Thursday, February 28, 2019

Does your conference spark joy? Two days at Women in Space 2019

Group photo from Women in Space 2019
By Adeene Denton

Adeene Denton is a Presidential Fellow pursuing her PhD at Brown University in planetary geoscience, with a focus on early martian climatic and geologic history as well as basin formation on Pluto. She is both a scientist and a historian focused on approaching future planetary exploration from a scientific and humanistic perspective.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series of recaps of the Women in Space conference. Each will feature the viewpoint of someone at a different career stage.

On February 7 and 8, 2019, I returned to the Women in Space conference for its second year of programming. In its inaugural outing in Toronto, I found Women in Planetary Science and Exploration (as it was then called) to be a conference experience unlike any other. Scientists, engineers, humanities scholars, and educators were all welcomed to the space as valued contributors to our discussion. Now in its second year and in a new venue in Scottsdale, Arizona, Women in Space has grown and improved while continuing to be one of the only conferences of its kind: a conference where the experiences of women and non-binary people dictate the programming, rather than having programming made for us by an institution that bears us only a passing, cursory interest. And while no conference is ever perfect, I’m here not to critique Women in Space, but to praise it. I want to talk about the critical things it’s getting right, because it’s the only conference I’ve attended that has done so.

How did Women in Space succeed where many better-funded conferences have failed? Maybe it’s because it’s a conference run by two women who understand and respect the people they’re trying to serve. In my experience, many diversity-focused initiatives have congratulated their attendees for simply existing – we’ve solved diversity in space exploration, simply by making it this far! But, as one attendee stated during one of the conference’s candid panel discussions, actually making progress on these issues means “cultivating relationships between people, not meeting a quota.” At Women in Space, we celebrated our successes that led us here, while also discussing the failures of academia, industry, and society that have isolated us from each other for so long.

In a field that purports to be a logic-based meritocracy, diversity and inclusion initiatives are often viewed by the dominant group (cis, heterosexual white men) with the polite distaste of a butler viewing a party guest who’s not in the dress code: sure, it’s nice that you’re here, but do you really have to be so public about it? Faced with attitudes like these, many women – myself included – have struggled with balancing the science we want to achieve with the unconcealable fact of who we are. It’s tiring to be The Woman; it’s a burden none of us asked for, and it’s hard to be proud of being a woman in science when the role comes with no benefits (but people being angry with us on Twitter comes free!). We want to be seen for our contributions first; I’ve spent years being hyper-focused on how I can best perform the role of “scientist” so that the fact of my femininity will be overlooked. Many of us have done so, because we’ve felt we had to – not just to succeed, but to survive. That’s the transformative power of the Women in Space conference: when the room is full of women and non-binary people, the pressure on us dissipates. None of us has to be The Woman, because our voices fill the room. And when that pressure’s gone, a sudden, irrepressible joy is there to take its place.

The programming of Women in Space is unique. It successfully blends social science, hard science and engineering, education, and career development-based topics with the confidence of a conference that knows all these things really are connected. Talented planetary scientists were invited to speak both on their scientific research and on the extra work they’ve put into inclusion initiatives. It’s hard to explain just how powerful this is; for most of us, diversity and inclusion work is often undervalued by our institutions and requires extra effort on top of the work we do as scientists and engineers. At Women in Space, the oral presentation sessions, panel discussions, and poster session were all structured to celebrate both as necessary, valuable labor. All speakers, myself included, were encouraged to minimize jargon and maximize understanding in our talks; over two days, all the talks I saw took full advantage of their interdisciplinary audience. Presentations ran the gamut from the dynamic evolution of the solar system (Alysa Obertas, U. Toronto), the physical characteristics of sand grains in the dunes north of Flagstaff (Annette Sunda, USGS), and how to build a to-scale model of the Mars rover Curiosity out of string, wire, and some tape (Sarah Lamm, NAU), all conveyed with the clarity and enthusiasm of people who know that science cannot be appreciated by your audience if it cannot be understood.

I cannot overstate the power of being in a conference full of people that want to be there. As Dr. Darlene Lim from NASA Ames said in her keynote, the “remarkable lack of pretense” in the talks and discussions from Women in Space gave presenters and attendees the freedom to admit that we love what we do. At her grant-writing workshop, Dr. Christina Richey from JPL reminded us a la Marie Kondo that our research can and should spark joy. In the science and engineering sessions, speakers proved that it is indeed possible to convey “I have done important science that has moved the field forward” as well as “Isn’t this so cool?!” without the loss of credibility that so many of us are told we’ll have. The tone of the conference rejected the ego-driven “hero mode” of performative science, a pervasive phenomena Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton identified in her keynote, in favor of a more realistic, collaborative truth.

The lack of pretense at Women in Space extended beyond the science and engineering presentations into candid discussions about the past, present, and future of the space exploration community. In her work to find the women obscured by previous iterations of Canadian space exploration history, Dr. Stefanie Ruel, a space agency life scientist turned social scholar, reminded us that history is invented – and can just as easily be rewritten as we get closer and closer to the truth. And that matters for how we choose to shape an ethical, inclusive future: as Dr. Jennifer Grier stated, we need to rethink our entire concept of space exploration if we’re going to find a future in which everyone could have a place. There is something powerful in a group of people publicly acknowledging the faults in the system they serve, including how they’ve affected us personally and professionally. I am rarely in a space, either at a conference or within my own institution, where people feel safe to critique space exploration’s flaws, since at the end of the day we still want to get jobs in the field. Women in Space provided an environment where we were safe to be frustrated with the slow plod of progress, as well as to revel in the incremental successes we’ve helped to make.

In addition to robust keynote speeches, oral presentations, and a wonderful poster session, Women in Space succeeded in organizing a number of constructive, candid panel discussions distributed throughout the programming. I heard from and participated in panels on alternative career paths beyond academia, finding a work-life balance, the continued problem of sexual harassment, LGBTQ issues, and continuing to take action on diversity and inclusion initiatives. Women and non-binary people embraced the nonlinearity of their career paths, acknowledged the imposter syndrome that plagues them despite years of successes, and reminded us that we cannot do our jobs if we’re not taking care of ourselves. We reminded each other that we deserve to find the spaces in space exploration where our skillsets and our passions overlap. While these statements may sound trite out of context, in a room full of women and non-binary people, all of whom have struggled with the immense expectations placed on us to succeed, these statements felt revolutionary. When confronted with a culture that demands constant work, it is courageous to say that we deserve to have rich lives beyond our research; moreover, it is immensely satisfying to be in a room full of people nodding along because they agree.

Women in Space brought women, non-binary people, and their allies together, and the end result was a powerfully transformative atmosphere. I spoke to people at all stages in their career who felt safe in a way that conferences rarely are; as a result, we were empowered to ask more questions and engage deeper with topics of discussion. If nothing else, I am thankful to Women in Space for giving me the chance to stand in front of a room full of amazingly talented people and ask them “Do you want to see some more pictures of Mars?” I will never forget the way they cheered.