Issue of June 3, 2011
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson, and Michele Montgomery
This week's issues:
1. AAS Prizes – Self-Nominations
From: Meg Urry [meg.urry_at_yale.edu]
You have probably realized that the deadline for nominations for AAS prizes has shifted earlier, to June 30. This means you still have a few weeks to submit nominations. Those of us who are frustrated at the continued dearth of women prize recipients should know that this is because of a dearth of nominations (so I am told by prize committees) – indeed, there are few nominations of anyone, but especially women. So, it would be great if we could rectify that.
What you may not know, because it is a newer change, is that for the first time, and for a 5-year trial period, self nominations will be enabled for the Warner and Pierce prizes. In order that self-nominations not be visibly different from colleague-nominations, the prize package will consist of the 3 letters of support, not including the usual nomination letter. It was felt by the AAS Council, who took this decision, that the nominee pools for these prizes are usually too small, and that senior astronomers may not know the junior candidates eligible for these prizes well enough to fix that problem, whereas self-nominations will almost surely lead to a larger (and we hope more divers) pool of candidates – which can only enhance the luster of the prize.
So, young astronomers: please do not be shy! Nominate yourself or ask a colleague to help you. All you need to do is line up 3 letters supporting your nomination. Rules for all prizes can be found on the AAS web site:Back to top.
2. Invited Women Speakers: A Different Perspective
After reading the discussion of invited female speakers [in the May 6 issue of the AASWOMEN newsletter – Eds.], I wanted to share a related but different frustration about gender balance and conference organizing.
I recently organized my first scientific meeting (as SOC chair), and right from the start I decided that I would keep an eagle eye on myself and the other members of the SOC to avoid any hint of gender bias in the conference. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to come up with a gender-balanced conference agenda (was it luck? our subfield? the unconscious influence of having a female SOC chair? I didn't care). Without any intervention on my part, the original list of invited and contributed speakers was very well balanced, including roughly 40% female participation at all levels and even a senior URM speaker. I was thrilled. But then came the shocker. After we sent out the invitations and notified contributed speakers that their talks had been accepted, the women were far more likely to decline than the men, and our senior URM speaker backed out at the last minute. Several of these people specifically asked to be replaced by white male colleagues. Furthermore, male graduate students and postdocs were more likely to withdraw from the conference if their abstract had been assigned a poster instead of a contributed talk, which skewed the gender balance of the poster session in the opposite direction. It wasn't a huge meeting, so individuals made a difference. In the end, our gender balance was fine (~25% invited talks and session chairs, ~35% contributed talks, and ~45% of posters were given by women), but given how promising the initial pool was, I was a bit disappointed.
This reminded me of another situation I had observed. I've served for several years on the admissions committee of a selective summer high school science program, and have watched their struggles with achieving gender balance over the years. A couple of years ago, the director mentioned that the biggest problem is not finding qualified girls, but rather getting them to accept the offers of admission that are extended to them. Boys are significantly more likely to accept an offer of admission, which means that the gender balance of the students who attend the program is always more skewed than the pool of admitted students.
I'm not sure what lesson to draw from these experiences, but I'm curious to know whether or not anybody else has observed similar phenomena. A naive observer might chalk this up to the tired argument that women are "less interested" in science, but I don't think that's the case. At the high school level, the girls' applications demonstrate phenomenal interest and aptitude in math and science. One possibility is that girls and URMs with high scientific aptitude are so sought after that they have many opportunities to choose from; another possibility is that their parents are consciously or unconsciously biased and less likely to encourage their daughters to attend an immersive "nerd camp." It's difficult to know. At the conference, I wondered if family obligations were preventing women from accepting talk slots. But since I know several of the women personally, I don't think that was the case. I also noticed that men were far more aggressive in pursuing the more "high profile" opportunities. For example, some men who were assigned posters wrote to emphasize their willingness to give a talk if a slot should open up. So were we just unlucky, or is there something else going on here?Back to top.
