Issue of May 6, 2011
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson, and Michele Montgomery
This week's issues:
1. Invited Speakers
Giving invited talks is an important part of any scientist's career. It is an opportunity to sell his or her science topic in a long format and to a large audience. Yet, it seems that the same small subset of (mostly older male) scientists is asked to give invited talks at almost all the meetings. As a female physicist that has been in the field for more than 10 years, I have only been asked to give 2 invited talks. I took this personally. Perhaps I wasn't a good enough speaker or my science topic wasn't that interesting. Within the last year, however, I have sat on three different scientific organizing committees and those experiences gave me a different perspective.
For the first committee, I was out of town when the call came for suggestions of invited speakers. When I returned and read my email, I was dismayed to find that all the suggested invited speakers (> 20) were male. Another (female) committee member spoke up and suggested diversifying the list. In the end about 10% of the invited speakers were female for the conference. For the second committee, I responded to the call for suggestions for invited speakers with 8-10 names. I tried to suggest people in a range of ages and a mix of male and female. When I didn't know a good speaker on a certain topic, I called my colleagues for both male and female possibilities. Other committee members also submitted lists of potential invited speakers (primarily male). The chair of the committee then began to invite a subset of the potential speakers without additional input from the committee members. I noticed that even though > 10% of potential speakers were female, only male names were maki ng their way onto the final invited speakers list. I had to speak up and request that we include females on the invited speakers list. On the last committee, I followed the email exchange on invited speakers closely without participating. Without fail, every name suggested by both male and female committee members was male. In the end, I suggested two female speakers.
What confused me about this process was that the men and women on the committees were not people I would think of as chauvinist. Is this the work of the unconscious bias? If so, why don't the members of the committee realize it as it is happening? My challenges to all people on science organizing committees are:
-Self-edit. If the first 5 names you come up with happen to be male, challenge yourself to write down 5 female names; -Make sure the final list of invited speakers are representative of the community; -Don't expect only the female colleagues on the committee to suggest female names.
[CSWA maintains a list of % women invited speakers on its web site. If you are an SOC member for an upcoming conference, please use the list to help begin the discussion on women invited speakers. If you are attending a conference this summer, please send stats on invited speakers to Nancy Morrison (morrisonnancy89gmail.com), the CSWA web master. We've already had a few comments on this topic on our Facebook page - Eds]
From: Reba Bandyopadhyay [reba_at_astro.ufl.edu]
A few years ago I and several colleagues organized a conference (in the ~120 person size range). The three primary organizers were women in non-permanent positions and several other SOC members were younger women in junior faculty jobs. O...n the NSF grant proposal we wrote for program support, we specifically said we were going to highlight younger speakers and a high fraction of women speakers. To that end, we also agreed that basically none of the invited/solicited talks would be from the most 'senior' people; we asked those senior scientists to chair the sessions instead, and then had only young faculty or research scientists as invited speakers. Result? ~35% of the speakers were women, including several invited/solicited talks. Still could be better, but we thought this was not bad. But we had to set out consciously as a goal to (a) highlight younger and female researchers and (b) eliminate having major review talks from the senior people who are always tapped to do that and frequently give the same talks over and over and over . . .
From: Lee Anne Willson [lwillson_at_iastate.edu]
For the AAS meetings, the VPs are charged with coming up with a list of invited speakers. We try to get the topics that are hot and people who are good speakers. We don't always know everyone. We do make an effort to represent the talent pool - all flavors. You can help - if you know someone who is a good speaker on a current topic, send us a note - person, topic, contact info, and some indication of career stage if that is not obvious. We may not be able to invite your proposed speaker, but we will appreciate your help, I promise!Back to top.
2. More Advice on Unprofessional Behavior
[Two weeks ago, we published a request for advice about a situation where bullying, sexual harassment, and unprofessional behavior overlap in the extreme - Eds.]
