Friday, February 25, 2011

Is Discrimination Largely a Thing of the Past?

In the February 11, 2011 issue of AASWomen, Dr. Abigail Stewart of the University of Michigan provided comments on an article, "Understanding Current Causes of Women's Underrepresentation in Science" by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. Dr. Stewart finds that these authors use their review of existing data on hiring, publishing, and funding in science research to conclude that discrimination does not exist.

Nancy Brickhouse (Associate Director Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Division Head, Solar, Stellar, and Planetary Sciences) and Andrea Dupree (Senior Astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory) bring us their thoughts on the Ceci and Williams article:

1. As Abby Stewart pointed out, there is no new data here. This is just a meta-analysis.

2. Most if not all of the studies used in the article are from the life and behavioral sciences, which are in general less math-intensive than astronomy and physics and also have better representation of women (e.g. Journal of Biogeography, Behavioral Ecology, Nature Neuroscience).

3. The article cites studies from NSF, NIH, and the Department of Agriculture. The latter 2 agencies do not primarily do math-intensive research. The percentage of math-intensive research even at the NSF is about 20% (judging by the FY2012 Budget request at the Division of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences MPS). Thus these studies are not relevant.

4. The examples from outside the US used to document their case are not relevant, since cultures, funding, child care, health care, etc are all different as well.

5. We agree with what Abby Steward wrote in AASWomen "They [reach their conclusions] mainly by focusing on whether similarly-situated men and women scientists have similar outcomes. The answer to that is yes--and that is indeed good, and perhaps not surprising. But the problem we have is actually that men and women scientists are NOT similarly situated--a point they note, but that is mostly overlooked in media accounts, perhaps because less ink is shed on it in the article."

6. Many of the set-out quotes providing "expert documentation" in the article are from other papers by the same authors.

7. Their attribution of differences in outcomes primarily to "choices" (freely made or constrained) appears to be the ticket to media attention, no surprise that it resonated with John Tierney of the NY Times Science section.

8. If discrimination no longer affects peer review for proposals and publications or hiring decisions (and we do not feel they have demonstrated this for the physical sciences), that is certainly a good thing. It means that the formal structures are working at the agencies responsible for peer reviews, at the editorial boards, and at institutions that are hiring (through Human Resource departments or oversight at the Dean's level). But there are many other forms of discrimination not addressed through formal structures. What happens in the research group meeting, between students and advisors, and in other informal work settings can have a big impact on the work climate and advancement, and this is the area where gender equity studies at some institutions (e.g. here at the CfA) show there are still many problems. See:

9. Abby Stewart also wrote that the article points to "institutional barriers... that are worth attention." We agree.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Carefree Sabbatical? Astrophysics and Nursing in a Blizzard

I’ve been determined to make it to my daughter’s first birthday without taking a major trip without her so that I could sustain our nursing relationship (major is in my mind 2+ nights away) and thus far we are on track at nearly 10.5 months. One interesting challenge presented itself recently when I visited Northwestern University during a Chicago blizzard. Northwestern is my host institution for my sabbatical year. Since, like most professionals these days, I do not actually have a portable family (we have great daycare here in Maryland and my husband has a good non-portable job), my decision was to make visits to NU during the year and conduct my sabbatical at GSFC.

Luckily on this trip I chose the “embedded daycare” model and had my mother meet me in Chicago. Last time I hired a Loyola grad student to help me with childcare but she would not have been able to make the trip to where I was in Evanston (the area of Chicago where NU is). Also fortunately my brother and sister live in Evanston, with my brother approximately 20 minutes walk away. Granted that is impossible to arrange for all trips, but I recommend having an uncle and aunt who love babies to be within walking distance if you’re traveling with a baby in a blizzard.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Coming Out of the Shadows: A Sexual Harassment Story

At the recent AAS meeting in Seattle, I was forced to confront an issue that I had hoped (unrealistically) would just fade away: sexual harassment. Although incidents occur much less frequently than in years past and every university has a policy against harassment, new victims continue to seek me out and tell me their stories. They know I'm chair of CSWA, may have attended our town hall, and might even read AASWOMEN. As much as I hate to admit it, our community appears to contain a (small) group of sexual harassers that have somehow managed to remain below the radar.

