Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Walking on Eggshells

Today's guest post is by Bekki Dawson, a graduate student in the Astronomy Department at
Harvard University. Her research focuses on the dynamics of planetary systems.

The battle for gender equity is sometimes waged at picnic tables, during the sliver of Boston summer weather pleasant enough for someone to bother rounding up a few of us to eat outside. The table gradually fills as people emerge from the building with their microwaved Tupperware. One colleague pauses as he approaches the table. "I hope I'm not interrupting a Women in Science Meeting."

I hadn't noticed until now that all four of us seated at the picnic table are women. For a moment, no one says anything and I should definitely say something, but not just anything, and I don't know how to respond, only how not to. My list of How Not to Respond goes like:

  1. For goodness sake, don't “overreact”.
  2. But whatever you do, don't just pretend like nothing happened! This is exactly that sort of remark that can subtly cause women to feel like they don't belong in our field. Go on, champion some gender equity!
  3. Also, don't spend the rest of the lunch distractedly dissecting your sandwich as you try to put yourself in his shoes. You'll find it hard to empathize, because your own experiences with skewed gender ratios are off by a couple orders of magnitude: like at the packed physics seminar, when you look around and see only one other woman in the audience and realize, with a mixture of unease and glee, that you're Not Supposed to Be Here. "I hope I'm not interrupting a Men in Science Meeting."

Maybe, despite my attempts at adherence to How Not to Respond #1, I am overreacting. Maybe this is just like if all four folks at the picnic table were wearing khakis. Someone wearing corduroys might feel awkward.

If one little innocent joke can unnerve me for hours, it's no wonder that some astronomers feel like they're walking on eggshells. They're kind and well-meaning people full of hearty good humor unbounded by political correctness; they find themselves unable, despite their excellent intentions, to comply with whims and dictates of the sensitive and easily-offended.

I have a message for anyone who thinks that women in astronomy advocates are often overreacting: I hear you. The feeling that you're walking on eggshells, that people are taking offense at what you say and do with your best intentions, is legitimate. But any advocate for overturning the status quo is by definition “overreacting”.

When I first came to the Center for Astrophysics, I got lost a lot; a century of remodeling has produced a network of buildings with unexpected dead ends and floor numberings that don't line up. Even as an Nth year graduate student, I still get lost on occasion, and it rattles me to be somewhere so comfortable and familiar and then suddenly, disorientatingly have no idea where I am. When you've endeavored to be a good person all your life and then find yourself inadvertently offending people, I imagine it's sort of like getting lost in your own astronomy department.

But sometimes you have to embrace getting lost. Getting lost makes me realize that though I think I know the Center for Astrophysics well, all I actually know is just my own flawed, inaccurate perception of it, that doesn't include a second entrance to the library or a neglected corridor on the first floor. If you -- reader who struggles to walk on eggshells -- can embrace the idea that sexism and unconscious bias sometimes make the astronomical community a disheartening place for women and others from underrepresented groups, perhaps you'll recognize that those eggshells you find yourself walking on don't represent fragile, shoulder-chipped egos primed for a fight but a delicate, budding sense of belonging, a feeling of Not Being Not Supposed to Be Here, something that is worth taking care not to crush.

Let's turn now to the related situation in which you wish -- with the best of intentions -- to discuss something related to underrepresentation in astronomy, but you're worried about offending someone. What to do? Here are some of my suggestions, and I hope that others will share their own suggestions in the comments:

  1. Listen as much as possible. In the case of women of astronomy, many have experienced not being able to get a word in edgewise -- or of speaking but not being heard -- so it would be particularly frustrating to have that happen in a conversation about women in astronomy.
  2. Instead of soliciting an opinion on a sensitive topic in front of a group, forcing someone to serve as a spokesperson for an underrepresented group, consider having a conversation one-on-one.
  3. Demonstrate your trustworthiness by keeping personal stories confidential unless the person you're speaking with gives you explicit permission to share. But see what they would prefer -- maybe they would like to spread the story to raise awareness.
  4. Even if your first reaction is skepticism (for example, to someone's claims of discrimination) try to be open-minded. All you have to judge by are your own perceptions and experiences, and there may be parts of the building that you've never discovered.