Thursday, April 29, 2010

Facing up to Stereotype Threat

I was invited to give a talk for Astronomy Day at the Miami Planetarium. On my drive there Saturday, I had the sudden realization that I'm probably the only female PhD astronomer in, not just Miami, but all of south Florida. It was a bizarre feeling; made more bizarre by not ever having realized it that way before. (Granted, there are only about 6 or 7 professional astronomers in south Florida, but that means female astronomers are locally underrepresented relative to the national average.)

When I give public talks of any kind, I'm mildly ... concerned? aware?... that I'm likely to be a slight surprise to the audience because I'm female. This is part of the "heightened social visibility" underrepresented minorities have -- they tend to get noticed because they are different. Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, it's a thing that we deal with on some level. This is the flip side of mentoring: every time you do anything remotely professionally related, you're a role model whether you want to be or not, whether you're aware of it at the time or not. Men scientists are role models too, but the burden feels greater because I might be the only (or one of the few) female physical scientists someone ever comes in contact with, and I want people to know that women can be (good) scientists too.

This got me thinking about the idea of "stereotype threat" as presented in the AAUW report "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics." Stereotype threat occurs when "a person fears that his or her performance will be evaluated based on a negative stereotype." And the data show that despite gains, there are still negative, sometimes unconscious, biases and stereotypes (schemas) about women's abilities in science and math fields. The study uses the example that "a female student taking a difficult math test might experience an extra cognitive and emotional burden of worry that if she performed poorly, her performance would reinforce and confirm the stereotype that women are not good at math. This added burden of worry can have a negative effect on her performance." Not to mention that women believe they have to perform to a higher level to be considered proficient in fields where men are thought to excel than men believe they do (also highlighted in the AAUW presentation).

The good news is that studies show that stereotype threat is situational and when removed, performance increases. One of the suggested remedies is to "Expose girls to successful role models in math and science to combat the negative stereotypes about women in these fields."

I can identify with being subject to stereotype threat: I worry that if I do something poorly, it will have a negative effect on people's attitudes towards all women scientists. However, as a professional women scientist, I am also part of the solution because I am a role model (but I'd better be a good one--see the previous sentence). So when I give a public talk, in the back of my mind, I feel that I must do extremely well: first to overcome any (even subconscious) biases, second to perform to my own probably too-high standard, and third to be a good role model. Luckily, I am an excellent public speaker, so this is not hard. (I was tempted to put a ";)" here to avoid sounding like I'm bragging, but women also tend to downplay their skills and talents rather than acknowledge them, to their detriment, and we need to stop that!)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate: vol. 3

Here's (finally!) the last of my posts summarizing the 2-day Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate. The first two posts are here and here.

Overall, the meeting had a heavy emphasis on mentoring: why mentors are helpful, how mentors differ from advisors, how to find a good mentor, how to be a good mentor, etc. (The most amusing comment was that one should avoid "tor-mentors" or "de-mentors".) And while mentoring is good for everybody and so is training and career development, these activities focus on changing individuals to get them through the system, rather than taking on the broken system from the top down. So, for the breakout sessions, divided into Mentoring, Professional and Career Development, and Effective Postdoctoral Policies, I opted to attend the last session.

This session was basically about Postdoctoral Offices (PDOs) and ADVANCE grants. A PDO is basically an institutional office that helps administer postdoctoral hiring and helps postdocs navaigate the system. As someone who has never been at an instituion with a PDO, this sounds like a great idea. At one particular institution I have been at, setting up a new postdoc involves navigating a byzantine bureaucratic system that can take months to get through before you get everything you need to actually begin working. And despite the fact that this institution hosts lots of postdocs as a whole, an individual research group takes charge of only a few at a time so each new postdoc often has to ask three or four people before finding the right person to talk to about a computer account or salary or what have you. By the time the next year rolls around, everyone seems to forget what the process was, or maybe they were so traumatized by it that they've blocked it out, and the new person has to start from scratch. A centralized PDO would do a world of good in this case.

The NSF ADVANCE Transformation grants are awarded to institutions to help create and change policies to help the hiring and retention of women faculty. These programs seem very successful within a given institution, but they also take a lot of dedicated effort to change established attitudes. And while they do a lot of good within an institution while they are active, when happens when the grant period ends? How effective is change on an institution-by-institution basis?

The institutions that apply for these grants are willing to make a commitment to change from within to begin with. But there are institutions who would probably never even apply for an ADVANCE grant because they think that they are too Excellent to need such a thing. How do we convince such places to realize that there is a problem that needs fixing to begin with? It's not simply a matter of waiting for the old guard to pass on. It's the 21st century already, and we still see problems regarding the advancement and hiring of women. I'm not sure what the solutions are to such things, but sitting on our hands waiting for change to happen on its own certainly isn't a good one.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

AASWOMEN for April 9, 2010

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of April 9, 2010
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson amp; Michele Montgomery

This week's issues:

1. Advice for Anon

2. Additional Advice for Anon

3. Turning Women into Scientists

4. Accidental Mentoring

5. How to Stand Out in a Large Collaboration

6. Why Women Leave the Engineering Field

7. Spacewomen Power

8. Blewett Scholarship for Women in Physics

9. How to Submit, Subscribe, or Unsubscribe to AASWOMEN

10. Access to Past Issues of AASWOMEN

AASWOMEN for April 2, 2010

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of April 2, 2009
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson amp; Michele Montgomery

This week's issues:

1. Harassment: Serial Offenders

2. Scarcity of Women in Sciences

3. Reports on Women/Minorities Pursuing STEM Careers

4. Are We There Yet?

5. Chinese Female Astronauts: Must Be A Married Mom

6. Practicing Gender Equality in Science

7. Future bright for Harvard's female faculty

8. Networking while on a career break

9. ASP Cosmos in the Classroom & Travel Grants


10. Instructor/Assistant Professor, US Military Academy

11. How to Submit, Subscribe, or Unsubscribe to AASWOMEN

12. Access to Past Issues of AASWOMEN

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Are Times a Changin?

There is a side of me that is celebrating the many advances of my female colleagues in recent months. As a former NASA employee I am truly heartened by the leadership roles taken by women in two of my favorite projects, the Fermi Gamma Ray Observatory where the NASA Headquarters Program Scientist, the NASA Goddard Project Scientist and Deputy Project Scientist are all women and on the new Gravity and Extreme Magnetism SMEX (GEMS) mission where most of the leadership roles are occupied by women.

Then we hear that Space shuttle Discovery launched recently to deliver spare parts and science experiments to the international space station contains among its crew three women.

With its crew of seven astronauts, this mission is carrying supplies and science equipment for the international space station's laboratories. The 13-day mission includes three planned spacewalks, replacing an ammonia tank assembly and retrieving a Japanese experiment from the station's exterior. NASA said Discovery's mission will mark the first time four women have been in space at one time: Three women -- mission specialists Stephanie Wilson, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger and Naoko Yamazaki -- comprise part of the Discovery's crew, while NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson is already at the space station.

I cannot help but ponder the question. Is something going on here? I know over half of these women and I am here to tell you that they were selected based on merit and competence, without question. These are not connected events and yet it would seem to be a significant advance. My overwhelming reaction is to be disappointed in myself for even wondering about it because just perhaps we are getting closer to the point where the gender of the participants will no longer hit the consciousness of male old timers like me. Then why is NASA making such a big deal out of it? Maybe I should be wondering why the latest Shuttle crew only contains three women if I give it a thought at all.