Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Part II Nail Salons: Appropriate Astronomy Women’s Group Venue? Survey Results

Today’s guest blogger is Stella Offner. Stella is a Hubble Fellow who works on modeling the formation of low-mass stars.
On 11 Feb 2014,  I wrote a post reflecting on whether nail salons are an appropriate venue for a women's astronomy group outing. This issue was contentious within our group and, apparently, also within the astronomy community. The post received over 1200 views, and 131 people completed the survey. In this post, I will share the very interesting poll responses. Thanks to everyone who weighed in! First, some main takeaway points:

* The community is also divided about nail salons (or other gendered activity) as a group activity.  About 30% of respondents selected two of choices B, E, F and 5% selected all three. A number of survey participants commented something like, “I'm pretty conflicted about this issue, but I think it's really a case by case basis.”

* More people were pro-nail salon than anti-nail salon, with almost half of people choosing F: “stereotypes should not dictate activities.”  One commenter noted that,  “I recognize that scorning the 'girly' in circumstances where girliness is orthogonal to all qualities of scientific importance is just saying, 'Women can do science, but only if they're the right type of women', which is clearly wrong.”

* However, a nearly equal number of people (45%) were cautious and selected E: “it depends upon the group and department”. This large fraction may be partially because I did not specify the group makeup (it’s comprised of grad students, post-docs and faculty). Some survey participants wanted to draw the line based on whether the event was a “professional” or “fun” event. Most women's groups I’ve been a part of are fairly informal and are a mix of both, so it’s not clear to me personally where to put this line.

* A significant fraction (30%) felt strongly about not having non-feminine women feel excluded. On the other hand, some participants noted that, “Some people in your group are going to like some activities and some aren't” independent of whether the activity is gendered or not.  This issue may be resolved by choosing a variety of activities (see suggestions below).

* About 15% thought that all professional activities should be gender neutral. This option  seems the safest and avoids anticipating what events will make people uncomfortable.

A couple related issues came up in the comments which I thought were interesting:

Men: I was surprised by the number of comments that suggested that this or other gendered activities would make the men in the group uncomfortable. While I wholeheartedly, 100% agree that “it is important to keep both men and women engaged in improving the lot for women and other minorities in physics / astronomy” in our case there are no men in the group. So, should some or all women's group events be open to male department members? Discuss.

Alcohol: A number of commenters noticed a parallel between nail salons and alcohol-focused events (bars, wine tastings), which may equally create discomfort as a professional activity.  One commenter remarked, “[Choice B] reminded me of times when I've been with groups that have been very insistent on going to bars, which made me feel excluded.” This is important to keep in mind for all professional group events, not just women's groups.

Alternative Activities:

Many of you suggested fantastic and diverse alternative group activities. One of my favorite suggestions was apple picking (a great suggestion for the New England area that is also cheap). Apple picking also suggests a follow-up activity of apple pie baking and eating; its hard to be offended by tasty apple pie [1]. A number of people also suggested outreach based activities, which is another great suggestion and would tie the department to the larger community. Here is the full list, duplications removed, in no particular order:

ice skating, painting study class, potlucks, wine/beer/chocolate/olive oil tasting, bowling, stitching and/or crafting event, happy hour, karaoke night, movie night, hiking, night sky party, bbq/picnic, rock climbing, board game night (apparently, Monopoly was designed by a woman), dinner at a local restaurant, historical walking tour, volunteering (a number of science and non-science related suggested), canoeing/kayaking, weekend brunch, museum visit, water park, frisbee, tea/coffee house, going to a roller derby, pedicure (‘no colleagues will see your toenails’), apple/fruit picking, photo treasure hunts.

[1] While historically baking was considered a “feminine” activity, today I believe it is more gender neutral. I confess that both my father and grandfather make superb apple pies. However, a fellow female astronomer mentioned to me that she has been advised, in a well-meaning way, to not bake cookies (among other “feminine” things), so perhaps baking is not perceived to be so gender neutral after all. 

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