Wednesday, June 26, 2013

CSWA Townhall - Recap

The CSWA hosted a Town Hall meeting at the Indy AAS meeting on Tuesday, June 6, from 12:45 to 1:45 in Wabash Ballroom 3.  Around 40 people, including three previous CSWA chairs, were in attendance to listen to current chair, Joan Schmelz, present information about unconscious bias, stereotype threat, and impostor syndrome.  The presentation was designed to elicit audience discussion on topics included in the 2010 AAUW report "Why So Few?", some of which is summarized here.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Pregnant Astronomer: Part 1

This week's guest blogger is Kate Follette. Kate is a graduate student at Steward Observatory and an adjunct instructor at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. Her scientific research focuses on planet formation in circumstellar disks, and she is also engaged in educational research on mitigating quantitative illiteracy through introductory science courses for non-majors.

This is the first in a series of three posts that I’ll be writing about pregnancy, and this one will be focused on tips and tricks for the first half (weeks 1-20 or so) of the 9 month journey to motherhood. Women have a huge diversity of pregnancy experiences and I cannot speak for everyone, so I’ve called on some colleagues to contribute to the “Tips and Tricks” section at the end of the article. If nothing else, I encourage you to scroll to the bottom of this article and soak in some of their wisdom. Whether you’re a man or a woman, have children, will have children, or intend not to, I think there’s something to be learned for everyone in there.

There are literally millions of forums, blogs and books out there about the general pregnancy experience, but when I became pregnant I found myself overwhelmed with questions to which these blogs didn’t have the answers – When and how do I tell my advisor? Should I cancel my observing run? What’s it like being at conferences when pregnant? Will it affect my job prospects (consciously or unconsciously)?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Research Scientist in Genetics

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Stephanie Gogarten, an astronomer turned research scientist in statistical genetics. She works in the Biostatistics department in the same university where she got her degree, and is very satisfied with both her work-life balance and the family friendly environment. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every first and third Thursday of the month.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Menstrual Cycles

I was recently asked to be member of a panel to discuss issues around Women in STEM.  I've participated in several of these panels before and so I was expecting the normal topics: unconscious bias, impostor syndrome, work-life balance, family choices, sexual harassment etc.  As the panel was preparing for the event, a topic was suggested which I had never heard discussed at the public level before — menstrual cycles.

According to the Mayo Clinic 75% of women experience some form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).  PMS includes symptoms like mood swings, fatigue, irritability, and depression.  Up to 8% of women suffer from a more extreme reaction (premenstrual dysphoric disorder, PMDD) which includes symptoms like no interest in daily activities and relationships, feelings of sadness or hopelessness, possible suicidal thoughts, feelings of tension or anxiety, feeling out of control, mood swings with periods of crying, panic attacks, irritability or anger that affects other people, problems sleeping, and trouble concentrating.

I find it strange that while so many women suffer from these monthly symptoms — which effect our functionality, work, and relationships — this is something that people rarely talk about.  Two of the women on the panel admitted to having some of the more severe PMDD side effects listed above. One woman said that she simply couldn't think during certain times of the month: that her concentration and ability to focus were so bad that she felt the need to avoid colleagues or meetings so that no one would realize how incapacitated she was.  Another women admitted to taking medication one week a month to control her anxiety, depression, and mood swings.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

ADVICE: When to Raise a Family

CSWA convened a panel at the January 2008 AAS meeting in Austin where astronomers at various stages in their careers described the way in which they made their decisions about when to raise a family and how their choices have had an impact on their careers. The panel was organized by then CSWA Chair, Geoff Clayton (Louisiana State University). Panel members were: Hannah Jang-Condell (University of Maryland & GSFC), Margaret Hanson (University of Cincinnati), Orsola De Marco (American Museum of Natural History), Charles Liu (CUNY) and John Debes (DTM).

One of the most difficult decisions facing professional women is whether to have children and, if so, when. In practice women in astronomy have chosen a variety of solutions, ranging from delaying or interrupting graduate school or postdoctoral fellowships, delaying child rearing until after tenure, or even abandoning the idea of having children. These decisions usually have a considerable impact on the career path of a professional woman. The following points summarize the views of the panelists and members of the audience: When is the best time to have kids?