One of these young victims, who I have been mentoring for a number of months, pleaded with me to "come out" as a survivor of sexual harassment to AASWOMEN. I argued that my experience was years ago; what relevance could it have in this day and age? She insisted that knowing my story had helped her to deal with her own situation, and she argued persuasively that it would mean a lot to other victims too.

It is true that I have had at least one foot out of the shadows for a while now. Even the most superficial reading between the lines of my recent AASWOMEN posting entitled, "The Legacy of Anita Hill," will reveal that I was a victim of sexual harassment. If sharing my story could help even one young victim realize that she was not alone, would I do it? Should I?

[Note: The AAS lawyers have advised me that I might be liable if I were to reveal too many details of this experience, so I will simply refer to the individual as “the harasser” and the organization where I worked at the time as “ABC” institute/university/observatory.]

I have often felt that the term "sexual harassment" was somewhat misleading. Although there was certainly a sexual component to my relationship with the harasser, it was much more about his abuse of power. That being said, the harassment would never have occurred if I were not a woman. In fact, none of the other young astronomers (all men) at ABC faced what I faced.

At the time, I was a young astronomer in a vulnerable position and the harasser was my supervisor. Writing this summary forced me to recall several unpleasant examples of his abuse of power. One rather poignant quote that I remember vividly goes like this, "I wish I could keep you in my pocket and take you out when it's convenient."

I should have run for the hills! That reaction, however, would have meant giving up not only my job, but maybe on astronomy itself. I stayed on at ABC and tried to tough it out.

Another example of the power dynamic involved specific instructions that I was never allowed to ask questions. The implication was that my ignorance would reflect badly on the harasser. "You have to be perfect," he said to me.

No pressure there! My job was hard enough without these added complications, but things soon went from bad to worse. After the first six months, my significant other moved to ABC. In retrospect, it now seems obvious that this move triggered a major change in the precarious power dynamic that existed between the harasser and me. After all, I would no longer be spending any time in the harasser’s proverbial pocket. The harasser’s response to this new dynamic was to start putting me down at every opportunity, destroying what little confidence I had. He soon stopped talking to me and started talking about me. His gossip spread to the senior researchers/faculty/staff at ABC and eventually diffused through a segment of the astronomy community.

My time at ABC was not easy, especially after the harasser began poisoning the environment against me. I continued to show up for work, however, struggling alone with the analysis. I confess that I also battled depression. My significant other didn’t understand why I wasn’t working 24-7, why I wasn’t listening to my supervisor, in short, why I wasn’t behaving like a typical young scientist. To be honest, I didn’t understand it myself, but I’ve come to realize that I was spending a lot of my energy fighting off depression and insulating myself from the toxic environment the harasser had created at ABC. I needed a lot of sleep and a lot of downtime. I worked at ABC during normal business hours, read novels in the evening, and took weekends off.

I stumbled through the next year or so, doing analysis on my own and struggling to write up components of my work for publication. I found I could be highly focused, concentrating only on the next paper and ignoring just about everything else. I had a self imposed, very strict work schedule. If I stuck to it, I could make progress. If I tried to push it, to put in more hours or work weekends, my progress would grind to a halt. I realized that I had a choice. I could either write up my work a paragraph at a time or I could give up entirely; there seemed to be no middle ground. I chose the paragraph option, and celebrated every minor milestone. If I could finish another paragraph, then it was a good day.

One thing that eventually tipped the balance in my favor was that my research papers - the ones that I wrote a paragraph at a time - were being published. The senior researchers/faculty/staff at ABC could not think that I was as bad as the harasser said I was if my work was appearing in a prominent publication. My position at ABC ended, but unfortunately the power the harasser had over me did not. It was time to find another position. Can you imagine the job application process with a vindictive sexual harasser as one of your references?

After a round of job applications, a rumor started by my harasser got back to me. Apparently, he was bad mouthing me to potential employers. He was careful to put nothing in writing and I don't know exactly what he said to them, but I got no job offers. For the next round of applications, I did not include the harasser as a reference. I attended a winter AAS meeting with the hope of making job connections but got no interviews. I do remember running into a certain astronomer that I had known before I went to ABC. We exchanged a few words about a job I had applied for at her institute/university/observatory, but she couldn't get away from me fast enough - as if she might catch whatever I had. As I watched her walk away, I realized that I would never get another job in the branch of astronomy where I had all my training.

