Thursday, October 6, 2011

Speaking Truth to Power

Almost exactly two years ago, I was on the organizing committee for the Women in Astronomy and Space Science 2009 Conference. We were organizing a tour of the White House for early career astronomers, and we managed to arrange a meeting with Tina Tchen, the Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. I soon found myself in charge of facilitating the discussion, a bit of a daunting task to say the least!

I knew that we had only a limited amount of time to get a few key points across, so I decided to put together a presentation for Ms. Tchen. I met with the White House tour participants over lunch to brainstorm our key concerns, including action items that the federal government could take to help women in astronomy. I also enlisted the help of Bethany Cobb, Meredith Danowski, Laura Lopez, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and Angie Wolfgang to help draft a document that we could leave with Ms. Tchen.

When the time came, the six of us spoke about our key talking points: health care, family leave, conscious and unconscious bias, education and public outreach, and mentoring. I came away feeling like we had a sympathetic ear in Ms. Tchen, and that the presentation had been very effective - much more so than a free-form discussion would have been. Still, a cynical voice in my head would sometimes pipe up with doubts than any real action would ever be taken.

Fast forward to last week - Tina Tchen announced in the Washington Post that the NSF would be adopting a number of policies that would allow grantees to take time off for parental and family leave. (See also this item in last week's AASWOMEN.) Our message had been heard after all!

The lesson I've taken away from this is that change is possible, no matter how daunting the obstacles may seem. You might imagine that the vast bureaucracy of federal government might be too resistant to change, or that your voice might fall on deaf ears, but if you craft your message well and deliver it to the right person, change can happen. I am so pleased about the policy changes being implemented at the NSF. Too many times I've heard of inflexibility of grants interfering with the careers of women with families, and I'm glad to hear that some of those barriers are falling.

-by Hannah