2021 to Summer 2022). When the survey was sent out in Summer 2021, the names and emails of participants were provided by the AAS Press Office and/or publicly sourced online. For 2022 press conference participants, the contact information was provided by the AAS Press Office. The survey was resent to those who received but did not respond to the survey in 2021, along with a follow-up email in 2022.
A total of 130 unique responses were received and analyzed. In two instances, duplicate surveys were received, but only the most recent survey responses were included in the final data set. Initial data analysis was completed in 2021 and added to and furthered in 2022 to include data that were received after reminder emails were sent out.
In the survey, 130 respondents self-identified their gender identities (Figure 1). Of these, 45 identified as female, 81 as male, and 1 as nonbinary. Three preferred not to answer or left the question blank.
As with gender, ethnicity was self-identified by respondents (Figure 2). Of the 130 responses, 16 stated they were Asian, 5 reported multiple ethnicities, 4 self-identified as Hispanic, and 7 preferred not to answer or left the question blank. The majority of respondents (97) self-identified as White. Within the group that self-identified as Asian, 4 specifically identified themselves as South Asian and 1 identified themselves as Indian. Those listing multiple identities included Asian and Middle Eastern, Black and White, White and Hispanic, and White and Asian.
All 130 survey respondents shared how many press conferences they had participated in. Over half of the respondents (56.9%) participated in one conference, 23.08% participated in two conferences, 10% in three, 6.15% in four, 3.1% in five, and 1.5% in six. When broken down by gender (Figure 3), men were more likely to have participated in multiple conferences than did their female colleagues: 48.2% of male respondents had participated in multiple conferences, while around 35% of women appeared in two or more press events.
Using the responses of the 123 individuals who provided their ethnicity and how many press conferences they have appeared in, it can be seen (Figure 4) that White individuals are much more likely to participate in multiple conferences compared to those who are not White. Specifically, 49.5% of White respondents reported having taken part in multiple conferences, compared to 23% of non-White respondents. Non-White males participated in multiple conferences 15.4% of the time, and non-White women participated in multiple conferences 30% of the time.
In those participating in one conference, women respondents were more likely to have participated in one press conference compared to their male counterparts. Among respondents with two press conference appearances, more of the respondents were male. Overall, men were more likely to have appeared in more than one press conference than their female colleagues.
At the time of their first or only press conference, respondents were located at a variety of institutions and organizations. Participants were provided with a list of possible choices (e.g., small academic, medium academic, large academic, planetarium/museum, industry, NASA Center, ground-based observatory, do not recall), as well as the ability to fill in their own answer if none of the provided applied. To simplify data analysis and to preserve anonymity, responses were grouped into general categories: Non-NASA Research Institution, Large Academic, Medium Academic, NASA, Small Academic, and Other (Figure 5). At the time of their first or only press conferences, almost half of all participants were from large academic institutions. NASA and Non-NASA Research Institutions were the next most common institution types at the time of the first or only press conference.
When looking at the self-identified gender of individuals and their institutions at the time of the first or only press conference (Figure 6), large academic was the most common response for both male and female respondents, but it was still more common for men. In comparison to men, women were more likely to be coming from NASA-related sites, medium academic institutions, and small academic institutions.
Institution type was also cross-checked with self-reported ethnicity of survey respondents (Figure 7). Provided responses indicated that Large Academic institutions were the most common location at the time of first or only press conferences. Nonwhite participants were more likely than white participants to come from Small and Medium Academic Institutions, while white participants were more likely than nonwhite respondents to be located at NASA or Non-NASA Research Institutions at the time of their first or only press conference.
At the time of first or only press conferences, those who were 10-25 years post-Ph.D. (27.3%), post-docs (23.4%), and Ph.D. students (20.3%) made up the largest share of press conference participants (Figure 8). People pre-PhD or those with no Ph.D. included students pursuing a Ph.D. and individuals who reported not obtaining a Ph.D.
When the data are analyzed for gender and ethnicity comparison, women and non-White individuals were slightly more likely to be Ph.D. students or <10 years post-PhD. Males and White individuals were more likely to be 10-25 years post-Ph.D., post-docs, or more than 25 years post-PhD (Figure 9).