1. All times are equally good, meaning that you need to have kids when the time is right for you. Women cannot always count on waiting until 'the time is right' to get pregnant. Nature doesn't always oblige on a schedule and if you wait too long into your late 30's or early 40's, it may be too late.

2. If you have a choice in the matter, then having kids during grad school might have the least impact on your career because it is easier to take some time off. When you are a postdoc you are usually on a two-year clock and when you are tenure track, you usually on a five-year clock.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Scouting and Astronomy

I was recently drafted by my son's Boy Scout troop* to help them get their astronomy merit badge. It turns out to be quite an endeavor! The requirements can be summarized as follows:

  1. Learn how to pack for observing.
  2. Learn about light pollution.
  3. Learn about how telescopes work.
  4. Identify 10 constellations at 8 stars
  5. Learn how planets move across the sky.
  6. Learn about the moon.
  7. Learn about the sun and other stars.
  8. Visit a planetarium or observatory.
  9. Learn about careers in astronomy.
We're planning a weekend camping trip to one of my university's observatories, and almost as many parents as kids are planning to go.

Out of curiosity, I tried looking up requirements for an equivalent Girl Scout merit badge for astronomy, since activities like the ones described above would be great for getting any kid interested in astronomy, regardless of gender. Now, keep in mind I know little about Girl Scouts, since I only have boys, and I never did much with them when I was young, either.

I found very little in the way of any useful information. All I managed to find was something called "Sky Search" for Junior Girl Scouts, who are 4th-5th graders. By contrast, the Boy Scout troop I'm working with has 6th-12th graders. For this, they need to do six activities from a list that includes

  1. Learn to use a star map
  2. Identify planets in the night sky
  3. Identify 6 constellations
  4. Find the North Star
  5. Learn stories about the night sky
  6. Learn why some stars are brighter than others
  7. Learn when certain constellations are visible only seasonally
  8. Learn about the Solar System
  9. Learn about the motion of the sun
  10. Learn about the moon
  11. Visit a planetarium or talk with an astronomer
  12. Plan an astronomy night
Not only are each of the requirements less in-depth than the Boy Scout activities, but they have fewer of them to do.

If this is an example of how differently Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts treat the sciences, no wonder there are fewer women in science! Now, perhaps I'm just missing something? Maybe there are good programs out there to introduce astronomy and other sciences to Girl Scouts, and I'm just missing something? It's very easy to look up merit badge requirements for Boy Scouts, but I am finding it very difficult to find similar information for Girl Scouts. This makes it difficult for interested volunteers like myself to offer resources to local Girl Scout troops.

Does anyone out there have better information on how an astromer can help out local Girl Scout troops, especially at the middle school and high school levels, where girls start dropping out of science at high rates?

* And I have to say that I'm so pleased that they are now allowing gays to become Scouts. Now I'm just waiting for them to allow LGBT adult leaders.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Thursday, June 13, 2013

CSWA seeks your help

The CSWA wants your input!  In our telecon today, we discussed ideas for future special sessions at the AAS meeting, ideas for this blog, and ways to better coordinate with committees performing similar service (CSMA and WGLE in astronomy, CSWP and COM in Physics).  In the end, we realized that community input would be our best guide.

The CSWA is an active committee.  We blog a lot, we collect advice, we gather information resources, and we organize special sessions at the biannual meetings of the AAS.  Our activities are similar to, but distinct from, the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics.  We're larger, with 12 members, including a number of postdocs.  We try to make a difference.

Before I ask you readers what you would like to see the AAS and the CSWA do to promote gender equity, I will share some issues that are on my mind, and which may be on yours.  A big one is how to increase the number of women faculty members in astronomy (and especially physics), and to ensure that they thrive and advance.  It's unsatisfying when women are 30% of astronomy prize fellows but only 11% of full professors.  The situation is worse in physics - multiply those percentages by about 0.6 or 0.7.  It's a concern beyond you and me; outgoing Princeton President Shirley Tilghman has been a champion of diversity and equity, and has also struggled to diversify the graduate student, postdoc and faculty populations.  This issue is much on my mind as a department head who has struggled to make a difference, and found that it is slow and difficult.

Guest Post: Men, Women and Self-Promotion in Astronomy

This is a cross-post from Rob Simpson's blog Orbiting Frog.

