Thursday, July 12, 2012

Report from Anchorage AAS: CSWA Town Hall

I attended my first Summer AAS Meeting last month, in Anchorage, AK. I will admit that the location was a big draw for me. Of course, I fully enjoyed the scientific aspects of the meeting as well. And while 22 hours of sunlight a day is an interesting novelty, it's nice to go to sleep in the dark, too.

The CSWA hosted a Town Hall on Astronomical Bullying during the meeting, which is the real point of this post. It was held on Monday, June 11, with an estimated 50 or so attendees. It was a little hard to tell exactly what our attendance was, since we were given an enormous ballroom.

Our CSWA chair, Joan Schmelz, began the Town Hall with a short presentation defining astronomical bullying, along with some advice on how to deal with it. Her slides are available here. Really, by astronomical bullying we mean bullying in a professional context which can take place in any field, but we examine it specifically within astronomy. This kind of bullying, in a nutshell, is unprofessional conduct not limited to sexual overtones, although gender dynamics can sometimes play a role. They are situations which are not really sexual harassment, and not necessarily discrimination, but still affect your career negatively.

If this kind of bullying happens to you, make sure to document everything, with dates and times and details. Try to find an ombudsperson at your institution. But above all else, talk to someone you trust about it, whether it is a friend, a mentor, your mom, whomever. If all else fails you can always contact Joan herself.

After Joan's presentation, we had an engaging question and answer period, including discussions of how harassment policies already in place at some universities could also be brought to bear in bullying cases, how the climate at some institutions and within some sub-fields of astronomy foster an environment of bullying, how this ties into the national conversation on bullying, and what might the AAS be able to do as a professional society to rein in bullying. Joan commented that every bully believes that he or she is upholding a standard, which gives some insight into bullying behavior and why the competitive field of astronomy suffers from it.

There was also some discussion on how to get more people to attend CSWA Town Hall meetings, since it often feels much like preaching to the choir. David Helfand, our newly-inaugurated AAS President was in attendance, and it's great to have his support of our efforts.

If you went to the Town Hall, what did you learn from it? Was there anything you would have liked to see discussed? If you missed it, what questions do you have for those of us who were there?