Tuesday, August 30, 2011

To travel with the kid or without, this is always a big question.

Every mother has her own unique path through navigating career and parenting. I am sure that many women maintaining a career while caring for children struggle with the issue of professional travel. Up until now, my nursing relationship with my child dictated (for me) that I take her with me, but now I am finding I can get away with a few days away and frankly, she is now running and napping slightly less. At 17 months, she isn’t the portable person she used to be.

So, I have just decided recently that I am not bringing my daughter with me at all to the AAS High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) meeting. I had thought that I would spend the first three and a half days of the meeting running around like mad (I am an elected officer), attending sessions and meeting with people on all my breaks. On day four I was going to meet my husband at the airport to bring the family to the meeting. I’ve been traveling a lot recently, and bringing my daughter with me (as I type, the kid is in my office taking paper out of my recycling bin, we’re headed out to the Metro station soon to head to Chicago). I am that person on the DC Metro with the toddler in the backpack, two bags over her shoulders and one larger roller bag headed for National airport.

Ironically, I am part of the executive committee that brought childcare grants to HEAD to help people travel with their children. I realize that a $400 grant is just a step in the right direction as the full cost is much greater and is not measured purely in financial terms. One of my colleagues told me “no one should expect raising kids to be free.” I certainly didn’t expect that, but I think before I had kids I didn’t realize the impact of traveling with (or without!) a kid. You still have to pay the daycare back home in either case. If you leave the kid behind, chances are you return to an exhausted spouse after having exhausted yourself at a conference/review/etc. If you take the kid with you, just try going out to dinner.

Okay, it is possible to go out to dinner. One option is of course that you bring a family member with you (my mother-in-law and my parents have both been wonderful about traveling with me) but generally if you are spending all day in the meeting/review/etc. you may not want to ditch your family member and your child in the evenings every evening as well. You might have one negotiated evening out, and to be clear, the negotiation is as much with your conscience as with any family member.

Those dinners out are of course very important. We all know this, but I think when you suddenly can’t go out as freely at night you really realize the impact. Let’s include happy hours too. Oh heck, let’s throw in coffee breaks. When I travel with the kid, I generally am spending all those breaks checking back in with the kid and the caretaker. Many of the most important discussions at a conference occur during those casual interaction times. There is a cost associated with missing this informal interaction time that is difficult to quantify.

Granted, there is a cost in missing your kid too. I do like my daughter. She giggles when I do silly things like chase her around the house or hold up a scarf in front of my face. She is now attempting to put her own shoes on and says the word “shoe”. At 17 months she still nurses a few times a day, which is a peaceful connection between us (that also transfers protein, antibodies and hydrating liquid!) that both of us enjoy. When I travel, I often end up dumping a bit of that liquid gold down the sink after pumping, a true waste (but it isn’t practical to carry back more than 48 hours worth of milk currently).

However, for the first time in those 17 months (17.5 by the time I make the trip), I find I “need” to have 4 days to just be an astronomer and do my job. I will check in via Skype. I will miss her. I’ll return before the last session ends.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Genesis of CSWA

The Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) was created in June 1979 by the AAS council. The events that led to its formation are described in detail in an article by former CSWA chair, Sue Simkin, in "The American Astronomical Society's First Century" (Simkin 1999). According to Simkin, the status quo was challenged in 1971 when Margaret Burbidge refused to accept the Cannon Prize because "the prize, available only to women, was in itself discriminatory." The council's response was to set up a committee, the "Special Committee on the Cannon Prize," which not only dealt with this issue but also recommended that the AAS review the status of women in astronomy.

In May 1972, the council set up the "Working Group on the Status of Women in Astronomy," which consisted of a large number of volunteers. The steering committee included Anne Cowley (Chair), Roberta Humphreys, Beverly Lynds, and Vera Rubin. Their report was presented to the council in Dec 1973 and published in BAAS in 1974 (Cowley et al. 1974). The statistics contained in the report indicated that the percentage of women in the AAS was the lowest that it has been in the history of the Society. In addition, women were underrepresented as AAS officers, committee members, prize recipients, invited speakers, session chairs, and journal editors.

Despite the findings of the 1974 report, the council waited till Jun 1978 to appoint an ad hoc "Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy." This committee included Martha Liller (Chair), Anne Cowley, Paul Hodge, Frank Kerr, and Nancy Morrison. Their update of the 1974 report concluded that "the status of women (in the AAS) has changed very little since 1973" and recommended that "the Council authorize the appointment of a standing Committee on the Status of Women." Their report was published in BAAS in 1980 (Liller et al. 1980).

CSWA was established in June 1979 with Anne Cowley (Chair), Frank Kerr, Martha Liller, Bruce Margon, and Catherine Pilachowski. Their charge, to "Recommend to the Council practical measures that the AAS can take to improve the status of women in astronomy and encourage their entry into this field," was adopted by the council in Jun 1980.

In advance of the unveiling of our new ‘History’ web page, we have compiled what we think is a complete list of CSWA alums:


Thanks to all the alums for their excellent work in building CSWA into the organization it is today. We do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants!