Prior to press conference appearances, presenters may meet with PIOs from institutions involved in the research being presented. Meeting with PIOs offers the opportunity for presenters to learn from and strategize with communications professionals about best practices for their press conference presentations. Overall, 31.5% of those who could recall if they worked with a PIO did not work with a PIO, and 68.5% reported working with a PIO. Women tended to work with a PIO less often, 61.4% of the time, compared to men who worked with PIOs 71.1% of the time. Those who are not White were more likely to meet with PIOs prior to press conferences and reported doing so 83.3% of the time. White participants reported meeting with PIOs 62.8%. Figure 10 summarizes these data. Working with a PIO was more common than not at all workplace types except Medium academic institutions. PIO usage was particularly more prevalent in NASA, Other, and Large academic institutions (Figure 11).
When asked if press conferences have the ability to influence career trajectories, women and those who are not White were more inclined to find that press conferences can advance careers “A Great Deal or Somewhat,” though all groups responded above 60% (Figure 12). Those from small academic institutions and NASA at the time of their first press conference were more likely to feel that press conferences were able to advance their careers a great deal or somewhat. Those from medium and large academic institutions and non-NASA research institutions at the time of their first press conference were more likely to feel that press conferences could advance their careers very little or not at all.
Participants were also asked about whether or not they felt that press conference appearances impacted their careers (Figure 13a). The majority (59.7%) of respondents felt that press conferences impacted their careers in a positive way and about 40% felt that they did not impact their careers. Women were more likely to feel that there was a positive impact from these events (66.7%) than men (56.3%). However, when ethnicity and perceived impact are considered, 84% of non-White respondents felt that press conferences had a positive impact on their careers, compared to 54.6% of White respondents (Figure 13b). Institution type was also considered (Figure 13c). Those from small academic institutions at the time of their first press conferences were significantly more likely to feel that their press conference impacted their career in a positive way. Those from non-NASA Research Institutions generally felt that press conferences influenced their careers Somewhat or Very Little.
Participants were also asked if their press conference(s) sparked media coverage. Figure 14a shows how in the responses of those that could recall, women and nonwhite participants were slightly less likely to report having their events spark media coverage compared to their male and white colleague presenters. Media coverage and institution type at participants’ first or only press conference was also investigated. Figure 14b shows where participants that reported media coverage or no media coverage were working at the time of their first or only conference.
Selection for press conferences can take multiple forms: participants can express interest in participating in a press conference on their research submission for AAS meetings, participants can be invited by the press office, or participants can both express interest in participating and be invited. Based on information reported by survey respondents who could recall their selections, women were more likely to express interest in press conference participation than were men (27.8% vs. 19.4%, Figure 15a), and men and women were invited at very similar rates by the AAS press officers (47.2% vs. 46.1%, Figure 15a). In summary of these options, 34.2% of men and 25% of women were “Both Invited and Expressed Interest”. Survey data also indicated that those from small academic and “other” institutions were more likely to be invited to participate in press conferences, and those from medium academic were most likely to express interest (Figure 15b).
Prior to 2018, press conference participants were selected based on review by members of the AAS Press Office (i.e., single anonymous review), taking into account the science presented in the submitted abstract. Since 2018, the AAS Press Office adopted a dual anonymous review process in which the name(s) of the author(s) are kept anonymous and unknown to the AAS Press Officers as abstracts are reviewed. This survey also sought to understand if the dual-anonymous method increased the participation of women, people from institutions other than Large academic, and scientists who identify as non-White. Figure 16 (a, b, c) show these data.
This survey was sent to 616 people who had participated in AAS meeting press conferences between 2010 and 2022, using the contact information on file. We received feedback from 130 AAS meeting press conference participants. Much of the collected data are shown here in the Results section, and a brief discussion follows, and all data are publicly accessible .