From: Karen Kwitter [Karen.B.Kwitter_at_williams.edu]
It seems to me the main obstacle to action is the lack of evidence or witnesses. Without these, nothing can be done officially. Are there university rules prohibiting such power-unbalanced relationships? If so, then perhaps the writer could talk to the first woman mentioned or to any other women who were approached but refused the professor's advances, and try to persuade them to go (perhaps together) to a responsible authority.
Also, if any of these women (or sympathetic men) in the group has a solid relationship with other professors in the department, or a member of another department or a department/university ombudsman, those are other possibilities.
In the absence of action by a university authority, the only things I can think of that have the power to change Prof. X's behavior are:
- Peer pressure from colleagues, although this can be unpredictable - sometimes colleagues are reluctant to criticize each others' behavior.
- Pressure from funding agencies. If these unprofessional and discriminatory practices are really going on, then NSF/NASA/DOD, etc. would not be happy about it. Others might be better able than me to expand on this possibility.
-His wife, if he has one. Tread cautiously here, but it's another avenue to consider. If the rumors are true then it's likely Mrs. X will not be 100% surprised.
Unfortunately, any of these has the potential to backfire. So I think the best avenue is to persuade someone to come forward, and have the university oversee any action - but I know it's hard.
From: Sue Simkin [simkin_at_pa.msu.edu]
The problem with this type of situation (full of rumors and innuendo) is, as Karen has said, lack of evidence. Without this none of the 3 possible solutions she has mentioned will get any traction. Universities are very reluctant to get involved in a "someone has said" situation as are funding agencies (and professional colleagues). Realistically, there has always been a lot of spite and jealousy, not just in academia, but also in that paragon of virtue, corporate culture. Almost everyone who has given any creditably to some of the scuttle-butt that floats around in these systems has been ashamed and embarrassed about their own gullibility at some point and that acts as a break on their willingness to "get involved." The only solution which seems to work (in the long run) is to leave the environment (transfer to another university or work place) and quietly let it be known why you transferred. This is a VERY long-term solution (effective only if several people do it over a de cade or more) and of no interest to someone who is worried about success or a career.
From: Caty Pilachowski [catyp_at_astro.indiana.edu]
One of the difficulties in dealing with these issues is that many people are not well informed about what constitutes sexual harassment and abuse of power, what are appropriate limits on behavior in different situations, and what are our responsibilities as individuals to set and maintain norms in the workplace. Many faculty don't even have the vocabulary to describe the issues well.
Top-notch universities all have administrative offices that deal with these situations, and can come to a department to provide training to department members. A delegation of students could easily ask the chair to arrange for a training session (these are often highly interactive, interesting, and even fun) and encourage attendance for all department members. If the chair is reluctant, the delegation of students can move up the ladder to their dean's office (usually the associate dean for graduate studies) or to the graduate school or women's center to ask for such training, and the dean's office will "encourage" the department to follow through, or will assist the students to arrange it themselves and invite faculty. By acting as a group, the students are protecting themselves against any retribution, particularly if that group of students is broadly representative of the student population. And the more students who are involved, the safer it is.
By opening that dialogue, the process empowers everyone in the department to take more responsibility for maintaining appropriate norms, and faculty are more likely to recognize what's happening and take action. Sure, there will be the usual jerks who make jokes and belittle the problem, but the majority will become better informed and more responsible...Back to top.
3. Out of the Shadows
From: Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]
I recently finished reading the book, "Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics," edited by Nina Byers and Gary Williams. I had the hardcover edition and it was too heavy to carry on a plane (where I do most of my reading) so I started it last summer when I was on jury duty. Jury duty is full of interruptions and deliberations, but there are often long periods of time where you are sitting around waiting for something to happen. A book like this one, with short chapters introducing many different scientists, was the perfect companion.
I read the stories of women I knew - Annie Cannon, Marie Curie, and Henrietta Leavitt - but I was more amazed to learn about the dozens of women that I didn't know. Their stories are wonderful and inspiring. Here are a few reviews from Amazon:
"As this inspiring gallery of heroines makes plain, there's no such thing as female science - just female scientists, including some very great ones. Their achievements span a vast range of mathematics, physics, and astronomy. In Out of the Shadows, experts lucidly explain what they did, and the lives they led. I was mesmerized, and edified."
