Issue of June 25, 2010
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson amp; Michele Montgomery
SPECIAL EDITION: Low Percentages of Women Invited Speakers
7. Aim High
From: Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]
Back in April, I received a message from AASWOMEN subscribers Anna Watts and Sera Markoff about a workshop announcement. The percentage of women invited speakers was extremely low, even in a field with relatively large numbers of women. Anna reminds us (see item #2 below) that [i]nvited talks are critical for obtaining a tenure track job as well as for securing tenure, and are often an explicit assessment criterion for acquiring major grants. The routine exclusion of women from speaker lists is therefore a major obstacle to academic success.
It made me think seriously about what Caty Pilachowski (AAS president, 2002-2004) calls, "a perennial problem." What could CSWA or the AAS do about this? As you will read in the contributions below, Debra Elmegreen (current AAS president) warns that bad-listing meetings with low percentages is the wrong way to approach this issue. Marc Postman (current CSWA member) does not believe that "collegial disgruntlement pressure" is particularly effective at realizing rapid change. It is, after all 2010, and we are still attending meetings with <15% female speakers.
The AAS policy can serve as a model. In a recent issue of AASWOMEN (2010 May 7), executive officer Kevin Marvel reported that the program committee (VPs, president, past-president or president-elect, and Kevin himself) selects the invited speakers. The issue of gender representation is always discussed, and gender balance always plays a role in the final selection of speakers.
Personally, I think that the AAS policy should serve as a model for all division meetings, topical workshops, astronomy conferences, and international assemblies. The problem, however, is how to enforce this policy. Meg Urry (past CSWA chair and current AAS council member) suggests that we could remind AAS members to ask for help from colleagues or to consult appropriate resources if their draft speaker lists are not representative – but honestly, what AAS member doesn’t already know they should do this from the get go?
I asked CSWA members and alums about this issue and got several interesting and thoughtful replies. We decided to put them together in this special edition. AASWOMEN, some of our best ideas come from you! Does anyone have thoughts on how we might tackle this problem, which comes up over and over again?Back to top.
2. Too Important to Ignore
From: Anna Watts [A.L.Watts_at_uva.nl]
This issue had been bubbling away in the back of my mind for a long time before I saw the particular circular that provoked me to raise this. Every day on the way to my office I pass boards full of posters advertising conferences in Physics and Astronomy - with speaker lists almost devoid of women. Resisting the urge to deface the posters with a giant 'FAIL' sticker has been difficult.
Before I proceed, it is appropriate to make a confession. I am currently organizing a workshop where only 10% of our invited speakers our female. Sadly this is representative of the proportion of women in this specialism, so I understand that it is not always easy. However not all fields have this excuse, and under-representation remains depressingly widespread. The impact of this cannot be overstated. Invited talks are critical for obtaining a tenure track job as well as for securing tenure, and are often an explicit assessment criterion for acquiring major grants. The routine exclusion of women from speaker lists is therefore a major obstacle to academic success.
Conference sponsors have a role to play in solving this problem. In applying for our recent workshop we had to justify in some detail to our biggest sponsor the lack of female speakers. If sponsors demand that adequate representation is a condition of funding then this would certainly focus the minds of SOCs. Not all sponsors may be in a position to judge this, of course. Perhaps here the AAS could help, by providing guidelines on appropriate target levels, or by connecting sponsors with experts in the field who might be able to suggest additional speakers to the SOC.
Progress could also be made in terms of seminar invitations. Subjects for a departmental colloquium are far less restricted than for specialist workshops, so there is no good reason why these lists should not be representative. And yet a cursory survey of many astronomy department colloquium schedules shows that they are anything but. Colloquium invitations provide valuable networking opportunities - including the chance to meet potential conference organizers.Back to top.
3. A Perennial Problem!
From: Caty Pilachowski [catyp_at_astro.indiana.edu]
This problem is hard to address because by the time a meeting is publically announced, the invited speakers are lined up. Noting the problem after the fact to organizers hasn't been effective at improving the lineup selected by the organizers of other, future meetings.
Perhaps the CSWA could organize an "annual report" that is published on the website and summarized in AASWomen that simply lists meetings held in the past year and the percentage of women speakers (and minority speakers). If women could send in "reports" from meetings they attend, perhaps those could be compiled with relatively little effort by CSWA for an annual list. This approach would have the effect of being public, without vigorous finger pointing, yet be public enough to encourage future chairs to want to appear to have done a good job of inviting women and minorities.Back to top.
4. The Wrong Approach
Debra Elmegreen [elmegreen_at_vassar.edu]
I think bad-listing meetings with low percentages is the wrong way to approach this issue. I've seen some organizers try very hard to bring in women, sometimes without success, so it's not necessarily the organizers' fault. I do think that sometimes organizers for some reason don't have enough information to know whom to tag for particular topics. And some fields just don't have as many female astronomers as others. Years ago, CSWA tried to put together a list where women could sign on and announce their specialties. I would have hoped this wouldn't be necessary now, but clearly we haven't achieved equity yet. Perhaps we might consider it again, as a posting under CSWA where women could list themselves if they want to, and to which we could direct the AAS members when they next plan meetings.
