Monday, April 14, 2014

Strength in Numbers

Today’s guest blogger is Katja Poppenhaeger. Katja is a Sagan postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). Her research interests are exoplanets and their host stars, with a focus on stellar magnetic activity and its effects on exoplanetary atmospheres. She also is the organizer of the CfA's Women In Science Chats, a series of informal discussions where female CfA postdocs and graduate students can meet with visiting scientists.

A few weeks ago my colleague, Mohaddesseh Azimlu, mentioned how great it would be to have a group photo of all the female astronomers and astronomy students at the CfA. She was about to leave for a new career opportunity in Canada, so we hurried to invite everyone for a photo shot on a cold February day. We got an overwhelmingly positive response from the astronomers: We had 55 people join the picture, and 17 more who could not attend in person sent in photos of themselves to be added to the picture. Here's the result:
(picture credit: Clive Grainger, Katja Poppenhaeger)
While many people were excited about this picture, women and men alike, we also heard a few criticisms: Why is this group picture exclusive? Why not also organize group pictures for the men, or all scientists? And: Do we still need this?

Here's why I think we need pictures like this:

First of all, group pictures are fantastic, especially if you are a postdoc and have to switch institutes every other year. Twenty years from now you will remember your colleagues with whom you actually collaborated or became close friends with, but probably not all the other nice people you talked to a few times at cookie hour or the institute colloquium. That's also the reason why I think that a group picture of other demographics at an institute (or an all-institute photo) would be a great idea.

But why a female astronomer group photo? Can't we just be astronomers, not "some adjective plus astronomer"?

There is indeed hope that the adjectives in front of the astronomer tend to matter less than they used to. The new 2013 CSWA Departmental Survey shows that the fraction of women that are hired into junior faculty positions is increasing and becoming more representative of the gender ratio at earlier career levels (i.e., the applicant pool).

However, there are still enough situations in which many of us are not seen as "regular astronomers". Here's one of my personal experiences:

Several times in my career, I have been the only female scientist in a shared office. My office mates have always been nice people, and we had lots of geeky-funny conversations. But sometimes the discussion would wander into areas like gender ratios of people on the tenure track, or unconscious biases, or a similar topic. Every time this happened there would be this short pause in the conversation when everybody looked at me expectantly, as if I was the representative of all women in astronomy, about to dispense the canonical opinion about the given topic. This would sometimes lead to bizarre situations: I have been expected to give the canonical explanation for why so many women decide against studying physics. Obviously, I am not part of that demographic, because I am a woman who did study physics. Nonetheless I would be regarded as someone who should be able to offer an inside view about that.

So no matter if I may want to be an astronomer without adjectives, there are situations in which people see the adjective anyway. Even more, I would see the adjective and almost constantly feel compelled to react. Here's what actually changed that dynamic for me: It happened a few times that after a couple of months a female astronomer would join my office. The change in office conversations was immediate: whenever a gender-related topic popped up, I wasn't the only one anymore. There was someone who would pick up the ball every so often, someone I could tag-team with, and sometimes we would even have different opinions. None of us had to be the spokesperson for all women in astronomy - a job none of us had signed up for.

For me, this is one of the main reasons why I like this group picture so much: We are many. We are different. And it feels good to be aware of that.