-Frank Wilcze, Nobel Prize in Physics 2004, Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics, MIT
"This book fills a vacuum in the history of physics. For the first time we have in one place clear accounts of careers and contributions to physics of 40 distinguished women from a variety of fields. In particular, the authors are informed insiders with intimate knowledge of their fields who often provide fresh information about their subjects. Let us hope that this book will inspire physicists to include these women in their lectures and textbooks so that no one will ever again badger women students with taunts like 'What's a nice girl like you doing in Physics?'"
-Margaret W. Rossite, MacArthur Prize Fellow 1989-1994, Marie Underhill Knoll Professor of the History of Science, Cornell University
"Out of the Shadows gives us fascinating accounts of some of the ground-breaking achievements of women physicists and astronomers, many of whom have never received the recognition they truly deserve. It is a much-needed book. In it, a reader can learn, for example, about how Henrietta Swan Leavitt provided the first method of measuring inter-galactic distances, and how Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, in studies of spectra from stars, discovered that most of the luminous matter in the universe consists of hydrogen and helium. Both of these were advances crucial to the development of astrophysics and modern cosmology. This wonderful book beautifully illustrates that scientific talent has absolutely nothing to do with gender.
-Jerome I. Friedma, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1990, Institute Professor Emeritus, MITBack to top.
4. Too Few Women are Presenting Science on TV
From: Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]
Kim Shillinglaw, BBC commissioning editor for science and natural history, responds to accusations that not enough women are given the chance to present science on TV
It's not often you see not one but two physicists (Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili) popping up on Harry Hill's TV Burp, and it's even more unusual for one of them (Jim) to be wearing a wig while playing a Beatles track.
It's one more piece of evidence that science is enjoying a cultural renaissance, and that science presenters are shining on television as never before. Brian, Jim, Iain Stewart, Marcus du Sautoy ... I could go on. But the party-pooping question some people have posed, including Alom Shaha in a thought-provoking post last year on this blog, is where are all the FEMALE science presenters?
Over the years we've had some very strong women on science television - Kathy Sykes and Lesley Regan to name just two. But it seems fair to say they've been fewer in number and maybe also less high profile than the men. Across television and radio, few landmark science series are presented by women; female scientists have been at the helm of only a handful of BBC Horizon documentaries; when you tune into Radio 4's Material World as a casual listener, you don't always encounter female voices; not enough of our scientific interviewees, let alone presenters, are women. Why is this?
To read more:Back to top.
5. Record Number of Girls to Take Part in Tech Challenge 2011
From: Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]
Sandeep Ravindran reports in Mercury News on Tech Challenge 2011.
When she was younger, Salonee Thanawala thought engineering was boring. But despite her initial disinterest, the 15-year-old has spent every Saturday for the past six months working on her team's project for this year's Tech Challenge.
The annual science competition will be held Saturday at The Tech Museum in San Jose.
Despite women being historically underrepresented in science and engineering, Salonee's far from alone -- girls will make up 45 percent of the 263 teams at this year's Tech Challenge. That's an increase from last year's high of 38 percent.
Until she took part in the challenge last year, Salonee's ideas about engineering came from watching her father, a software engineer.
"I just heard about making codes, and it didn't seem interesting," she said. "But then I decided to try the Tech Challenge, and it opened my eyes. I realized there's a whole lot more to it."
Her 13-year-old sister, Suveena, also enjoyed the experience. "It taught me a lot about what engineers do. Engineering definitely seems fun," she said.
On Saturday, Salonee and Suveena will try to solve this year's challenge: Cleaning up the Great Pacific Gyre, a massive collection of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean, without harming marine life. The teams had to develop a device that will remove plastic trash from a dry mock-up of the garbage patch without disturbing models of plants and fish.
To read more:Back to top.
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