Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Advancing breastfeeding and research 15 minutes at a time

Initially when I went back to work when my daughter was only 10 and a half weeks old I was only working 6-8 hours per week and didn't expect to get much done. However, as time progressed, I had expectations I would get back into the swing of things and really be back full time. Sure enough, here we are at 9 months and things are looking better for working. I now only pump twice a day, once before I leave the house in the morning and once in the later afternoon a couple hours after I visit Anya to nurse her. So this means I have two regular interruptions at work rather than the three I used to have. Finally, the kid is sleeping quasi-regularly and the fog is starting to clear a little bit. Also, I really feel like I am in the reward period of breastfeeding. The kid smiles back at me while nursing and in the night when something bothers her, sometimes nothing else will soothe her. I have a superpower that I can use and I am very grateful I have stuck it out to nine months.

However, one thing I have been battling is the higher level of chaos in our lives now. Some of this is directly related to the baby (pumping breaks, etc.) and some is indirectly related (we can’t stand commuting in DC traffic anymore with a baby, so we are moving into a new house). That calm time for doing research has not re-emerged. But does one need long, calm periods to do research? In exasperation I called up one of my friends recently (another currently-breastfeeding astrophysicist!) and she tipped me off to a great idea and resource. The idea is that sure, you need to put in the time, but if you make a little bit of solid progress each day that is better than nothing!

So what I have tried just recently is to join an academic writing group and to make sure that the first thing I do each day when I walk into the office is to write and/or do data analysis directly relevant to my paper, no matter what. I don't have a big problem with this as since the baby came, I have been taking pumping and nursing breaks no matter what. Breastfeeding is important and so is research. Everything else at the office, pretty much, can wait! So if the baby was up all night and I have 7 letters of recommendation due for a former student and I have a paper to review for a collaborator and I need to call the lender about the mortgage paperwork, I still start off with 15-40 minutes of writing and/or data analysis. I have to check in with my writing group that consists of other people at the “professor” rank (there is another group for grad students). Note that by including that dedicated time, I find even more time later in the day to work on my data analysis and writing. It helps me stay focused and work harder.

The writing group that I am using, FYI, is and I am just into my first session. The main thing I still need to conquer is working from home. I have to admit that I am struggling with this and am hoping that some other people will post their wisdom in the comment section. I am writing/researching very well when in my office but the distractions of home have been heavily amplified since I became a mother (that’s one reason why we’re moving closer to the office!). However, since I started this writing group, things have improved greatly in terms of my work efficiency.

So, these are two very important things can happen with dedicated time periods two to three times per work day: 15-40 minutes for pumping or breastfeeding or for writing a paper and doing data analysis. Both of them make me feel much better and greatly enhance the value of my day.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

'Tis the Season...

...for job hunting and writing recommendation letters! So I want to highlight Kelle Cruz's post at Astro Better on advice for writing good recommendation letters, particularly regarding letters written for women. The first link is about a study showing that "qualities mentioned in recommendation letters for women differ sharply from those for men, and those differences may be costing women jobs and promotions in academia and medicine." The second link is to a post by Julianne Dalcanton at Cosmic Variance, who notes that"for some reason, some fraction of letter writers insist upon doing these comparisons only within a single gender, when the applicant is a woman." I should also note that both male and female letter writers are guilty of these things, so all letter writers should pay heed!

The 217th AAS Meeting in Seattle is fast approaching! Some sessions to pay attention to:
  • Monday Poster session 145: Career Paths, Professional Development, and STEM Diversity
  • Monday 10:00 AM Special Session 110: Strategies for Addressing Harassment and Prejudice. Room 4C-4
  • Monday 12:45 PM CSWA Town Hall: What Can Men Do to Help Women Succeed in Astronomy Ballroom 6A
  • Tuesday 10:00 AM Special Session 208: Two-Body Issues: Balancing Work and Life. Room 608
  • Thursday 11:40 AM Plenary Session: Addressing Unconscious Bias: Steps toward an Inclusive Scientific Culture, Abigail Stewart. Ballroom 6AB

Happy Holidays, whatever your traditions might be!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Not Just Assistants - the Historical Perspecitive

When the contribution about Caroline Herschel appeared, Andrea Dupree emailed
David DeVorkin, a Curator at the National Air and Space Museum
(another part of the Smithsonian Institution to which we at CfA
belong), and a member of the AAS. He replied with the following
message and gave her permission to post it in the CSWA Newsletter.

