Thursday, November 29, 2012

Latent, Stereotypical Thinking

I got an e-mail from a local high school teacher that I thought I would share with you. Have you gotten one of these recently? If so, what did you decide do?

Hello Mr. Schmelz,

I am a teacher of Honors English at ABC High School. I write you today to ask if you would be so kind as to allow one of my Honors students to contact you, via phone or via email, for a brief interview about Astronomy as a career choice. This young man, XYZ, is very bright and very congenial . . .

Honors English I Teacher
ABC High School

After much thought, here is how I replied:

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Disruptive Effects of Gender Equality

Last week's blog entry from John Johnson and the responses to it summarized well the cultural divide between those departments which celebrate diversity and the others. Both sides are represented even within one department like my own, which combines physics and astronomy. (Note that the diversity advocates are not preferentially astronomers, although some subfields of physics appear to be distinctly less female-friendly than others.) What determines whether a department with diverse perspectives describes itself as "defender of excellence" or "champion of success"?

When it comes to such questions I am not an unbiased observer. I believe strongly that departments with a supportive environment for everyone which fosters the development of talent have an inherent advantage. Would you send your students to a department with a poisonous atmosphere for women? Would you send your male students there?

Individuals aren't the only ones who suffer from the accrual of microinequities, or "molehills piled one on top of the other" (Virginia Valian, Why So Slow?). Institutions do, too. A toxic environment promotes conflict and decreases collaboration, which excludes a significant percentage of high-impact research opportunities. Hiring from only the club of the "Big-4" severely limits the talent pool; it is a form of implicit bias, whereby PhD department is a stereotype for quality. Schemas apply to more than just gender.

In the corporate world, giants can be felled by innovative dwarfs through the process Clayton Christensen calls "disruptive innovation". Bethlehem Steel was driven out of business by mini steel mills who used cheap scrap metal. The low-cost producers kept improving their market and capturing market share until it was too late for the old-fashioned behemoth. Might the same fate be in store for the academic titans who fail to add value to their faculty by maintaining inequitable environments?

I'm putting my money with gender equality as a disruptive transformation in academia.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Where are the women astronomy professors?

Entwives en Hiver by kaiorton

Guest-post by John Johnson, professor of Astronomy in the Caltech Department of Astrophysics. His research is on the detection and characterization of exoplanets. This post is a re-post from his blog.

I'm going to start off this first post on this topic with a simple axiomatic statement: Women and men are equally capable of being successful astronomers. There is no inherent difference in mental capacity, creativity, ability to learn, or any other factor that plays into the success of an astronomer.

Given this axiomatic starting point, it stands to reason that the fraction of women on the faculty at the top astronomy institutions should reflect the fraction of women earning PhDs. A quick glance through the "People" pages of the websites for Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley and Caltech astro departments (hereafter referred to as the "Big-4") shows that 31% of the graduate students (with gender-identifiable names) are women. Granted, there may be some errors on the various webpages, and I wasn't able to identify the gender of every student. But as a quick sanity check, I do have access to the student records over the past 10 years in Caltech astro. During this time (2001-2011) there have been 47 PhDs, 14 of them women, or 29.8%. So 30% is a pretty solid number for the fraction of women graduating with astronomy PhDs over the past decade (records going back to 1991 show about 27% over the past 20 years).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dealing With (Student) Harassment

A recent post by Christina Richey on the Women in Planetary Science blog highlighted some really good examples of what harassment is and how to deal with it.  It reminded me that women are more likely to face harassment at all levels and made me think that we don't always realize we are being harassed. As stated by the AAUW,

                     "Determining what is sufficiently severe, pervasive, and objectively
                      offensive..can be complicated. As this research demonstrates, people
                      disagree on the severity of the problem. What is a laughing matter
                      for one ... may be offensive to another and traumatic to yet another,
                      especially in the campus community, which teems with students and
                      staff from a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives."  

I know I have brushed off comments as jokes or in a few cases, have been completely oblivious to the fact that I was being belittled or intimidated.  This problem is not just prevalent at research institutions - even at small schools with small departments, I hear stories of women who are bullied by their colleagues. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Negotiation is a Dialogue: Compiled Advice

This post was inspired by the following paragraph from a Chronicle article:
If you're like most academics, you either negotiate a job offer poorly, or you don't negotiate at all. The cost to you of failing to negotiate your first faculty position can be significant. Here's just one example: Miranda, a recent Ph.D. in the social sciences, negotiated a 6 percent increase in salary over what her new department initially offered her, from $49,000 a year to $52,000. If we assume she enjoys a 30-year career and receives annual raises of 3 percent, the extra salary that she negotiated (just $3000 more) would translate into an additional $143,000 over what she would have earned without negotiating.
With this in mind, I’ve compiled advice from our CSWA resources, previous CSWA blog posts (here and here), other resources (here, here, here, here, and here), and advice I’ve been given.

Before launching into the advice, if you’re planning to attend the winter AAS, I highly recommend attending the ‘Negotiating Strategy and Tactics’ workshop on Thursday, January 10th. If you will not be attending the AAS, find out if your institution provides negotiation training.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Guest Post: Lauren Tompkins on Expanding Your Horizons

Guest Post from Lauren Tompkins a postdoc in the University of Chicago ATLAS group.

