Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Women versus Women: I. Why ALL Senior Women Should be Role Models


I confess that I cringe when I hear women in astronomy put other women down. We all too often divide ourselves into “us” versus “them”: senior women who are/are not effective role models for girls in STEM; women who do/do not return to work immediately after having a baby; women who do/do not stand up for themselves against bullies; women who do/do not make waves when confronted with sexual harassment. Women of astronomy, we have common foes – discrimination, harassment, bullying, to name but a few. Let us unite and spend our energy fighting these enemies. At the same time, let us not waste our valuable time on artificially generated women-versus-women battles like the Anne-Marie Slaughter-Sheryl Sandberg “debate” that has resulted in such media frenzy. Slaughter and Sandberg each made choices that were right for them. We should not second-guess them, and their choices should not have any negative influence on us. Let us all support each other and be a bit more understanding of the choices others make.

Since becoming chair of CSWA three years ago, I have (occasionally) been asked why the AAS needs a committee on the status of WOMEN in astronomy. The questioner has almost always been a young woman, a graduate student, who may have felt that the existence of our committee somehow diminished her individual accomplishments.

You might think that such questions would be depressing. After all, I spend a lot of my time, energy, and creativity on women-in-astronomy issues. Actually, my reaction is quite the opposite. Hurrah! I think to myself. Here is a young woman who has never (noticeably) experienced discrimination, sexual harassment, or bullying, and perhaps more importantly, there is no one in her peer group who has had to deal with these issues. I am chair of a committee whose number one goal is to put itself out of business. Although she does not realize it, this young woman has just made my day. We (and by “we” I mean women in astronomy and the men who support us) have created an environment where some women at the graduate-student level think that our profession has reached the stage where CSWA is no longer necessary. I know better, unfortunately, but I take her question as a sign of progress.

I have also heard comments about how senior women are not good role models because they never (1) got married; (2) had children; (3) made waves; (4) backed down; (5) had a life outside astronomy; etc. There is a long list; just pick your favorite. I would counter that ALL senior women should be considered role models. They “made it” in an environment that was a lot tougher on women than the one we face today. In the process, they made it easier for the rest of us to succeed. We no longer have to walk solely in their footsteps; many individuals have trampled enough earth to create a wide-open space that allows the rest of us to navigate our own path. There is no single “right way” to astronomical success. Thanks to the women who went before us, a life in astronomy can include marriage (or not), babies (or not), daycare (or not). You can work halftime, fulltime, or double time. You can succeed with a shy or a brazen personality. You have the power to make the choice that is right for you as an individual, as half of a couple, or as part of a family. Not all success stories are the same. The right choice is the one that is right for you.

Did your advisor ever accuse you of enrolling in college to earn your MRS degree? Did university nepotism rules ever keep you out of a paid research position? Did you ever have to hide a pregnancy because you would be fired if anyone found out? When you married your college boyfriend, did anyone expect you to work as an unpaid research assistant to support his career? If these things sound outrageous, then you should read Chapter 2 of Vivian Gornick’s book entitled, “Women in Science: Then and Now.” The interviews for the book were conducted in 1980, and the 25th anniversary edition has recently been released. 1980 was not that long ago. You might be surprised at the obstacles faced by these women.

This particular post is aimed at junior women - to encourage them to appreciate the contributions of senior women. Just because you are not following exactly in their footsteps does not mean that they did not contribute to your success. They created the environment where you could succeed. My advice – appreciate them; they are our role models!

Senior women, don’t think that you are off the hook! Part II of Women versus Women is aimed at you. Be sure to check in next week.

--Joan Schmelz