3. Boston AAS: Panel Discussion on Transforming Cultural Norms
From: L. Trouille_at_women_in_astronomy_blog
CSWA held a panel discussion during the Boston AAS meeting entitled "Transforming Cultural Norms: Mentoring and Networking Groups for Women and Minorities". In order to more widely disseminate the ideas and resources shared during this discussion, I'm taking advantage of our blog conversations.
Thank you to all those who attended and contributed to the conversation. We were very pleased to see the mix of men and women in the audience, although there's definitely work to be done in engaging more senior men in these discussions.
In this first post, I'm providing our extended community the resources page distributed at the start of the discussion. Please send me your comments for any additional resources that you'd like to see included. The final list will be published for posterity at the CSWA 'Resources' page.
My next post will provide the videotape we made of the discussion. As a teaser, I'll note that our discussion yesterday highlighted examples of concrete steps to take to enable sustainability, obstacles to be aware of, how to develop allies through making it clear the ways your program champions your institution's priorities, acknowledging the realities of needing to work within existing structures, and the limitations of our recent decadal survey with respect to accomplishing the goals of the 'State of the Profession' white papers.
Till that's posted, another big Thank You! to our panelists for their ongoing efforts to improve the culture and climate at their institutions and for their thoughtfulness in considering the questions we had composed prior to the session to help guide the discussion.
To read more:Back to top.
4. Obstacles to the Progress of Women in Science and Engineering
From: Ed Bertschinger_at_women_in_astronomy_blog
In her Keynote Address to the MIT150 Symposium Leaders in Science and Engineering: The Women of MIT, Professor Nancy Hopkins presented a wonderful summary of the reasons why there are so few women faculty in science and engineering, especially at the top ranks. She summarized not only her own experience but that of most women faculty members. Had male faculty members experienced the same systematically inequitable treatment, research universities would be under investigation by Congress for discrimination. Unfortunately, as Professor Hopkins points out, the percentage of female Senators is less than the percentage of female faculty members in science and engineering at MIT. That we face broader societal issues is no excuse for ignoring these problems in academia. Universities and other employers that pay attention to equity will outperform ones that do not. Indeed, as a department head I am delighted to see the benefits of gender equity accrue to my institution.
I strongly urge readers to watch Professor Hopkins’ speech at the above link. Here I summarize her analysis of the obstacles overcome and those remaining before women face a level playing field in academia.
Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the implementation of affirmative action regulations in 1971, universities regularly barred women from the faculty. Such remarkable scientists as Mildred Dresselhaus, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and Barbara McClintock all faced this now-illegal discrimination. But the legal system and the women’s movement of the 1970s did not eliminate all forms of discrimination.
Sexual harassment was, and remains, a serious problem. Professor Hopkins told her own stunning story. Unfortunately, I know from service on the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy that sexual harassment is not fully eliminated even today. Astonishingly it is present in some highly ranked programs. Today it is possible to gain remedy in the courts; however the effort required is onerous. Universities and other organizations should not wait for lawsuits and should not merely proclaim policy, but should investigate and discipline harassers. The American Astronomical Society has an anti-harassment policy that is laudably clear on this point.
To read more:Back to top.
5. Department Diversity
From: Meg Urry [meg.urry_at_yale.edu]
Some of us were talking about how to ensure that physics and astronomy departments offer equitable and supportive environments for diverse scholars. In many departments, this is not the highest priority, especially when compared with research accomplishments. So how should departments be held accountable, particularly in the handful of cases where egregious behavior appears to have been tolerated for a long time?
Here is a suggestion: talk to your Provost or Dean. In general, university administrators are very aware of the importance of nurturing a diverse faculty, particularly because this improves effective mentoring of a diverse student body. So provosts and deans will want to help. One of the most powerful tools they have is an external visiting committee. Ask your provost/dean to include this issue – the effective mentoring of women and minority students (and really, of all students) – in how they constitute your visiting committee and in how they write the charge to that committee. This may work to create real change – and even if it does not lead to immediate action, it is useful to elevate the issue within your administration.Back to top.
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