Fortunately, there are other objects in the universe and other bands of the spectrum. A couple of broad-minded, creative-thinking scientists at another institute/university/observatory decided that a young astronomer with my background would make a fine addition to their team. The bad news was that I had no expertise in this new astronomical sub-field and would essentially be starting over. The normal scientific momentum that any young scientist would carry from one position to the next would be completely lost. As a result, I worked for years on other people's science and co-authored many articles that my significant other refers to as my "et al and Schmelz" papers. Eventually, I worked my way back up to a position of astronomical seniority.

In a very real sense, I still live with the repercussions of the harassment experience. How much better would those original papers have been if they had been written by the team of knowledgeable coauthors rather than a lone stressed out young scientist? How much further could I have progressed as a scientist if I had not had to start over in another band of the spectrum in a completely different corner of the cosmos? It was clear that no one was going to nominate me for the Pierce Prize or the Warner Prize.

Because my harassment experience was so long ago, my only choice was to tough it out or give it up. Neither ABC nor any other institute/university/observatory had a sexual harassment policy at the time. In fact, I do not blame ABC for what happened to me; there was really nothing they could have done. The good news is that things have changed. If you are the victim of sexual harassment, please read the article on CSWA’s Advice column on sexual harassment.
One important step is to talk to someone you trust: advisor, best friend, parent, sibling, etc. You can talk to me. In fact, the argument that convinced me to come out (of this different type of closet) was that it would put me in a better position to reach out to young victims. The harassment experience can be very isolating, but you don’t have to tough it out alone. CSWA can help.

by Joan Schmelz []

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Post-Valentine's Day Heartache

I have no regrets for having had my kids during grad school. As I wrote previously, now that they are in their elementary years, parenting has gotten so much easier.

This isn't to say that there aren't perils. I don't mean the mere sick day here and there or cobbling together day care for the summer or random days off from school. I'm talking real heartbreak.

It is the nature of an academic career that it is a nomadic life. You get your PhD and you move. Three years later, you finish your postdoc and move. Repeat until you land a permanent position. Given that the average time until this happens is at least six years, and is probably even longer these days with the poor economy, it's an awful long time before you can really settle down.

The two-body problem is hard enough. When you have kids, it becomes an N-body problem, which is known to lead to chaos.

I've been fortunate in being able to spend all of my postdoc years in the same area, so I haven't had to move since for the last seven years. But now I am facing the prospect of moving clear across the country to another state. For my astronomer friends, this is par for the course. Our turbulent career paths aggregate us together for a short time before the next eddy disperses us again, only to form new aggregations elsewhere. We are sad to part, but know that we'll see each other again, if only at the next AAS Meeting.

When you have kids, though, you become a part of the local community. You become invested in the local schools and their PTAs. You make friends with the parents of their friends. You sign them up for team sports. You might even start taking karate lessons along side them. You become involved in scouts, and your spouse becomes a scout leader. When the other parents hear that you're looking for jobs on the other side of the country, they tell your spouse, "I know it's the best for her career, but we really don't want to lose you! Don't tell her I said that."

I have made very good friends here, friends that I can't count on seeing again at conferences. My kids and husband have made friends here, too. We have become a real part of the community here. Now that moving away is becoming more and more of a reality, it's become more and more heart-wrenching.

I know that given the job market out there, I should be grateful just to have the opportunity to stay in astronomy. It's just that it doesn't come without some personal costs.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Sexual Harassment: Update from Anon

[The March 26, 2010 issue of AASWOMEN contained a request for advice from an anonymous female Astronomy PhD student who was being sexually harassed by her thesis advisor. This young woman, whom we refer to as “Anon,” has come a long way since she sent that message. She has graciously provided this update of her situation. - Eds.]

To all those who gave me advice through that difficult time, I want to thank you. As is usually the case in matters like this, it got worse before it got better, but I did want to report that it is getting better. After my first message to AASWOMEN, things were put in motion that moved me out of the situation, and has meant my harasser is no longer directly supervising me. Thanks to the gargantuan efforts of some of the people I shared the dilemma with, it looks like I not only have salvaged my thesis, but that I have a very good chance of falling back in love with astronomy and am far more likely to pursue a postdoc than I was 6 months ago.

