Today’s bloggers are Joan Schmelz (me!), Program Officer at NSF, Physics Professor at the University of Memphis, Chair of CSWA, and soon-to-be Deputy Director of Arecibo Observatory; Dara Norman, Research Astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Visiting Faculty Fellow at Howard University, AAS Council Member, and Alum of CSMA; and Van Dixon, Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, and Chair of WGLE.
Mentoring Women: advice from Joan Schmelz
Those of us that work to make the astronomy community a more diverse place can learn from the old playbook of the senior white men who mentored a generation of junior white women, say 20 years ago. Many of these men had the best of intentions; many even hoped to make the world of astronomy a better place for their own daughters to grow up in. Some used the model of the father-daughter relationship to form the basis of the interactions they would have with their female students. Sometimes it worked – support, direction, and respect are all good components that can transfer from one dynamic to the other. Sometimes it didn’t work – hugging, love, and discipline are all components that are tricky to apply to the professional environment.
For those of us who do have the best of intentions, how do we navigate the diverse mentoring challenges of modern day astronomy? What can we learn from the last generation who helped white women break into the field and achieve success in numbers that now approach parity? I ask myself what advice I would have given to a well-intentioned senior white man about mentoring young women in astronomy (if one had bothered to ask, that is) back when I was a junior astronomer? Here are three simple things that any potential mentor could have done:
1. First, do no harm.
Don’t tell sexist jokes. You should never make insulting or condescending remarks about women as a group. Hint: if you think it could be insulting or condescending, it probably is. If you are a professor, be careful what you say in front of your class or to your advisees. Address both your colleagues and your students with respect. Don’t propagate old-fashioned ideas like women are too emotional or not logical enough to do science. You should never entangle your professional life with your personal life by asking your students out for coffee, beer, or dinner. Don’t touch your students on the arm or shoulder. Never hug or kiss your students. This may seem obvious and, indeed, it should be. But think of how different it might have been if everyone in the astronomy community had behaved in a professional manner. Sexual harassment and sexual discrimination would never have exploded into such damaging issues!
2. If you see something, say something.
You should push back, even if it’s uncomfortable, when colleagues or students tell sexist jokes, comment on a woman’s appearance, or engage in behavior that boarders on sexual harassment. Think back to when it was "common knowledge" that "women can’t do science. Remember when women were only admitted to elite university departments to "meet a quota" or because of "affirmative action?" No one wants to feel like a second class citizen. Remember when old white guys commented on a tight sweater or a short skirt? No one wants to feel like a piece of meat. Help create an environment where everyone is treated like a professional.
3. Encourage young talent.
The next time you attend an AAS meeting, seek out young women at the poster sessions and talk to them about their work. Don’t hit on them, invade their personal space, or make stupid jokes. If their subfield is different from yours, do your homework ahead of time. Engage them in a professional conversation and help them feel like they belong to the community. A series of friendly but professional conversations about research can go a long way toward convincing a young scientist that she belongs in the field.
Mentoring Minorities: advice from Dara Norman
The suggestions below assume that the reader already understands the most important rule of interacting with students, colleagues and people: Don’t be a jerk (or worse)! That is, keep your appointments and apologize when you can’t; thank people for things they do for you; ask nicely, etc. You know, things your parents told you to do! Minority students don’t want to be singled out, they want to be treated respectfully and well … like everyone else.
4. Don’t just mentor… Sponsor!
To advance in the field, ones’ science is important but it is not enough. Achieving "insider status" for senior students and early career researchers requires career building activities like invitations to give talks, serving on TACs and other committees, refereeing papers, and being introduced to a collaborative effort. Be that mentor/colleague who recommends and sponsors newcomers.
5. Engage scientifically, but sometimes ask how things are going.
Grad school and early career years come with significant challenges both scientifically and personally. Everyone wants to be engaged and recognized for the science they are doing, but take some time to ask, "How are things going?" or "Are you adjusting OK?". Open ended questions allow a person to answer as much or little as they see fit and lets them know that you are interested in their well-being as well as their work.
6. Acknowledge what YOU receive from mentoring.
Mentoring offers the opportunity to engage with students and early career researchers … that often have more time than you (to read papers, identify new trends, etc.) and who may approach scientific topics from a different perspective. It is also a way to give back to the community and, if we face facts, can be an ego boost! Acknowledge, at least personally, if not also to your protégé, that you are getting something from your mentoring/advising relationships. This promotes mutual respect and the ultimate goal: support of a colleague. (Be careful not to go too far though, remember this is not about you!)
Mentoring LGBTIQ Students: advice from Van Dixon
Even if you consider your department to be a safe and welcoming space, your students may perceive it differently. A 2003 study of campus climate found that, while 90% of heterosexual students rated their campus climate as friendly, 74% of LGBTIQ students labeled those same campuses as homophobic. As a teacher, you can have a tremendous influence on your students, providing support, encouragement, and a safe port in a stormy time of life. Here are some tips for getting started.
7. Attend Safe Zone training.
Many well-meaning faculty want to support their LGBTIQ students, but don't know how. What if I say the wrong thing? How can I help my students deal with coming out? Bullying? Transitioning? What does LGBTIQ actually mean? Fear not. Help is available. Your campus probably has an office of LGBT life that offers Safe Zone training. If not, your community has an LGBT center. Give them a call and take the class. Be sure to ask about your university’s policy toward and procedure for reporting harassment, as lesbian and gay students are more likely to report these incidents to their faculty than to anyone else. Afterwards, be sure to post that Safe Zone sticker on your door. Even if no one ever talks to you about it, you have created a safe space where LGBTQ individuals can relax and concentrate on their science.
8. Help your students to build community.
Imagine that you are a gay physics major. Your gay friends are all humanities or social science majors. Your physics friends are all… well, mainly interested in physics. What to do? Fortunately, Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM) has more than 50 chapters across the country. Check to see if your campus has a chapter, and, if not, encourage your students to start their own. For graduate students or faculty, the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) provides mentoring, networking, and advocacy. Their national conference is called Out to Innovate.
9. Increase LGBTIQ visibility in your department.
Include your university's non-discrimination policy in course syllabi and recruitment materials. When prospective students visit, discuss inclusiveness in your department and community and the resources available to LGBTIQ students on campus. When interviewing prospective faculty, offer to connect all candidates with whatever campus resources/groups they might find interesting, including minority, LGBTIQ, or women's groups. Invite willing and out students, faculty and staff to take on mentoring roles in the department. When an openly LGBTIQ colleague gives a scientific talk on campus, arrange for him or her to meet with the local oSTEM chapter or the local LGBT student club.