Thursday, April 12, 2012

Guest Post: Meredith Hughes on What YOU can do to promote gender equality in astronomy

This week's guest blogger is Meredith Hughes. Meredith is currently a Miller Fellow at UC Berkeley. Her research involves using millimeter-wavelength interferometry to study the process of planet formation.

What YOU can do to promote gender equality in astronomy
Sometimes when I think about how to promote gender equality in astronomy, I feel a bit inadequate. My personal life is relatively uncomplicated and I've had a blessedly easy time on the job market so far -- so as a mentor or a crusader, I don't have a lot of experience overcoming adversity to draw on (knock on wood). And I'm already working hard to make a career for myself as an astronomer, so I'm not exactly jumping up and down to start a second career as an activist. At the same time, issues of equality are deeply compelling to me. I've seen friends and colleagues affected by the cultural and sociological barriers that disproportionately limit women's participation in the field. I twitch every time I hear affirmative action backlash. I want to do something. And I imagine I'm not the only one. But what? How can I best use the time, skills, and experience that I have to promote gender equality?
I think that there are a lot of men and women out there who want to promote gender equality, or at least want to know more about it, but haven’t been galvanized by any particular issue, and don't have gobs of time to devote. So I thought I'd take this opportunity to throw out a few of the solutions I've found for myself, and to ask for ideas from the rest of the world. I'd love to hear from other people about their own personal strategies. Here are mine:

1) Educate yourself
One thing that astronomers tend to be very good at is educating themselves. And in the context of gender equality, educating yourself is supremely important. Not only does it allow you to enter into the discussion informed, but awareness is also perhaps the most direct way of combating key problems like unconscious bias, stereotype threat, and impostor syndrome. Imagine a world in which every hiring committee member is educated about hiring practices designed to minimize the effects of implicit bias. And grad school can be a lot easier if you're aware of the common tendency to undervalue your accomplishments, and how to mitigate its effects on your work. Educating yourself is responsible, but it can also be directly beneficial.
But where to start? The CSWA has compiled a wonderful collection of resources on topics related to gender equality in the sciences ( The classic book on understanding gender schemas is Virginia Valian's "Why So Slow: The Advancement of Women" (when I was at the CfA, the women in science group read it and had a book-club-style discussion -- is this something that could work at your institution?). There are plenty of others too: two of my personal favorites are "The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls," by Ceci and Williams, and "Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science," by Renee Bergland. It's also possible that your university offers a course on women in science that you can audit to gain exposure to a wide range of resources (I did this when I was an undergraduate). To stay up to date on new results and issues as they arise, consider joining the AASWOMEN email list if you haven't already, or attend the excellent special sessions at AAS meetings organized by CSWA and others. All of these are things that can be done in as little or as much time as you choose to put into them.
2) Educate others
When I was a graduate student at the CfA, Kathryn Johnston (now a professor at Columbia) came to give a colloquium. But while she was visiting, she gave another talk, this one a personal perspective on the underrepresentation of women in science. She told us that in order to raise and maintain awareness of these issues, whenever she was invited to give a scientific talk at any institution she also offered to give a women in science talk while she was visiting. I thought that was just brilliant. Raising your own awareness is helpful, but raising awareness in the community is proportionately more so.
Maybe you aren't yet at a career stage where you're being invited to give talks, or maybe you don't feel bold enough to give a women in science talk at a strange institution, but there are other ways to accomplish similar goals. When is the last time somebody gave a women in science talk at your home institution? I recently gave a talk on these issues at our department's journal club. Not only was it educational to force myself to go through the literature a little more deeply, but it seemed to spark some thoughtful discussion in the department. It can serve as a jumping-off point for other people in your department to develop their own awareness, or just as a reminder of action items for people who have heard of the research before but haven't thought about its practical applications. Depending on how much time you want to devote, you can also consider starting a monthly discussion group (see the CfA WIS website for ideas: ). Many astronomers are educators at heart, and putting a little time and effort into this process can be very rewarding.
3) Collect data
If there's one thing that astronomers are trained to do, it's to collect and analyze data. Astronomers are also accustomed to communicating through data -- we're much more willing to listen to anyone who can show a plot or provide a reference. So if there's some aspect of your institution or the field that's been bugging you, the first step towards changing it is to collect data. Some data can be hard to gain access to (e.g., hiring information), but a lot of it is out there and ready to be sifted through. Just like in research, the most difficult part is often coming up with the interesting questions to ask.
There are people whose jobs are to collect field-wide statistics on gender representation and employment outcomes (like Rachel Ivie at AIP), but there are smaller-scale issues that individuals can work on. For example, earlier this year CSWA put out a call for statistics on the gender of colloquium speakers at different institutions. I collected the data for my department over the past several years, and used them to encourage the faculty member in charge of colloquium to invite more female speakers from outside the department. Previous postdocs have also gathered data to point out a long-term lack of women in our department at the postdoctoral level (relative to peer institutions and prize fellowship recipients). Only small changes have resulted from these data-gathering efforts so far, but at the very least they have helped to raise awareness, which is the first step towards a solution. If you're serving on a graduate admissions committee or higher-level hiring committee, keep track of gender statistics at each stage of the process. Indulge your natural desire to quantify. Collecting data allows us to point out specific problems, convincingly demonstrate that they exist, and start to work on solutions. So go wild.

Anyway, that's a short list of some of the ways that I, as a run-of-the-mill astronomer, try to promote gender equality in my spare time. What would you add?