Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Reaching Parity: Lessons from the NSF AAPF

Today's guest-blogger is Eilat Glikman. Eilat holds an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University.  She studies dust reddened quasars and their role in quasar/galaxy co-evolution, as well as faint quasars at high redshifts.  

I returned from a long and stimulating American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting which began for me the weekend prior with the annual NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellows (AAPF) Symposium. Those who have attended the AAPF Symposium over the years will tell you: it is usually the highlight of the entire AAS meeting.

This year's symposium was my last and I was feeling both sentimental and grateful to have had the privilege of being connected to an incredible bunch of scientists through this fellowship. The subject of the talks ranged from exoplanet detection, general relativity theory, galaxies and AGN, as well as dark matter detection and efforts to expand astronomy education to deaf and hard-of-hearing students. A remarkable and inspiring itinerary. And as I watched and listened, it occurred to me that there seemed to be a lot of women contributors. So I counted, and then tweeted:

“According to the schedule #AAPF13 has 9 male fellow presenters and 11 females. Exceeding parity: something to be proud of!”

The high proportion of female participants at the conference was noted by one of the panelists participating in the panel discussion, Project Leadership in the Age of Large Collaborations, who noted that large collaborations such as LSST have difficulty filling leadership positions with women scientists. This got me thinking, what is it about the AAPF that has led to such high female participation? What are we doing right that other fellowships(1), institutions, etc. could emulate? I have identified three major actions that make the AAPF successful and that can be adapted and emulated to change the nature of our field:

• The AAPF does not require letters of recommendation.

It is well known that letters of recommendation betray gender biases and perpetuate perceptions of women as less competent. This places women at a disadvantage in any situation where their credentials are evaluated based on letters of recommendation. The AAPF is one of the few professional opportunities for male and female candidates' research ideas to stand on their own and be judged purely based on their merit.

I want to note that this type of evaluation already exists in most of the professional activities in which we engage. Telescope proposals do not require letters of recommendation to be evaluated(2), nor do NSF funding proposals, and yet reviewers are able to evaluate the quality of the proposal based solely on the content of the proposal itself plus the publication record and accomplishments of the investigators.

In fact, the absence of recommendation letters effectively eliminates the issue of gender from the proposals almost entirely. The only place where the gender of the applicant appears on the application is on the cover page listing the name. After reading a 10 page proposal, the reviewer generally thinks of the applicant as a last name that likely appears throughout the proposal as e.g., Doe et al., thereby diminishing the role of gender. On the other hand, reading three letters of recommendation filled with 'he's or 'she's is likely to deepen the gender impression in a reviewers mind, however subconsciously.

• Permission to do outreach.

This second factor is more speculative on my part. I have heard in many conversations on the topic of why women don't choose to go into physics and astronomy that women have a tendency to want to "help people" or "make a difference in people's lives." Often it is difficult to see how understanding physical the laws of nature or the mysteries of the Universe contribute to this desire. On the other hand, finding a cure for cancer makes sense in this context, which may explain why so many more women choose to study biology and social sciences. I am not sure there is any research that bears this out, and even if it were true, a discussion over whether it is due to societal influence versus some innate property is beyond the scope of this post (but may be interesting for a future discussion).

Regardless, the fact that the AAPF not only gives permission to do outreach, but requires 10-25% of a fellow's time to be spent on education and/or public outreach (EPO) activities and broader impacts seems to invite a more diverse set of applicants. Even at the fellow's symposium, presentations on outreach activities were as important and interesting as the research talks. This is an especially unique aspect of the AAPF fellowship, as most postdocs either supported by grants or through e.g., Hubble or Einstein fellowships do not have the opportunity to spend a fraction of their time on EPO activities. (I have known many who do this anyway, on their own time, but they are often 'sneaking' this activity so as not to be seen as shirking their main research efforts.) This is a shame.

• Flexible schedule and leave of absence.

A particularly unique aspect of the AAPF is that an optional (unpaid) leave of absence of up to one year is allowed as part of the fellowship's rules. Reasons for pausing the fellowship include, but are not limited to, parental leave. Furthermore, it is possible to go on paid parental leave for two months if the fellow meets certain (reasonable) requirements. It is pretty obvious how such a policy would be inviting toward women scientists, especially since the postdoctoral period often coincides with the time one might be thinking about starting a family.

Aside from parental leave, the option to take a leave of absence and pursue other activities are conducive to working out many two-body problems and other hurdles that often push people out of scientific fields. I took a nine-month leave of absence from my AAPF in my first year so that I could teach astronomy as a visiting faculty member at Yale. This effectively extended my tenure at Yale from three to nearly four years, which minimized the hardship of having to move to a new place every three years. The nomadic life of an early scientist is especially difficult for parents with children, and I am grateful that I was able to gain important teaching experience while building a community in Connecticut for my family.

Flexibility is key to improving work/life balance issues, which disproportionately affect women (we should address this too as a culture).

• Mentorship.

One of the nicest aspects of the AAPF is the mentorship that fellows and former fellows provide for each other. The symposium not only showcases the amazing science being done by the fellows, but also provides professional advising through panel discussions and invited speakers who share their experiences on how to navigate the world of being a professional astronomer.


If we are to cultivate the next generation of scientists and continue to strive for gender parity in our field, then postdoctoral programs such as institutional fellowships, as well as the prestigious NASA fellowship programs, should consider (1) minimize the impact of letters of recommendation (or eliminate them entirely) and base awards on the applicant's science proposal; (2) include opportunities for outreach and educational activities that broaden a scientist's experience and gives their work a deeper sense of purpose; (3) institutions should adopt flexible and family-friendly policies that enable the best talent to succeed and (4) become known for offering mentoring and career development. There is no downside, as far as I can see.

(1) The 2012 Einstein Fellowship Symposium had ten female presenters and twenty male presenters. And a quick count of the gender breakdown for Hubble fellows reveals 60% male and 40% female scientists for the past two years.

(2) An exception is if a graduate student is the PI of a proposal, s/he may need a letter from an advisor vouching for their competence to conduct the observations.