That being said, this experience has changed me, both for the better, and possibly also for the worse. I am still angry. I still find myself resenting the success and happiness that my more fortunate peers have found, wondering what might have been had my harasser not been in my life. I still feel my heart race when I see him in the hallway, or find his name appearing in my email box. I am also a lot more leery about everyone else - wondering if that new colleague or collaborator, so seemingly inert will start acting differently to me. My threshold for trusting someone is much higher than before. Just like with a flesh wound, after the damage has been mended, scars still remain, and I will forever be a different person because my advisor harassed me. At the same time, I am stronger too. My reactiveness and fear has melted away into unflappability and a complete lack of fear of rejection. I can deal with any and all in a reasoned and calm way, because I know my own personal strength, and I know that I have a safety net much larger than I ever thought possible.

One of the most special outcomes of asking for help was that before I knew it people around me were knitting a safety net for me. Every time I walked out on another ledge, by asking for the situation to be resolved, or having to parry the attacks coming my way by those who were not ready to acknowledge that a wrong had been done to me, when I looked behind me, there were always people who had my back. Sometimes it was just supportive words, sometimes anecdotes that helped me quell the frustration from the most recent harassing behavior, and sometimes it was more. People built me a safety net of mentors and advisors to ease the transition, people made phone calls and gracefully, calmly vouched for me when key players doubted my credibility, but mostly, people shared their stories. I got to witness the breadth of experiences that others had, and could gain strength from their strength. I have a mentoring blanket to protect me that was knit before my eyes. I thought I was wasting these people's times with my concerns, only to learn that even the busiest person gladly created time for me out of thin air, because they cared about me and my success. I might not be out of the woods just yet, but I now have a strong network of people who are helping me navigate away from the Big Bad Wolf and come out the other side without becoming another casualty of science. Finally I learned that harassment is one of the well kept secrets of academia, and a request for help can be met with kindness and support, as the AASWOMEN responses were for me.

So to everyone who reads AASWOMEN, I want to say thank you. You gave me a voice that I was robbed of. You confirmed something that the harasser and his enablers told me was just me being crazy. The day that things finally seemed to be working out, I made a promise. That if I am so blessed as to get to stay doing what I am doing, being an astronomer, that I would provide the same amount of support that I found from the people who supported me. Just as I learned, harassment is still going on, and the victims are scared to come forward, either because they did not think they had anyone to turn to, or because they couldn’t put their fingers on what was going on, just that they had that uncomfortable feeling when they dealt with their advisor, or a collaborator, or an instructor. The only reason I am still here is because people finally gave agency to my experience, and I thank them (and you) for that every day.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Conferences Celebrating and Advancing Women in Science

Last month my university and three others hosted simultaneous Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics. Approximately 150 students, nearly all undergraduate women, traveled to Boston for a weekend as warm inside the conference rooms as it was cold outside. It was an inspiring event and I'm grateful to the students from Yale, MIT and Harvard who organized and ran the conference. Although the conference series says "physics" in its title, many of the attendees were interested in astronomy and greatly enjoyed the astrophysical and personal perspectives given by JWST Mission Head Kathy Flanagan and Purdue University President France Cordova.

The goals of this conference series are to help female undergraduate physics majors transition to graduate studies; to foster a supportive undergraduate culture for women in physics; and to strengthen the network of women in physics. Based on my conversations with students the last four years, and my participation the last two, I believe the conference series succeeds admirably. MIT, while perhaps not fully representative, has had an increased rate of women going to graduate school after attending the conference. I have had several women tell me that contacts they made at the conferences, and encouragement they received, are responsible for them staying in the field to pursue a PhD.

Graduate school attendance marks a critical transition for women in science. Between about 20% and 40% of physics or astronomy undergraduates are female (with a few excursions to either side). The percentages in graduate school are typically half those at the undergraduate level. Many women, and some men, choose not to go to graduate school because of the perceived difficulty of balancing work and family or because of a lack of encouragement. It's important that we communicate the value of an advanced degree for many different careers -- not just the professoriate -- and that we encourage everyone to achieve their full potential.

