Monday, July 25, 2016

An ongoing act of creation - Professional Organizations & Policy

Today I’d like to explore a question - What are professional societies for? I’m hoping this anecdote from a meeting I recently attended will help you interrogate your place in our professional societies - Who do we pay money to? Where does it go? What do you hope to get out of a group for yourself, your students, your colleagues? What role do our societies play in our larger world? 

I recently attended the SPIE (Society for Professional Industrial Engineers) Astronomical Instrumentation conference. SPIE Astro draws astronomers, but also engineers of all stripes (mechanical, optical, electrical, software, systems) from all career stages. There are a variety of tracks including observatory management, and those focusing on all varieties of earth and ground based facilities, as well as the technology that enables them.

It also an incredibly homogenous conference. I’m going to be honest, it is particularly oppressive. There is often 5-10% women in the room at any given time. Although an international conference, it is heavily Western European especially in the visible roles. It is very white. It is exhausting.

This time I attended a panel which was hosted by the AO (Adaptive Optics) community to discuss gender diversity. Much of it is news you already know, about the generally ragged state of affairs, and how various approaches have been successful in increasing diversity.

The room was 50-60% women, and much more culturally and racially diverse than any room I’d been in so far. It skewed young. It was also only about 1/3 full as it was put opposite a TMT update (and advertised as AO which people found confusing. As one colleague told me “I’m not a woman, and I don’t care about AO so *shrug*”). 

The panel opened the floor to discussion once they finished their presentations. At one point they asked for suggestions. A woman stood up and explained that she had been escorted, with her child, off the premises by a venue staff member for violating policy. She was told no strollers, and no children. 

Everyone was quite surprised. But before anyone could even respond another woman stood up and said it had happened to her. Then a man said the day before he and his child had been escorted out by four security guards.

The crowd at this point was visibly angry. To the credit of the SPIE staff present they were both contrite and attentive. The session organizer told us that he was taking notes and suggestions and would look into it. As the session wound down (it was far too short, as these things often are) I spoke with another staff member. He explained that it was, in fact, an SPIE policy, to exclude children under the age of 11. 

By the time the US woke up, I had stories from across time and space with people trying to attend SPIE events with their children and being excluded, often in a quite ham handed way. Social media did its bit, many members reached out to staff and leadership, and by Wednesday, there was an official statement from the SPIE that the policy would be suspended for the remaining days of the meeting, and the policy at fault would be reviewed for future events. (As a side note, many of us managed to find a policy on the website excluding children from the exhibition but no mention of a more general ban.) Even with the reversal, several of us encountered venue staff operating on the old rules (although with some encouragement they were dissuaded from enforcement). Work is being done to ensure this change is permanent.

In no small part, I think the pushback now comes because many astronomers are so used to the attitude at astronomy meetings (including the AAS), with children quietly attending, being swapped between attending parents, or walking off on their way to daycare. Some of us have even attended meetings where a baby or toddler has fallen asleep at an opportune time and been worn by a speaker through a talk. The work the AAS and our community has done will be a useful starting place to help change SPIE policy. As the staff said - “This is your organization, we need you to tell us how to make it work for you.”

Discussing family presence at the SPIE is only a small wedge into how to make the conference and our professional community more inclusive. But it is an illustrative example about how a legacy policy can do quite meaningful harm in a quiet way. It also was a fantastic demonstration of how as a community we can work together with our institutions to correct obvious deficiencies quickly enough to reduce that damage. And I hope it is a reminder about how even when policies do not affect us in the moment it is worth the time to speak up to make an obvious wrong right.

All of our organizations are living entities. It is important that when those entities aren’t working for us, we find our voice and speak up to fix what is broken. We can not be complacent because we have had some successes, or managed to move the ball down the field a bit.

We are currently having a conversation in the back rooms about what the roll of a professional organization is. To me, our organization has the opportunity (like with the policy on children at conferences) to set precedent and lead by example. An organization does not have to be reductive because it is composed of many of us. Use your voice and get involved with helping our organizations represent us, the members, and the community of astronomers you’d be proud to be a part of. Too many people get damaged by our silence and our fear of confrontation. Change only happens because our community rises up and makes it so.

I continue to be deeply disappointed that so many of our professional organizations are shying away from a simple statement of support for our Black colleagues. If you’re disappointed too, make sure that your voice is being heard. For those of you that hope neutrality offers some sort of haven - your inaction is not neutral, and the harm it causes is real. If something structural causes a stumbling block for a statement such as this, perhaps it is time to question the structure we’ve built and how it might be adapted to serve us better in the future.

Here’s to the ongoing act of creating our professional organizations.


  1. Thanks for writing up this story. It's disappointing to read that SPIE has such a strange policy regarding children at the meeting (are there exhibition demonstrations that are dangerous for children or something?) but encouraging that they're reviewing it, with an eye toward changing it.

    My wife and I had a similar experience at a DPS meeting a few years ago. We purchased tickets for the opening reception and brought our toddler but were told at the door by hotel staff that no children were allowed in. My wife and I ended up taking turns sitting in the floor of the hallway with our daughter, trying to eat the food that we smuggled out of the reception (which we had paid for).

    It turned out that it was the hotel's mistake and that DPS did not have a ban on children at their receptions -- it was just not communicated to the hotel. DPS kindly refunded one of our tickets.

    It seems these kinds of stories are opening people's eyes, and hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, children at professional meetings will not seem unusual at all.

  2. It is so important to speak out about needs, challenges, and priorities -- communication such as the comments shared in Edinburgh with conference organizers of SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation and with staff of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, will help inform policies and practices going forward. Thank you to Sarah and everyone else who initiated this conversation via various discussions at SPIE Astro on gender equity and family-friendly events.