Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Women in STEM Organizations- Getting Started

Post by guest-blogger Meredith Danowski*, PhD student in Astronomy at Boston University.

The day-to-day work of science can be difficult. There are grant proposals to be written, courses to be taught, data to be analyzed. But that's the stuff we came for! That's what we do. It's when we encounter other roadblocks on our path--juggling family and work, finding adequate health care, fostering our own professional development-- that we realize we need friends, we need a community, and we need supportive institutions.

Many organizations dedicated to the cause of women in STEM are designed to address this need - not to ease one individual's struggles, rather to act as an incubator for a more diverse and supportive community. I have been lucky enough to have been involved in the founding years of two such groups-- the Society of Women in Physics (SWiP) at the University of Michigan, and most recently, the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWISE) group at Boston University.

In a time when the numbers are improving, many people ask why these groups are necessary. I mean, we're aware that there's a lack of diversity in science, right? Outright discrimination might be rare, but unconscious bias is pervasive, family leave policies are lacking or inconsistent, and mentoring and community greatly improve one's chance for success. While things are definitely looking up, we still have work to do. So why not work to build a community that strives for these goals?

Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." GWISE at Boston University started in 2008 with a few people in a room and a conversation. It began with a small group of women concerned about their professional development, bias in their departments, and parental leave policies at the university. They were looking for a community, and there wasn't one, so they built it.

A few conversations led to a discussion with the dean. The group set up a luncheon and invited women in STEM from across the university to gauge interest. A few months later, they made a list of goals: a mission statement. They borrowed from other organizations and devised an executive board structure. They found an advisor.

Two years later, GWISE is thriving. With a board of graduate students across STEM disciplines, faculty and staff advisors, and a board of advisors from the Boston area, we work to provide professional development programming, opportunities for mentoring and networking, social events, outreach activities, and we work with the administration on policies and practices. Our events vary in size and reach anywhere from 10-100+ people. We brainstorm, borrow ideas, and partner with other organizations to effectively reach the community.

So if you're looking to start up a group for women in astronomy/physics/STEM at your institution, what should you do? Invite some allies for coffee. Discuss any issues you've encountered, discuss institutional policies, and determine if you have a critical mass of people who can devote the time necessary- maybe invite the biologists and engineers, too! Once you're there, make a list of goals and priorities. You might have great leave policies, but few chances for professional development, or a lack of a social community. Maybe you want to start an official mentoring program. Put together some information and make an appointment with a department chair or a dean and see if you can obtain some preliminary funding - showing your events/activities will improve the environment goes a long way.

And it all starts with just a small group of dedicated individuals.

*Meredith Danowski is a PhD student in Astronomy at Boston University and this is her first guest blog at the Women in Astronomy Blog. This is the first in a series where she describes her experiences with GWISE-- she'll be back to discuss how to find & utilize institutional and community support for your organization, and how to build partnerships to effectively provide unique programming.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Milk at the Seattle American Astronomical Society Meeting

So I was able to bring my 9.5 month old daughter to Seattle to the American Astronomical Society meeting last week. I think I can summarize the entire experience by saying that it was really nice to not have to worry about how I was going to incorporate caring for my daughter, and specifically maintaining breastfeeding, into the conference. This was possible due to the on-site childcare sponsored by the society and a “breastfeeding room” reserved by the very capable AAS staff.

It wasn’t without some slight hang-ups as I was a bit frazzled in my preparations for this very busy meeting, especially considering that I was staying with a relative of my husband’s that week (the slightly longer commute was more than compensated for by easy access to a washer and dryer as well as a completely separate room for the baby). I walked into the conference hall on the first morning to ask about the location of the on-site childcare (yes, I am very sure someone must have told me ahead of time but I was more concerned about being ready for the science sessions). It turns out that the on-site childcare was at the Sheraton across the street. This is obviously very good for the vast majority of conference attendees who are staying in the conference hotel but it took me by surprise (hey, I printed 12 copies of the agenda for the high energy astrophysics executive committee meeting, who had time to look this stuff up?). I guess I was expecting a little cage full of babies among the book vendors or something (the Sheraton was perhaps more logical?). We found it and got Anya dropped off.

Once we had that worked out though it was really wonderful. I was able to stop in to nurse Anya at midday, carry her around the poster hall (she loves lanyards apparently), take her to a lunchtime session on how men can help women in astronomy (until she woke up, I even breast-fed her in the back of the room!) and then after putting her in the daycare for the afternoon breast-fed her once more before returning her to my husband so I could attend my late night executive committee dinner (the day finished at 11PM Seattle time).

The AAS was even good enough to arrange for a breastfeeding room. The AAS staff were not entirely thrilled with it, nor was I (it was a converted coat room for the coat check, kind of grungy) but it met the important basic requirements: proximity to the meeting (it was immediately outside the poster hall, perfect!) and privacy (hey, there are no windows in coat closets, perfect!). Once again, if you are going to pump on the road, bring those Medela wipes in case you are pumping milk around coat closet dust bunnies.