Once women obtain their PhDs, they enjoy comparable opportunities as men for academic careers (see the NRC report Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty). Although the numbers are small, their success is often huge. Recognizing and celebrating the success of women in these fields, as well as assessing progress and identifying challenges in achieving gender equity, is the theme of a major symposium at MIT to be held March 28-29, 2011. One of a series of symposia celebrating MIT's 150th anniversary, Leaders in Science and Engineering: The Women of MIT may be of interest to many. Registration is open to anyone and we hope that the program will be of wide interest to AAS Women.

Men and women sometimes ask me why we bother holding conferences that emphasize or favor one gender. The irony of that question will be apparent to many readers. I do it because it empowers the attendees and I am one of them. In fact, I feel strongly that more men would enjoy attending and benefit from such conferences; it will help them become better mentors and scientists. At the conference for undergraduate women in physics, a speaker recounted her husband's reaction as the accompanying spouse at a conference for women in physics. He -- also a physicist -- told his wife, "As the only man among 30 women physicists, I wanted to run out of the room. Then I realized this is what you experience every day." The insight made a deep impression on the audience.

Getting Connected-- Engaging Your Institution and Community

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

You've got a group of people together, committed to a cause. You have ideas and goals, you want to blaze a trail, you want to solve problems. Anyone can plan an event, anyone can voice an opinion, so now we're down to the hard part. To be an effective organization with a voice, you need members, you need to fill a niche, you need to become a part of the fabric of your environment. Regardless of your size or intended audience, fostering relationships between your organization and the greater community is a way to ensure success.

A crucial step forward is to begin a conversation with those in positions of power. Talk to department chairs, university deans, and leaders of your community and get them invested in your cause. Show them how the goals of your organization are consistent with their goals--diversity breeds excellence. Beyond financial support, these individuals can provide ideas, contacts, and administrative resources. Their support of your cause can open doors and encourage the community. They can provide feedback on the impact of your work. And in turn, your organization enriches the academic environment and supports the community.

To extend our connection to the community beyond singular meetings with our departments and college deans, Boston University's GWISE formed an advisory board. With the goal of hearing feedback and engaging seemingly disparate portions of our community in a larger conversation, we invited those leaders to sit together for a discussion. To begin, we sat down and devised a list of people to invite-- we included influential people involved in university administration, individuals engaged in promoting STEM diversity (from other local universities or groups), female leaders in their fields-- those whose input would only help us strengthen our impact.

Once a semester, the leadership of our organization meets with our advisory board. We discuss our recent events, our future plans, and we revisit our mission. We share how our organization is benefiting the community. We talk about areas for improvement, and ask for feedback. Are we accomplishing our goals? What could we do better, and how? Are we serving our membership? How might we increase the participation of our members? We solicit ideas and collect input from a variety of viewpoints.

The key to longevity is to foster a symbiotic relationship between the organization and the community, and this advisory board meeting serves to strengthen that relationship and encourage conversations. Instead of fighting for independence or against the structure around us, we strive to work well within it-- to become an invaluable part of the community. We want to be a part of the conversation, a part of the solution, an instrument for improving the environment. The support of the individuals on the advisory board, the institution, and the community are instrumental in helping us thrive and continue working toward our goal, and hopefully, one day, making us obsolete.

*Meredith Danowski is a PhD student in Astronomy at Boston University and this is her second guest blog at the Women in Astronomy Blog. This is the second in a series where she describes her experiences with GWISE-- she discussed how to get an organization started, and she'll be back to discuss how to build partnerships to effectively provide unique programming.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

CSWA Town Hall recap

by Hannah Jang-Condell

This year's CSWA Town Hall at the Winter AAS Meeting was entitled "How Men Can Help Women in Astronomy." The idea behind this was that we cannot expect the representation of women in astronomy to get better if we rely only on the efforts of those women themselves. Moreover, it's not simply a matter of removing the overt obstacles. Rather men and women both need to take active steps toward equity to make things happen. Overall, I was quite pleased with the turnout for the Town Hall, and thought the discussion that took place was excellent.

Below, I'll repost points from the slides that Joan Schmelz, chair of the the CSWA, who led the discussion at the meeting, as well as my own notes on the discussion that followed.