It is printed here as well so people can make comments.

From David DeVorkin:

History is about context. If one were to ask Caroline how she would
have described herself, I believe she may well have said “essential
assistant” given the gender relations of that day and her personal
view of her relationship to her brother. In fact there is a long
quote in the label taken from Margaret Herschel’s writings that uses
the term “assistant” explicitly.

Moreover there are at least 5 women depicted in the gallery. We give
tours that carry the visitor from Caroline Herschel, through Henrietta
Swan Leavitt, to Vera Rubin and Margaret Geller, and finally to
Catherine Pilachowski to show how the roles of women have changed in
astronomy and that today we can finally celebrate women as
astronomers. It is just for that fact that the sequence we portray
needs to be appreciated in full: in past time women were denied
parity, and that parity was won in long painful stages to the point
where it may be in place now, but needs constant and informed
vigilance to retain.

We cannot erase history to suit the passions of the present. People
try to erase history all the time for all different reasons, and it’s
our job to be as helpful as possible, presenting the past as it was,
to the best of our ability, not as what we want it to be. Only in
this way will we remain responsible to ourselves, and our mission to
foster an informed public.

David H. DeVorkin - Senior Curator
Division of Space History
National Air and Space Museum

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Not just assistants

I wanted to elaborate on Chanda Prescod-Weinstein's critique of a NASM exhibit on Caroline and William Herschel that was posted to AASWOMEN recently. Here's her photo of the exhibit in question:
The issue at hand is that while William is described as "The Complete Astronomer," Caroline is merely "William's Essential Assistant." This despite the fact that the text goes on to say that Caroline was "[a] fine astronomer in her own right." As Dr. Prescod-Weinstein says,
Well, if she was an astronomer, how come she doesn't get the same label as her brother? What kind of message does this send to the young girls and boys who will potentially be exposed to astronomy for the first time in this exhibit? Caroline Herschel is the first woman (of only three) mentioned in the exhibit, and it seems her claim to fame is having been in the employ of her genius brother.

Sarah Zelinski, who blogs at Surprising Science for Smithsonian Magazine, responds:
There is a tendency among some, in their efforts toward equality, to overinflate the role of the earliest female scientists. However, that does a disservice to these women and their struggles; their stories help to explain why they are worthy of being remembered and why women are not always equal in the world of science.


That amazing story, however, from Cinderella to professional astronomer—Caroline was the first women to receive a salary for stargazing, for assisting William—doesn’t fit easily into a museum display, particularly one focused on instrumentation. Caroline Herschel was both assistant and astronomer, as NASM’s display indicates, and to leave out either role is to ignore much of her spectacular journey.

I think Ms. Zelinski misses the mark here, though. Certainly, Caroline started out as William's assistant, but she went on to carry out her own independent work, and won awards for it. It's not the content and accuracy of the text that's at issue here - it's the title of the display. To sum up her life as an "Assistant" is to ignore her independent accomplishments as an astronomer. It's not about over-inflating Caroline Herschel's role as an astronomer, but rather giving her her proper due.

What do you think? Are the titles "The Complete Astronomer" and "William's Essential Assistant" fair and accurate or not?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Work-Life Balance: Theory and Practice

Last spring I started a monthly "Diversity and Inclusion" luncheon in my department to which graduate students, postdocs, staff, and faculty are invited. Typically about 20 people attend. Each time one or two members facilitate discussion around a topic of broad interest. This week the topic was work-life balance and the interest was high. I had encouraged participants to read the Report on Work-Life Balance in Astronomy 2009 based on the survey and workshop organized by Sarah Bridle (see the November 24 blog entry by Laura Trouille). The staff facilitators also presented statistics from US reports and from my own university's faculty and staff quality of life surveys. Not surprisingly, faculty report stress associated with the workload and with the difficulty of integrating work and life. These stresses are generally higher for untenured faculty than for tenured faculty, and for women faculty than for men.

