As we strive to make astronomy a true meritocracy, one challenge is to convince those with power that we still have work to do. If we want to build our community into one that looks more like America, one possible strategy is to convert those with privilege into allies for the cause. But what does one do to convince a potential ally to stop simply lounging on the sidelines? One possible tactic is to provide a budding supporter with some tools to help him/her get up and get in the game.
An example of a helpful tool is the Diversity Checklist. I first saw a version of the list in a PowerPoint presentation given by my NSF colleague, Lynnette Marsden, a program officer from the Division of Materials Research. Lynnette and I served together on the NSF Math and Physical Sciences Broadening Participation Working Group.
This list is geared specifically toward women, but it could be adopted easily to apply to any other underrepresented group. Here’s the version I now use in my Unconscious Bias talks. I pared the basic list down to fit smugly on a single PowerPoint slide, but for this post, I’ve added some hopefully-helpful notes under each item.
1. Do I encourage women to follow their interests in terms of education and career path?
Some young women, especially those in underrepresented minority communities, are still channeled by teachers, guidance counselors, and parents on to career tracks that are traditionally female – nurse instead of doctor, teacher instead of professor, or social worker instead of psychiatrist. Many of their role models may also be in these traditional positions. An ally can help counterbalance these powerful social stereotypes by introducing young women to the full spectrum of career choices.
2. Do I mentor junior women?
A 2014 study revealed that senior male professors in biology, especially those who have prestigious awards or are members of the National Academies, train a significantly smaller percentage of female graduate students and postdocs than their female or junior colleagues. These results sent CSWA’s Ed Bertschinger back to search his own professional history. He blogged about the results in Elite Male Faculty Employ Fewer Women.
3. Do I seek advice from senior women?
This item on the check list can be more challenging because of the shortage of senior women in physics and astronomy. Why bother to take the extra time to seek out senior women when it is so much easier to find a variety of senior men to talk to, all with their own advice to share? Checking this item off the list can often take a conscious effort, but it is such an important component of becoming a true ally.
4. Do I ensure I am fairly assessing all applicants for new positions, promotions, etc.?
This is where we all need to be aware of our own unconscious biases. It is so easy to let biases sneak in to an assessment of resumes, job credentials, or proposals. Biases affect fellowship, hiring, and award selection. Promotions and careers can be negatively impacted. Always second guess yourself and your colleagues. Make sure that your decisions are grounded solidly in the data available. For more on unconscious bias, review the eye-opening studies from sociology.
5. Do I include women in lunches, gatherings, and technical discussions?
Some potential allies might resist this suggestion because they fear that their invitation might be misinterpreted – a date rather than a working lunch, a rendezvous rather than a business meeting, an intimate chat rather than a technical discussion. There are easy ways to eliminate these potential misunderstandings. Send group invitations and always act professionally toward your colleagues. For more advice, check Diversity 101: Nine Simple Steps to a More Diverse Astronomical Community.
6. Do I listen to women’s opinions in meetings and do I show support for their ideas?
Almost every woman I know has been in this situation: she sitting in a meeting and makes what she thinks is a great suggestion; she’s ignored. Ten minutes later, a guy makes a similar suggestion and everyone thinks it's just the greatest idea. What’s going on? If you find that you are the one doing the ignoring, train yourself to focus when a woman speaks. This take awareness and effort. If you notice others doing this, find a way to redirect attention back to the woman who made the original suggestion. Check out ADVICE: Being Ignored in a Meeting for more suggestions.
7. Do I help ensure that our work space and rules accommodate women’s needs?
The easiest way to check on this is to ask local women. This part should be obvious, but I’ll state it explicitly anyway – ask in a respectful and professional manner.
8. Do I nominate women for awards/recognitions?
For a very long time, I know that the answer to this question was no, at least for the AAS Russell and Heinemann Prizes, the awards for senior and mid-career astronomers. I know because for years (and years) no women won these prestigious awards! So I put together a clandestine group of astronomers that I affectionately refer to as the Prize Patrol. We started nominating women for these top awards. We can’t claim every success, but you can take a look at the recent results and judge for yourself. This is just one example of how a small deliberate effort can reap big rewards.
9. Do I suggest women as invited speakers, co-organizers, etc.?
This is another case where unconscious bias can affect your results. Take a look at CSWA’s data on Percentages of Conference Invited Speakers Who Are Women. Here is some blog advice from an anonymous colleague: (a) if the first 5 names you come up with happen to be male, challenge yourself to write down 5 female names; (b) make sure the final list of invited speakers is representative of the community; and (c) don’t expect only the female colleagues on the committee to suggest female names.
10. Do I congratulate women on their successes?
This one is easy – just do it!
A potential ally might look at this list and check off numbers 1 and 2, but then snag on 3. Another might be proud to admit that he/she and done at least half of these things – once. But the trick to becoming a successful ally is to all these things all the time. When this check list morphs from a crutch, reminding one to do the right thing, to a routine, where these activities become second nature, then an ally has truly been born.