Sunday, June 3, 2012

AWARDS: There is a problem and we can solve it

During the decade 1992-2001, women earned nearly 20% of the PhDs awarded in astronomy, about double the percentage from the preceding twenty years. In 2006, 28% of astronomy assistant professors were women. These two groups represent the pools from which awards are selected for senior and early career astronomers. The percentages of women in these pools differ significantly from the percentages of women among the award winners: During the period 2001-2011, excluding women-only awards, women earned 4.7% of the senior society awards (Russell, Tinsley, Weber, Heineman, Lancelot) and 14.3% of the junior awards (Pierce and Warner) but 33% of the education awards (including Chambliss). It is particularly striking that the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize was awarded to a woman in its inaugural year of 1986 (Jocelyn Bell Burnell) and not since.

Yes, there is a problem here and it is not solved by well-deserved recent honors to women astronomers such as Jane Luu's receipt of the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics for her co-discovery of the Kuiper Belt. Our long-standing problem was brought home to three representatives of the American Astronomical Society (Dara Norman, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and me) who recently attended a workshop organized by AWIS (the Association for Women in Science) entitled Professional Society Workshop for Advancing Ways of Awarding Recognition in Disciplinary Societies (AWARDS) Project.

The pattern of astronomy awards is universal: women are systematically underrepresented among scholarly award winners in professional societies in science, engineering and social science (at least psychology and economics, who sent representatives to this workshop). Yet women are typically overrepresented among winners of teaching and service awards. AAS members and readers of this blog should not be surprised -- the disparities were described in the AAS Newsletter almost one year ago. The AAS Council, recognizing the problem, agreed to participate in the AWARDS project.

Dara, Chanda and I learned that a group of 7 "pioneer" societies had made significant strides toward reducing this problem by instituting some best practices recommended by AWIS. We learned that implicit bias continues to plague selection processes and that all people are subject to it. We learned that AWIS has produced a wonderful set of short training videos (half are narrated by Meg Urry, so watch them and recommend them to others, including hiring committees!). We learned that the mathematicians and statisticans have developed guidelines for avoiding implicit bias which are required reading for their selection committees. We learned how certain kinds of language trigger implicit bias -- words like "leader, dynamic, innovator" are used more often in letters for men than women. We learned that women are nominated for awards at lower rates than men.

We are reporting our findings to the AAS Council and will be writing an article for the AAS Newsletter with more details. Meanwhile, I strongly encourage readers to nominate women and underrepresented minorities for AAS awards (and since I'm also active in the American Physical Society, I will shamelessly plug them, too). You needn't be a senior scientist to make a nomination. If you are concerned that your nomination or supporting letter carries less weight than that of a senior scientist, you can summarize the arguments for a nomination in a request for assistance from a senior scientist. And if you are a senior scientist, please make and support nominations of deserving candidates.

Now is the time to act: June 30 is the deadline for AAS nominations and July 1 is the deadline for the APS Bethe Prize and Einstein Prize.