We know that many talented students choose not to pursue academic careers because of the difficulties -- both real and perceived -- of balancing work and family. For example, at this week's luncheon a senior female faculty member reported that one of her male graduate students had told her he didn't want to work as hard as she did and so would avoid a faculty career. A junior male faculty member with a baby said he wished he had a male senior faculty role model. After some discussion, we realized collectively that work-life balance is made scarier for young people when it is ignored by their senior colleagues. We would encourage more young people -- men and women both -- to consider academic careers if we support and model balanced lives.

Who, me? Model a balanced life? For many of us, this generates an experience of Impostor Syndrome! My typical workweek is 55-60 hours (including a couple of hours/night at home), and my frequent travel can be hard on loved ones. It's a challenge sometimes to put work away in order to focus full attention on the people we love.

Still, I leave work early when needed to pick up my child and I ensure that staff and faculty know it's expected they will do likewise; faculty members share experiences of child-raising and we strive to help new faculty with child care (yes, we have an on-campus day care center, with far too few spaces); we have parental leaves and tenure clock-stopping for childbirth; and we try to promote a family-friendly atmosphere by, for example, welcoming parents to bring their children to some events and providing childcare or play space when needed.

There are some advantages for a parent who is also a faculty member. Taking a teenager overnight to an astronomical observatory is a wonderful experience for both. Having the flexibility to schedule time at the office around family needs is wonderful, and the university is a fun place for students of all ages to explore. The pay and benefits are good; while PhDs may start out earning more in some industries, there are excellent opportunities for advancement and raises (admittedly, these may be harder in some stressed state universities at this time). We don't work the crazy long hours of lawyers or of employees of start-ups. As one female faculty member stated at our luncheon, it's also nice to be treated to an elegant dinner and mini-vacation in a nice hotel during a colloquium visit.

Our stories are not discouraging. We can find happiness balancing work and life, and I believe we should promote this aspect of our careers -- even those of us who, like me, struggle at times with that balance.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Promoting Equality in America

In the November 12, 2010 AASWomen newsletter, the third item discussed CONSTELLATION, a European Commission (EC) FP6 Marie Curie Research Training Network, as a potential model program to promote women in astronomy. Although not an original goal, approximately 50% women and 50% men were hired from those that were trained through the network. Although no statistics were available at that time on the salaries of the women and men hired through the network, a follow-up interview with the original coordinator of CONSTELLATION, Prof. Mark McCaughrean (Univ. of Exeter, School of Physics), provided those statistics which will be discussed in the December 10, 2010 issue of AASWomen.

With American women's current wage being 78.2% of American men's (AASWomen October 1, 2010, #4) and American women lacking advancement into tenure positions compared with men (AASWomen October 20, 2009, #4), should American women leave for employment in Europe to induce equality for women in America? Should America forge a similar network to induce equality at least at the researcher level? Or can similar illustrations of best-practice programs be found in America?

Attrition of women in science from America to Europe, I would argue, would help future American women in science if enough women took this stance today. On a $100,000 US dollar man's salary, women could work today in Europe on this equivalent salary and frequently travel back to the US with the extra $21,800 they would make working in Europe.

Maybe forging a similar network in the USA might overall be the better option if one is already not in place. Of course, even this network would not solve the problems overall. From my own experience in US academia, women and men may be hired in nearly equal numbers with nearly equal pay at an institution but over time, men seem to acquire the higher average salary raises and/or bonuses. But that is another problem for another day. For now, I'll think about how my quality of life may improve on that additional 21.8% that I may earn by working in science in Europe...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Cheerful Science

There's been a bit of discussion in the blogosphere regarding the Science Cheerleaders who performed at the USA Science and Engineering Festival:

This has produced strong opinions both for (e.g. here and here) and against (e.g. here and here). You can peruse links within those references for even more reactions, some of which have some pretty strong language.