It seems one proactive approach is that, when the AAS or IAU newsletters publish a list of upcoming meetings for the year, someone in the field could contact the SOC and possibly suggest relevant names for speakers as an aid.Back to top.
5. The Value of Lists
From: Amy Simon-Miller [amy.a.simon-miller_at_nasa.gov]
I think AAS could post a reminder that all organizing/program committees should be sure to include a diversity of speakers (and committee members). As Debra says, there are other factors that are sometimes beyond the committee’s control, while sometimes it is just an oversight.
The CSWA list still exists, though I don’t know how many have added themselves in recent years. Last I managed it, it was quite large. Lists are OK, but they have to be at someone’s fingertips at the time they are looking for speakers. We tried this once with the DPS – we gathered a list of women who were willing to serve on committees, give talks, be considered for jobs, etc. With their permission, everyone who asked was given the list to keep near their phone/computer. I don’t know if it changed anything, but I know I used it on more than one occasion. I also know that the program committee for every DPS meeting reports on committee balance and diversity, as well as looking at the invited speakers list.Back to top.
6. Pushing Back?
From: Urry, Meg [meg.urry_at_yale.edu]
Although it is much better to address this issue at the beginning of organizing a conference, we often don't have access to those discussions until too late (e.g., after the program has come out). We could try alerting AAS members to ask for help from colleagues or to consult appropriate resources if their draft speaker lists are not representative - but honestly, what AAS member doesn't already know they should do this from the get go? We must have some reaction, therefore, to meetings at which majority men are over-represented.
Those of us knowledgeable in a particular field should react to problematic meetings by sending (individually) a list of 20-100 suitable women and minority speakers to every one of the organizing committee, with a cover note saying, "Thank you for organizing this very interesting meeting on but I noticed there were few women and minority speakers. I realize that you may have tried and failed to attract diverse speakers but just in case you need additional suggestions - in case you ever organize a meeting on a similar topic in the future - I would like to bring to your attention the following list of prominent researchers in this area. Many thanks for your help." As private comments, this kind of email would not imply anything about the CSWA or AAS.
The consequences of failing to include women are serious. Every promotion, every review, every consideration of an astronomer for any station or honor, considers how many invited talks the person has given. It is taken as an important sign of impact. So, we must figure out some positive steps to take. Even if the situation is improving year by year, the careers of young people are still being affected, and thus speaker lists still bear close scrutiny.Back to top.
7. Aim High
From: Marc Postman [postman_at_stsci.edu]
As one who has organized a couple of large symposia in the past 2 years (where we achieved a female speaker percentage of 35%), it is essential that the SOC begin by asserting that a representative demographic distribution in their speaker list is a wholly legitimate objective for the final program of the meeting and recognize that doing so in no way compromises the scientific quality of the program. It's often hard (if not impossible) to fix a wildly imbalanced speaker gender distribution after the fact. It begins with having a clear picture of the current female/male ratio in astronomy (e.g., use the AAS population) so folks on the SOC of the meeting don't have to guess. It's then essential to aim higher than the average (by at least 5 - 10%) since the minority is often overbooked more severely. It is also important to have a fair demographic split on the SOC itself. If you can start with these two premises, the odds of achieving a program that is representative and scientifically strong are substantially improved.
As for things CSWA or AAS could do: 1) Make current demographics easy to find on AAS website 2) Regularly review all AAS and AAS Division meetings to identify poor track records and address these 3) Publish a set of guidelines for SOCs, akin to what U.Mich did for faculty search committees. 4) Make funding for meetings contingent on some minimum compliance with demographic balance (however, we also don't want to stagnate fractions at current levels - we want to ultimately, I think, achieve a mix representative of the national undergraduate population).Back to top.
8. Set Guidelines
From: Kevin Marvel [kevin.marvel_at_aas.org]
I'd suggest CSWA approach this in a way similar to how the AAS set a guideline for the offering date of prestigious postdoc positions...propose a guideline/goal for astronomy meetings that the AAS can endorse as a statement, sort of a best-practice that everyone in the field should strive for.
I'd suggest a flexible guideline that can change as the demographics of the field changes, something along the lines of "invited speakers at astronomy meetings should at least match the demographic representation of the various groups in the American Astronomical Society's overall membership".
Unfortunately, that doesn't address the bigger issue of wanting to match the overall demographics of the population generally (e.g. proper representation of native Americans for example), but it is a good first step to match the demographics of the appropriate professional organization (though, let's be sure to use AAS numbers, not APS's numbers). I suspect Council would be less willing to consider something specific to women, when we have problems for many demographic groups being under-represented. That would suggest a partnership with the CSMA.
I doubt seriously that Council would consider 'bad listing' or approving meetings. The AAS must set the professional standards for our discipline and let the pressure from collegial disgruntlement serve as the enforcing motivation. If a meeting isn't hitting the mark, it shows.Back to top.
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