Thursday, January 16, 2014

CSWA Climate Site Visit Program for Astronomy Departments - A Department Chair's Perspective

In 2009, the MIT Physics Department hosted a Climate Site Visit for Women and Minorities from the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and Committee on Minorities.  As a relatively new department head with interest in improving the status of women and minorities, I thought it would be a good practice.  I was unsure how it might be regarded by the faculty, but I paved the way by getting from buy-in from my department's Visiting Committee.  The procedures followed were very similar to those described in the earlier blog post CSWA Climate Site Visit Program for Astronomy Departments - Procedure.  The main difference was the presence of a member of the Committee on Minorities, so that the site visit also assessed the climate for minorities.  I had specifically requested this addition and was very pleased it could be accommodated.

Our site visit experience was excellent: several esteemed physicists, both women and men, spent a day in my department meeting with faculty, staff, students and postdocs.  They came prepared with the results of the survey, so knew some of the issues facing the department and hence were able to focus their efforts effectively.  The private report-out to me was valuable in emphasizing some of the challenges we faced as a department, providing me with honest feedback and constructive advice.  This is often hard for a leader to get those who are treated unfairly don't always speak up, and it is impossible for one person to hear equally from everyone in a large organization.  Even internal surveys have limited success because, despite assurances of confidentiality, some respondents may be concerned about retaliation.  They may be more willing to speak to outsiders.  The site visit committee gave me another set of eyes and ears to the department.

The committee was very supportive during and after the visit.  They followed up formally with a detailed written report, which remains a guide to me in my efforts to promote gender equity in many settings.  As individuals, the committee members have also remained a great resource for advice and collaboration on such matters.  Had I not called for the site visit committee, I would have deprived myself of some great connections that continue helping me promote a good campus climate.  For example, I followed up with a committee member several times on ideas for how to recruit more minority students and faculty, an issue that needs much more work at MIT and around the nation.

Most importantly, the report gave me information and recommendations I could share with my Dean and departmental leaders, in order to support efforts to improve the experience for everyone in the department, not just women and minorities.  The process is something many science and engineering departments would benefit from, and I am delighted that Astronomy Departments will now have the opportunity thanks to the CSWA.

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