Press conferences at scientific meetings can provide significant opportunities for disseminating scientific data, results, and images and their interpretations to an audience that usually goes beyond the meeting participants themselves. Broadly, data collected in this study provide clear evidence that participation in AAS press conferences can benefit the careers of scientists. In particular, non-White and female scientists, as well as those who were early career at the time of their first or only press conference, were significantly more likely to report that their press conferences advanced their careers, regardless of how many press conferences the respondent participated in. Non-white men and all women were more likely to report participating in one press conference, while white men were more likely to have participated in more than one press conference. The majority of institutions who employed those participating in press conferences are large academic institutions and NASA, but all academic institutions had better representation at press conferences by non-white participants. The majority of participants were between the career stages of PhD student and 25 years post-PhD at the time of their first or only press conference.
A challenging aspect of this study, however, was establishing whether or not the data collected, particularly the demographic data, were representative of everyone who has participated in AAS press conferences over the past 10 years. The AAS 2018 Workforce Study provided partial insight to that, in the form of gender and ethnicity data across AAS membership . Considering the demographics of the press conference participants themselves, the majority of respondents were White and/or male. The AAS 2018 Workforce Study reported 82% of AAS member respondents consider themselves White and 63.2% consider themselves male. This is comparable to the number of male respondents in this survey, 62.3%. The AAS Workforce Study also reported that 29.0% of its respondents were female, which is less than the 34.6% of respondents who identified as female in this study. Additionally, the Workforce Study reported that 32% of respondents were early career and postdocs; our survey shows that 40.6% of respondents were in this career stage at the time of their first or only press conference.
Data collected in this study show that female participants were more likely to have expressed interest in participating in a press conference in comparison to their male colleagues, who reported similar rates of invitation to women. After press conferences occur, media outlets may pick up the content presented during press conferences and make the presented work more visible to the public. The data indicate that amongst those who could recall, women and nonwhite respondents were less likely to gain additional press coverage from their conferences. This may be a direct consequence of whether or not the press conference participant works with their local PIO. The data from this study suggest that the use of PIOs is not equally undertaken across all institutions, ethnicities, and/or genders. For example, folks at large academic institutions and NASA centers are more likely to work with a PIO, as are males, regardless of ethnicity.
Dual-anonymous peer review (DAPR) has been shown to increase the selection of women and members of historically marginalized groups . Since 2018, the AAS Press Office has implemented a DAPR process in selecting which conference abstracts to select for press conference participation. In this study, too, the number of female and non-White presenters increased after DAPR was implemented.
This study has, for the first time, demonstrated that press conference participation is broadly representative of AAS membership and that this participation can positively impact a career. However, detailed analyses of gender, ethnicity, institutions type, and use of PIO indicate subtle differences in who participates, which may lead to lack of representation in the field as a whole. Based on data and interpretations presented in this study, we offer the following recommendations. The AAS should
consider ways to promote to members of historically marginalized communities in Astronomy the benefits of press conferences, in order to increase interest that will lead to invitations;
offer preparation services to individuals who may not have the ability to work with a PIO from their institution, in order to increase the impact and public accessibility of their science abstract;
continue to implement the dual-anonymous abstract review system, which would ensure transparency of selection processes and opportunities for potential presenters regardless of names, institutions, and/or titles;
continue to monitor diversity in media events by maintaining a database of demographic information, which would allow the AAS to address any patterns in who is invited to participate; and
adjust processes as needed to ensure all groups feel equally encouraged to express interest in press conferences.
The CSWA has undertaken a study to assess the participation of community members in AAS press conferences at meetings between 2010 and 2022. In general, participation in AAS press conferences broadly represents AAS membership but subtleties in who is selected to present shows inequities among women and gender minorities, people of color, institution type and career stage. By implementing several recommendations, including dual-anonymous peer review of meeting abstracts for inclusion in press conferences, the AAS can diversify participation, better serve its broad membership, and work toward achieving goals set forth in its Strategic Plan.
Acknowledgements: The authors thank NASA and the AAS for financial support of this project. We also thank former AAS Press Officer Rick Fienberg and current Press Officer Susanna Kohler for discussions, access to data, and general support of this project. We also thank AAS Communications Specialist Kerry Hensley for thoughtful comments that helped to improve this manuscript.
Participation Data (v1.0) [Dataset], Zenodo, https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7566909.