Thursday, April 26, 2012

Guest Post: Bekki Dawson on Why all astronomy departments should think of themselves as women’s astronomy departments

This week's guest blogger is Bekki Dawson. Bekki Dawson is a graduate student in the Astronomy Department at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the dynamics of planetary systems.

Why all astronomy departments should think of themselves as women’s astronomy departments

H. Kim Bottomly, president of Wellesley College, recently wrote a Washington Post editorial "Why all colleges should think of themselves as women’s colleges." President Bottomly focused on the mission of universities to produce women political leaders, but many of her arguments could apply to producing women scientists. As women's college alumna and graduate student at a co-educational institution, I began to wonder if the status of women in astronomy would improve if every astronomy department (or physics department or research center) considered itself a "women's astronomy department."

Women's colleges have long been successful in recruiting and training astronomers, from Annie Jump Cannon to astronomers today in every stage of the pipeline. Here I consider the reasons behind this success and how they inspire practical steps for co-educational astronomy departments. But my main message is not practical but philosophical: a department should adopt the goal increasing the representation of women astronomers as part of its underlying mission. With the department's creativity and dedication channeled toward advancing this mission, practical steps become more natural and obvious. Moreover, if a debate arises over whether a particular measure coddles students or is unfair to men, perhaps we should ask, "What would a women's astronomy department do?"

1) The man in the Science Center: normalizing women in astronomy

Once time in college I distractedly bumped into someone in the Science Center and thought afterwards, "There was something unusual after that person." Then I realized that I had bumped into a young man. A women's college must be one of the few places where a male student would see jarringly out-of-place in a Science Center. In contrast, a fellow grad student "felt like a novelty" when she visited MIT as a prospective undergraduate and noticed she was the only woman in the large tour group. By far the toughest aspect for our departments to replicate about a women's college is the women.

Women's colleges, as well historically-black colleges (which are powerhouses for producing physicists) and Hispanic-serving institutions, can offer a respite from the impostor syndrome and stereotype threat often sparked by being part of an underrepresented group. Even moving questions about gender and ethnicity to the end of standardized tests results in higher scores for women and minorities: imagine that question disappearing not only from the test but from your entire life for four years, of rarely being reminded that you're part of a group expected to perform poorly.

If we consider increasing the representation of women and minorities in astronomy as a key part of a department's mission, even controversial measures seem well-justified, including:

a) Affirmative action. When considering several well-qualified candidates for a position, a department with a mission to increase the representation of women in astronomy may not consider it unfair to preferentially choose the woman, because her very presence advances the department's mission, helps to recruit more women, and improves the performance and well-being of the women already there.

b) Political correctness. Policing ourselves and our colleagues from making remarks that make women feel out-of-place -- like asking a group of women astronomers engaged in discussion, "What are you ladies plotting?" -- may seem like oppressive political correctness but serves to advance equity and excellence in our field.

c) Special treatment. In light of the mission of advancing women in astronomy, it makes sense for departments to allocate time and money for activities like women's coffee hours. Special funds for undergraduate women to attend a computing science conference were among the measures by Harvey Mudd to increase the number of women science majors, as described in an article recently sent to AASWomen.

2) The stick figures at the chalkboard: creating a comfortable place for questions and ideas

One common manifestation of impostor syndrome and stereotype threat is the fear of representing all women when one asks a question or volunteers an idea, as aptly summarized by this comic. At a women's college, both stick figures at the chalkboard would be women, so a mistake only invokes the left panel. At a co-educational institution, the right panel might pop into a woman's head when she considers voicing a question or idea that she worries may be "stupid."

With some thought, we can create comfortable places for women to ask questions and volunteer ideas. During labs and independent work times, Diana Dabby, professor of an engineering class at Olin College, led a "train" ("All aboard!") to another room to answer questions and offer extra-help about tough topics from her lecture. The passengers were usually all women (among them some of the best students in the class).

Advisors can be aware that some of their women students might feel less comfortable asking questions or volunteering ideas at group meetings, talks, or even one-on-one. They can actively encourage questions and ideas prompts like, "What do you think is going on in this plot you made?" or, "What's your opinion on the paper we read?" I've been so lucky to have advisors over the years all gently pushed me to develop my own questions and ideas, rather than assuming that my hesitance was a lack of creativity and independence.

3) The "gold" introductory course: nurturing in astronomy majors

Some institutions have "weed out" classes -- challenging courses for prospective majors designed to discourage less talented students. However, along with students who truly lack aptitude for the subject, these classes may "weed out" talented women, minorities, and students from underprivileged backgrounds. In contrast, my college introductory science courses were "nurture in" courses, with assignments designed to bolster a student's confidence. The message was not "You may have been good at science in high school, but now you're in the big pond" but rather, "You may be better at science than you thought! You can do it!"

Many professors consider "weed out" courses essential character-building experiences and are reluctant to coddle students by making the courses too easy. Yet talented students -- particularly those prone to impostor syndrome -- can be discouraged if they feel unsuccessful. Alternative "weed in" courses -- like the new "gold" introductory computer programming course described in the Harvey Mudd article can be excellent tools for recruiting women. A course can challenge students without being "weed out:" for example, Dave Charbonneau devised extra credit assignments and problems, which challenge undergraduate students while reassuring them "this is supposed to be hard." Finally, a number of successful women astronomers I know got their start by taking an astronomy or physics class for non-majors, so as professors or TAs, we should try to talent scout in these courses.

4) The professor with the sign-up sheet: recruiting the not-so-plucky

I have noticed a mythology in research institutions about the Plucky Undergraduate, who knocks on a famous professor's door and begs to do research. Eventually the Plucky Undergraduate is assigned a series of unpaid, trivial tasks, at which he excels, and eventually makes an important original discovery. Many professors were the Plucky Undergraduate.

I was not the Plucky Undergraduate; like many students at women's colleges, I was recruited and encouraged every step of the way, usually long before I had demonstrated any talent or potential. On the first day of Introductory Astronomy, Wendy Bauer passed around a sign-up sheet: any student who put her name down could be trained for the paid position of Night Assistant, operating telescopes and teaching constellations. My professors considered part of their mission to involve women undergraduates in astronomical research and recognized that many of us need extra encouragement at first. Given the bleak job market, we might be tempted to think that only the pluckiest will survive. But a student with other talents that will make her a good researcher can develop self-confidence.

President Bottomly concluded in her editorial, "If you have female students, and if you believe that they will be integral in leading the world in the 21st century, then you too are a women’s college." So I will conclude by saying, "If you have female students, and if you believe that they will be integral in make fundamental discoveries about the universe in the 21st century, then you too are a women’s astronomy department."