Friday, October 24, 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Make the Breast Pump Not Suck

 Since our first encounters with the breast pump, we wondered how women had been duped into settling for such bad design. The pump is a symbol of the modern work-life conundrum. In theory, women have the freedom to honor the wisdom that “breast is best,” while still pursuing their own careers. And yet, to do so, they’re forced to attach themselves, multiple times a day, to a loud, sometimes painful machine that makes one feel anything but powerful. - Courtney Martin, Times Motherlode Blog

Monday, October 20, 2014

Confronting Race and Racism to Move Away From One-Dimensional Diversity

When I joined the CSWA last year, I had dinner in Cambridge with a number of fellow CSWA members who were in the area at the time. At one point we went around the table giving our reasons for serving on the committee. I stated that my motivation was the help people of color, particularly women of color. I found the success of the CSWA and the advances of (white) women in astronomy extremely inspiring and I wanted to learn better how they had moved from being minorities to having a more equal representation in astronomy.

The CSWA Chair recently told me that if I wanted to take on the subject of race and the issues facing women of color, that rather than expecting the committee's full support for this "specialized" issue, I should go ahead and lead the way. With this post, and my previous post, I endeavor to bring the issues facing of women of color in our community into better focus, with the hope that the rest of the committee might see this as a problem worth addressing. After all, if white women made up < 5% of the astronomy community, I think there would be widespread calls for action. To focus on a specific population, Black women make up about 1% of the astro community, and 0% of faculty hires over the past 10 years. The situation for Latina and Native women isn't much better (See Donna Nelson's statistics for top-40 astro depts as of 2007). In fact, the situation is even dire for Asian American women, broadly speaking.

On my personal blog I have given understanding of racism in America, and how I teach the concept to my children. The reading list posted therein informs much of what follows, so if you’d like references please see the end of that article. See also my introduction on the subject of race in (US) astronomy. For people wishing to comment on this, please do me, yourself and the community a favor and first read this excellent reader’s guide on discussing racism. You’ll be surprised how often the first thing that comes to your mind has been previously voiced and repeated ad nauseam elsewhere in similar forums, if not on the floor of the US Senate back in 1964 during debates over the Civil Rights Act. When in doubt, please frame your comment as a question, and remember that as an educated individual you are not entitled to your opinion.

The 1927 AAS meeting. In one key respect it is the same now as it was then.
The first concept I'll address is that of race. This subject is covered extensively in the easy-to-read textbook Seeing White (see my Twitter challenges #BloggingWhite and #TweetingWhite), as well as in numerous other books, research papers, blog posts, etc. Thus, I cannot do proper justice in the space here, but I can highlight some important aspects of race that should pique your interest as a scientists and citizen:
  1. Race has little to no biological basis. Many lines of genetic research have shown that when humans are divided into various "classical" racial categories (a process that is, itself, fraught with difficulty and ambiguity), that 85% of genetic variation occurs within racial groups, while < 7% of the variability is across racial divisions. At a genetic level, we are an order of magnitude more human than we are any specific race.
  2. While race is not a biological reality, it is very much real because we humans believe in race and act according to racial divisions. This started with the US Census, which needed to identify Black slaves in the South so they could be counted as 3/5 of a human each for congressional representation. It continued as a justification for slavery (slaves are happier when taken care of by white owners!) with the oppressive Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, as well as federal appropriation of funds, employment and military service. It also formed the primary basis of the problematic eugenics movement, and eugenics researchers produced most of the junk "science" that informs even modern conceptions of race. Race divisions continue today in the wealth gap, imprisonment disparities, school segregation, etc.
The key takeaway is: race, while not a biological reality, is a social reality with numerous and far-reaching consequences for how we live and interact in American society. Race is real, but only because we have created it, defined it, nurtured it and most importantly: used it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Resource Guide for Websites for Women in STEM (with an emphasis on Astronomy)

As someone who has spoken up for women within our field, people tend to come to me for advice from time to time.  One question that I have repeatedly received is “do you know of one great STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) resource for women in our field or young women looking to enter this profession?”  And every time I say "no, I know of way more than one, " then Google every website I can think of that I have found useful previously.  The person usually leaves with their head swimming full of websites, and likely forgets most of what I said within minutes (but now knows I have a strange relationship with my iPhone and Google).  So I’m going to use my blog time this month to include the many sites that I have found useful, add some others that have been suggested to me along the way, and hopefully readers will take the opportunity to chime in on the comments section of this blog to add their own useful sites.  I’ll focus on websites targeting issues for women already in the STEM field, but will highlight one site that points out several resources for younger women/girls looking to enter in to the field. So the next time someone asks this question, this blog can be easily pointed to as a starting point.

Monday, October 13, 2014

One Man's Perspective on Diversity and Inequality in Science

Today's Guest Post is by Ramin Skibba is a research scientist at the Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. He blogs about astronomy news and science policy issues at

It's obvious, but one thing I've noticed over my career so far is that many departments, institutions, conferences, organizations, committees, high-profile publications, big research grants, etc., both nationally and internationally, and especially leadership positions, are filled with straight, white, men. There are notable and impressive exceptions, but the trend is clear. The distributions of people in the scientific workforce clearly don't reflect their distribution in the overall population. For example, according to the AAS's Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, nearly half of undergraduate students who obtain bachelors of science degrees are women, but only a third of astronomy graduate students and 30% of Ph.D. recipients are. Women compose 25-30% of postdocs and lower-level faculty, and this drops by half (to 15%) of tenured faculty. This is not explained by historical differences in gender: if women were promoted and retained at rates comparable to men, then the fractions advancing to higher career stages should be equal. The demographics in terms of race aren't good either: according to the American Institute of Physics, African Americans and Hispanics combined account for only 5% of physics faculty.

Of course, this isn't news to readers of this blog. And the disturbing lack of diversity doesn't just affect us in astronomy and astrophysics or even just in the physical sciences. For example, as you've probably seen, the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley has deservedly been in the news lately. Tech companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have all been criticized for being dominated by white men (and recently, also Asian men). We definitely need to work more at improving diversity in all STEM fields.