My take on it? It depends on who your audience is.

For instance, I personally get really creeped out by comments along the lines of "oooh, she's smart *and* pretty, that's really sexy!" because I'd rather evoke your respect rather than a visceral reaction. My feeling is that women get taken less seriously as scientists when we are judged on their appearance. So if your goal is to reach out to scientists, it doesn't really help.

On the other hand, if your goal is to show young girls that studying science doesn't have to be to the exclusion of all else, then maybe it's not such a bad thing. You don't have to be a white guy in a white lab coat to be a scientist, after all. (How many astronomers own lab
coats, anyway?) Science Cheerleaders prove that.

So what's your take on Science Cheerleaders? Do you like them? Hate them? Would you want to be one?

(Full disclosure: I was one of those girls who never had a chance at being a cheerleader. But in junior high, some of the parents got together and formed Wrestling Cheerleaders and Wrestling Poms, and pretty much opened it to all comers. We cheered and danced at wrestling meets. It was all pretty embarrassing, actually.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

AASWOMEN for December 3, 2010

Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of December 3, 2010
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson, and Michele Montgomery

This week's issues:

1. Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science

2. We're not just assistants now, and we weren't then either

3. Nice story about Nancy Roman

4. Planning on curtailing travel due to TSA screenings?

5. CSWA-related events at the Seattle AAS

6. Child Care at the Seattle AAS

7. IUPAP conference on Women in Physics

8. Professional Skills Development Workshop, March 2011 APS meeting

9. Strategic Leadership Program for Women in STEM Fields

10. NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship

11. L'Oreal USA Fellowships for Women in Science

12. Graduate Women in Science Fellowships

13. Department of Energy Scholars Program

14. Knowles Science Teaching Foundation Teaching Fellowships

15. NASA Academy Summer Program

16. Science & Engineering Apprenticeship Program for High School Students

17. Postdoctoral position in compact star asteroseismology

18. Assistant Director, Research Programs

19. Tenure-track Faculty Job at Wesleyan University

20. Rosalind Franklin Fellowship (Tenure-Track), University of Groningen


21. Staff opening at John Carroll University

22. Postdoctoral Research Associate, Syracuse University

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

24. Access to Past Issues of AASWOMEN

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Preparing Department Chairs to Advance Gender Equity

Department chairs play an important role in setting policies, in hiring and evaluating faculty, and in influencing the climate within astronomy and physics departments. They can have a major impact on the recruitment, retention, advancement and success of women faculty and students. Most chairs receive no training for their work and many are only dimly aware of best practices for diversity and inclusion and they receive no coaching or leadership mentoring. Fortunately, this is beginning to change.

When I became a department head (a longer-term, more powerful version of the chair), I undertook some leadership training, audited a couple of management classes, and did extensive reading. I created a personal and professional 5-year plan and took an intensive course in mediation. I read "Why So Slow" by Virginia Valian alongside "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. I listened to faculty, staff, and students. My best education came from meeting with women graduate students.

In matters of diversity and inclusion, there are now some excellent training resources available. The standard of excellence is set by the University of Michigan ADVANCE program. Their STRIDE materials are well known and were highlighted by the CSWA in their sessions at the May 2010 session on unconscious bias. However, they also have a set of useful summaries for academic leaders at They and now several other ADVANCE projects provide leadership training and coaching, e.g. the ACES project at Case Western and the Increasing Women in Neuroscience (IWiN) project. I participated in a department chairs workshop organized by IWiN and believe it would be informative and useful for any chair.

Most chairs want to do a good job but are not provided the tools needed to fully develop their talents for leadership and their effectiveness in promoting diversity and inclusion. This represents a lost opportunity. Institutions that invest in their leadership see improvements in the climate within and success of their departments. My own university offers no university-wide training for academic leaders and I am considering to encourage it. Does yours?