Last February, as my first winter as a University of Chicago postdoc wore on, I became restless with my everyday routine.  I was doing interesting work on an electronics upgrade to the Atlas Experiment at the LHC, but felt disconnected from life outside of the Ivory Tower.  I thought that doing some outreach, particularly in a city as large and diverse as Chicago, would restore that connection for me.  As was mentioned in a previous post, finding an existing program is a good way to get started in outreach, so I set out to find a program that I was sure would exist in Chicago, Expanding Your Horizons (EYH).  

EYH is an international organization of over 70 one-day conferences for middle school girls.  At the conferences, women from the local STEM community do hands-on workshops with the girls, showing them that STEM careers are fun and accessible, hoping to empower them to take their place in the science and technology world.  Jessica and I participated in EYH several times through UC Berkeley’s Society of Women in the Physical Sciences.  Our perennial workshop was build-your-own radio.  Our group spent less than $500 on simple crystal radio kits which we helped the 45 girls construct during the workshop. Watching their faces light up when they first heard a transmission on a radio they constructed by hand was a treat. EYH seemed like a perfect way to get involved in outreach.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Scientific computing versus computer science

I recently attended a local meeting on women in computer science, at the invitation of someone I met at a different meeting on high performance computing. Not that I consider myself a computer scientist, rather I'm more of a scientific computationalist, with the major focus of my research involving high performance computing.
Still, it's an interesting contrast. While the percentage of women in physics and astronomy has generally grown over the last three decades, the percentage of women in computer science reached a peak around 1982, and has decreased ever since.
You can make any number of guesses for cause of this decline. I've heard that it's because computer science grew out of math departments, but moved into engineering departments in the mid-1980s, so it followed the trends of those two fields. I've also heard that it's due to the rise of gaming and the rampant culture of harassment of women (see here for just one article on the subject). However, I didn't see much exploration of that. Granted, I missed half the meeting because of teaching obligations. Still, it was really great to see a big room filled with women in computer science, ranging from undergraduates to tenured faculty.
There were discussions about imposter syndrome, gender bias, and work-family balance. At one point I was talking about my hour-long commute and my reasons for it (my husband commutes an hour in the other direction, so we split the difference), and I was asked, "how do you manage?" My answer to this question is always, "I make it up as I go along." Which is really all any of us can do, when it comes to work-life-family balance. On the other hand, I met another woman at the meeting who had the same commute as me for the same reasons. So even though we're making it up as we go along, at least you learn from meetings like these that you're not alone, and maybe you can even carpool along the way.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Does Organizational Culture Matter?

Yes! The reactions to an infamous letter to graduate students from the Academic Program Committee of a major astronomy department make the point clearly enough. So does the damaging effect of continued sexism in physics. I thought we had made more progress on these issues. Many years ago, the head of my department told proudly how he would come in on weekend mornings and walk around to see which junior faculty were at work. I don’t recall if I was tenured at the time, but I do recall being miserable. Although I remained at that university, I chose not to propagate the mythology of 80-hour work weeks or the prevailing attitudes that women were less qualified for the top ranks.

Dysfunctional and excellent organizations both contain good people. In my experience it is not the people but the institutional culture that distinguishes successful organizations, especially those that develop and retain their talent. To be sure, individuals can cause a lot of harm in any organization, for example by engaging in harassment. But in some organizations harassment is suppressed and ignored by the leadership while in others it is confronted and eliminated.

Edgar Schein is a management professor who has studied corporate culture over many decades. His book Organizational Culture and Leadership is a tour de force in how institutional culture shapes leaders and vice versa. His book is also a user’s manual for those who would pursue culture change. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to find this manual very useful.

Leadership matters. Sometimes postdocs ask me for advice about the kind of university they should aspire to join as faculty. Lately I’ve been suggesting that they favor employers whose leadership and institutional culture support the values that are important to them. For example, if you are interested in K-12 outreach, don’t go to a place where it is frowned upon, and don’t believe for a moment that by doing so you are settling for less than the best.

Institutional culture is slow to change. Over her 12 years as Princeton’s president, Shirley Tilghman began a long slow process of making Princeton a more supportive place for women and minorities. I admire her success and see it as a model for other university presidents. So it was with great delight that yesterday I was one of 30 members of my university community – students, staff, postdocs and faculty – who met with MIT’s new president Rafael Reif to highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion and to offer our ideas and support for the vision he presented in his inaugural address.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Ghandi’s quote is a model for all who seek to change culture. Find allies. They may come from directions you didn’t imagine. Yesterday, the air was electric as a student praised our Director of LBGT Services for how she establishes inclusion, respect, openness, participation, and safety, which she then described to our president. It makes me so proud to work with students, staff, and other faculty members to promote culture change in the university.

Organizations that help people achieve their best will outperform others. Faculty would do well to heed the concerns of graduate students and postdocs. With time and good leadership, culture change is possible. I would like to see it spread across the fields of astronomy and physics. Will you join me?