Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Call to Nominate! And, Self-Nominate Too!

Fellow AAS Members!

The time has come for you to nominate!  Nominate, I say, be it thy colleague, or thyself!

The AAS Prizes are important. They are our community's most visible means to foster and acknowledge excellence in research, education, and service.

Yet some of the research prizes remain overwhelming exclusive of women.

I am particularly concerned about the early-career research awards, namely the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize and the Helen B. Warner Prize. Both prizes are limited to nominees aged 35 years or less (for the Warner, you can be older than this, but you must still be within 8 years of PhD).

The Pierce Prize is awarded annually for outstanding achievement, over the previous five years, in observational astronomical research based on measurements of radiation from an astronomical object. Only 8 of the 40 recipients (20%) are women. Importantly, there is no sign that the number is trending upwards over the 40 year history of the award: 3 of the first 20 recipients (1974 - 1993) were women while 5 of the subsequent 20 were women. Two of the most recent 10 were women.

Of course the Pierce pool looks shiny compared to the Warner! The Warner prize is awarded annually annually for a significant contribution to observational or theoretical astronomy during the five years preceding the award. It has been around significantly longer than the Pierce: There have been 63 recipients. Two are women. Just two! That makes 3%. Indeed, 48 years elapsed from when E. Margaret Burbidge received it in 1959 to when it was awarded to Sara Seager in 2007 (shown in the photo above). Many astronomers never saw it awarded to a woman during their entire careers!

Interestingly, for the past 20 years the fraction of astronomy prize postdoctoral fellowships held by women has held steady at roughly 30% (Schmelz et al. 2010). Many Pierce and Warner prizes are awarded based on work the recipients did during their postdoctoral years. The 2013 CSWA demographic survey of US astronomers similarly found that 27% of assistant professors (roughly the same age group as Warner and Pierce recipients) are women. Yet looking back over the past 20 years of Warner and Pierce prizes, only 15% of the recipients are women.

There are many factors that may play a role here, but this post is really only aimed at one of them: Perhaps many outstanding women are simply not begin nominated. (A related concern is that perhaps the nomination and supporting letters for women simply don't use as impactful language as those for men.) My worry is based in no small part because our AAS Secretary himself noted the all-too-small slate of worthy candidates for the junior prizes in recent years!

Intriguingly the Warner and Pierce prizes now allow for self-nominations (at least until 2016), and the committee is blind with respect to outside and self-nominations. The decision to allow self-nominations arose from the concern noted above: The committees are simply faced with too few nominations! Allowing self-nominations also overcomes one particular concern for a professional society such as ours undergoing a demographic shift, wherein the senior astronomers (who are more likely to serve as nominators) have a much lower fraction of women than the pool of potential nominees. Even with the best of intentions, it may still be easier to see greatness in someone whom you view as a younger version of yourself!

So, to my colleagues: Please have a good hard look at the excellent work being done by early career male and female astronomers in our community, and then set aside the time to write a really great nomination letter.