Cowley, A. et al. 1974, BAAS, 6, 413
Liller, M. et al. 1980, BAAS, 12, 624
Simkin, S. 1999 in "The American Astronomical Society's First Century" (American Institute of Physics/Springer Verlag) - David DeVorkin editor.

From: Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Census: Women in Astronomy/Science Groups

This post is the sixth in a series on starting up and supporting a Women in Astronomy/Science group at your university or national lab. Click here, here, and here for previous posts by guest-blogger Meredith Danowski and here for my post on the AAS Spring panel discussion on this topic.

Recently a friend asked for advice on creating a website for the WOWSAP (Women of Wisconsin Strengthening Astronomy and Physics) mentoring and networking group at UW-Madison*. She wondered if there were websites for other Women in Astronomy/Science groups she could model hers on.

In responding to her, I thought I’d send the response out into the ether as well. Seeing the events and types of support these groups provide and the topics of discussion they focus on has given us many an idea for our own endeavors.

With that in mind, if you notice any groups, including those without websites, that I’ve missed (of which there are surely many), PLEASE let me know. The info is very useful to us at the CSWA, and I’ll post the final list at our resources link for all to access.

Women in Astronomy Groups:

  • UC-Boulder
  • University of Arizona (website?)
  • CfA
  • NASA (Women@NASA is a great site for EPO, but is there an internal group?)

Women in Physics & Astronomy Groups

Women in Physics Groups

(Many universities have Women in Physics/Science groups, but these websites provide more than just name and bylaws).

Women in Science Groups

Working Groups

*A few years ago a group of intrepid, goat-loving grad students founded WOWSAP, basing it on the UofAz group. It’s a pleasure to see that it continues to serve the department today, because of a few energetic and dedicated women grad students.

From: L. Trouille

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why the AAS Needs the CSWA

I’ve spent some time this summer compiling information on the History of CSWA (more on that in the weeks to come). During this historical journey, I reread some of the old issues of the STATUS magazine and come across an article in the Oct 1987 issue written by then CSWA chair (and current AAS VP) Lee Anne Willson entitled, “Why the AAS Needs the CSWA.”

This is a topic that comes up every once in a while, and Lee Anne’s thoughtful and articulate summary is well worth reading. She summarizes five points:

- provides increased visibility to the community of women astronomers;
-monitors the AAS policies and publications to prevent bias;
-collects and distributes information on careers in astronomy;
-provides a channel for complaints concerning discriminatory policies or practices; and
-promotes discussion and sharing of ideas concerning the extra complications associated with the combination of an astronomical career with the other obligations.

To read more:


I was a newly minted PhD when this article came out in 1987, and in some ways, CSWA is still working on the same issues. Should we be discouraged because we have not made more progress? No! I feel that my career in astronomy has now been long enough to have personally witnessed real progress. Although sexual harassment and discrimination still exist, the number of incidents has waned significantly. It is true that this progress has uncovered a new set of problems, e.g., unconscious bias and astronomical bullying, but we are developing methods to deal with these as well. As I happily cram as much science as possible into what is left of the summer, I realize that I am grateful to Lea Anne and all the other CSWA members who went before me and made it possible for me to do the astronomy I love so much. A full list of all those members going back to the founding of CSWA (and before) is coming soon. Stay tuned!

From: Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How to encourage more girls to enter science?

Women earn the majority of college degrees in the U.S. and, since 2009, the majority of doctorates. This is not the case in astronomy or physics. Why are we different?

The American Institute of Physics has studied the enrollments of girls and boys in high school physics classes and AP exams in a recent report. Physics is important preparation for STEM degrees. The good news is that the percentage of girls taking high school physics has grown more rapidly than for boys. The bad news is that fewer girls are electing to take AP Physics and even fewer are electing to take the AP exams. As AIP authors Susan White and Casey Langer Tesfaye note, "To examine why, we would need to look at factors which impacted these students before their final years of high school. Did something in the earlier science curriculum discourage girls from more advanced physics? Or was it the general belief, widely embraced in our culture, that girls just don’t 'do' hard sciences?"

Although we may not know the answers, I think we know some of the solutions. Girls in middle school -- high school may be too late -- must be shown the value of math and science and encouraged to believe that it offers them exciting career choices. They need to see science as something cool that girls do. They need role models and mentoring. The difficulty is less in identifying solutions than in implementing them.

Here's one more need: universities need to value more the outreach efforts made by some students, postdocs, staff, and faculty to attract more young people to science and engineering. This will require the scientific profession itself to value outreach more highly. Too often it seems to be an add-on to research grants and not valued for its own sake. At my own institution, I'm impressed with the efforts being made by engineers such as the Women's Technology Program in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Physics has almost the same gender balance challenges as computer science, yet I'm puzzled that the field makes less of an effort.

Have you engaged in outreach? Was there a pivotal moment in your own early years that brought you to astronomy? What lessons can you share?