So, I think it went well. I’m grateful that our community is open-minded enough to have on-site childcare and breastfeeding rooms.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Elementary Parenting

Happy New Year!

The 217th AAS Meeting is getting under way here in Seattle. Lots of cool science going on here,
and several excellent sessions sponsored by the CSWA, too. (see here for more info)

My kids saw me off at the airport yesterday, and I don't know if I've gotten them really used to my frequent travel schedule or if they're just naturally callous, but there was hardly any fuss. The younger kid, in fact, whined quite a bit about being dragged all the way to the airport to say goodbye to me instead of, I don't know, watching TV or something.

Suffice it to say that balancing my career with having elementary school age children is a completely different game from when they were babies. Ann has made some terrific posts about her own experience, and I know that back then, I would have found her advice invaluable. Still, those early years of parenting are but memories that I can look back on with some nostalgia now. It was tough, but I got through it, and now I can tell funny and/or horrifying stories about it. Not unlike a sorority/fraternity hazing or boot camp, I suppose.

You don't hear much discussion about balancing work and family after the early years. That's because it's much easier. I'm blessed with children free from significant medical, emotional, or mental issues. I can count on getting a full night's sleep on a regular basis. Since my kids are in public school, my child care costs are a whole lot less. There are excellent in-school programs that I can rely on to care for my kids after school, on snow days, and even some school vacation days. Heck, I can even assign chores to my kids to make dinner time and morning getting-ready times a lot easier on myself.

Still, I end up doing a lot of chauffeuring, taking my kids to some activity or another. I wrote an early draft of this blog post at my kids' karate studio, for instance. There are still times when I need to drop everything to take care of a sick or hurt child, but it's not a constant drain on me the way sleep deprivation is. And of course, whenever I travel, like right now, I depend on my spouse to pick up a lot of slack in my absence.

I'm enjoying these elementary school years while they last. My kids are now real people that I can have real conversations with. Still, it won't be long before my kids will be teenagers, and then I may well have to kiss my reliable nights of sleep goodbye. For now, I'll go enjoy the AAS Meeting, confident that my family can get by without me, and maybe by the end of the week they'll actually miss me.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Dealing with an Unsupportive Department Chair

Last month, following my blog Preparing Department Chairs to Advance Gender Equity, a colleague asked, "What do you do when your own department chair thinks there are no bias or diversity issues in the department?" This is a tough question for which I seek advice from others. Here are a few of my own thoughts; they are intended to be from the perspective of someone not in the old-boy's club of the department, although they are informed by my experience as a department chair.

First, I would ask the chair to meet with a group of concerned faculty -- this presupposes that such a group can be formed (in other word, seek allies!). All chairs should be willing to meet with faculty about concerns, whether they be teaching or committee assignments or student problems. Bias, climate, and a lack of diversity are certainly issues any chair should be prepared to hear about. If the chair is unwilling to meet about this, I would go up the administrative ladder to a dean or vice provost for diversity to express concerns that the chair is unwilling to listen.

Assuming next that the chair is willing to meet but is dismissive of concerns, I would ask the chair what he or she is most concerned about and to consider how bias and the absence of diversity relate to those concerns. Most chairs should be concerned about student enrollments; recently several physics departments nationwide have been or are in the process of being shut down because of declining majors. Neglecting concerns about diversity and bias is harmful to student morale, it hurts recruiting, and it misses an opportunity to show positive leadership for change. Ask the chair to talk with chairs of other departments elsewhere that are flourishing, for example those that are attracting so many students including women that classrooms are overflowing. I cite two: Florida International University and my own MIT. (This year we expect to graduate more than 100 physics bachelors degrees, of which about 40% are projected to go to women.) This past year, faculty from two universities approached me with concerns about plummeting student enrollments in their departments due, at least in part, to poor climates. In one case the chair was concerned and ready to listen to diversity issues.

If the chair is still unwilling to acknowledge concerns, I might ask him/her to consider inviting an independent committee (e.g. a CSWP Climate Site Visit committee) to assess the department. Also, I would team up with colleagues from other departments at the university for support and advice. Many universities have Women in Science and Engineering groups. If not, gather allies and start one!

I realize that all of this may be insufficient to stimulate change. However, your efforts are an investment in the future. The chair will change and a new chair should be exposed to concerns about bias, climate and diversity before taking over. Some men, in particular, really do care and want to do the right thing but need encouragement to believe they can make a difference. I'll be happy to add to your encouragement there; promoting diversity in my university and beyond helps improve the environment for everyone.

Does anyone have direct experience or thoughts they would like to share? Please do!