We’re running the fifth .Astronomy conference later this year in Boston. .Astronomy is a small (and awesome) conference for astronomers, where you must apply to participate. Although the tone is relaxed, spaces at the event are in short supply (there are only 50 places). You don’t have to talk at .Astronomy, and there are only a few speaking slots, but it’s a pretty friendly crowd and you can talk about a wide variety of things. So why did only 2 women submit an abstract (out of 27 female applicants) versus 30 men (out of 65)?

We would like to create a broad group of speakers but it’s hard to select talks that don’t exist. Did we inadvertently create a bias toward male speakers by soliciting abstracts on the sign-up form? If so, that’s a worry because it’s how a lot of conferences do this.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Unconscious Bias: A Personal Story

I have given a seminar on Unconscious Bias a few times recently. Some of you have heard it! During the introduction, I try to convey the idea to the audience that we all have biases, and we are (for the most part) unaware of them. Unconscious bias can have a detrimental effect on job/fellowship applications, proposal/performance reviews, award nominations, and promotions – in short, it comes into play any time we are evaluated. In general, men and women BOTH unconsciously devalue the contributions of women, so it is important to understand that unconscious bias is not discrimination and it is not prejudice. In order to emphasize that this is not a talk about male chauvinist pigs versus feminazis, I tell the story about the discovery of my own unconscious bias.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Challenging the Status Quo in Utah

I read an interesting article in the on-line Daily Herald about efforts to attract more women to science and technical fields at Utah Valley University (UVU) in Orem, Utah.  The study contains a number of specific and reasonable suggestions for how to improve the current situation.

The article is written by Barbara Christiansen about a study by UVU professors Cheryl Hanewicz and Susan Thackeray.  The study was done to address the problem of women scoring lower than men on math and science standards tests when entering UVU.  Here are the numbers:  37% vs 43% women vs men meeting the standards for math and 25% vs 33% for science.   One of the motivations for the study was that the Utah legislature has recently approved $10M to enhance STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and career opportunities in the state and the desire is apply these funds equitably.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Career Profile: Astronomer to Tenure Track Faculty

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Meredith Hughes, an astronomer turned professor. She is a first-year, tenure track faculty at Wesleyan University, an undergraduate focused institution with a master's program in astronomy. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every first and third Thursday of the month.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Two Years at Lick Observatory

When I found out that guest blogger, Sethanne Howard, had worked at Lick Observatory in the 1960s, I immediately asked her if she would write about the experience. Such a story not only plays to my love of the history of astronomy, but also to my other love of women in history. I had been thinking that we know a lot about a few famous women astronomers, but as a community, we know very little about the careers of others. Sethanne reminds me that this story represents only two years of her career, but having read, Eye on the Sky: Lick Observatory's First Century, and James E. Keeler: Pioneer American Astrophysicist, this story was impossible to resist! -- Joan Schmelz

I spent two years at Lick Observatory – Let me share with you what Lick was like way back when. First a little geography. Lick Observatory sits atop Mount Hamilton outside San Jose, California. Mt. Hamilton is part of the Diablo range of mountains. There is a 26 mile crooked road that winds its way through the mountains to reach the summit at 4200 feet. That road is – to put it bluntly – a challenge to drive. It is full of sharp u-turns on a road about one and a half cars wide. I forget what the shortest time from ground to summit is – but it was around 25 minutes. The road is so curvy because when the Observatory was built and equipment brought from the city below to the summit, it was brought by mule train. The mules could handle only so much incline. The road follows the old mule train road.

It has a history filled with legend and astronomy. Founded in 1888 and paid for by the James Lick estate which pushed for the largest telescope in the world. That was true for a time until the Yerkes 40" refractor came online around 1897. Lick had a 36" refractor (James Lick is buried in the pier). Lick was the wealthiest man in California and his donation to the telescope in today’s dollars ($1.2 billion) is still more than modern private investments. The world’s astronomers found their way to Lick to work under the dark skies, well above the inversion layer. One could see half dome in Yosemite off in the far distance across the valley. The skies are still dark but the inversion layer has risen. When I was there the inversion layer was just beginning to creep over the mountain top.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What Can I Do? CSWA Town Hall

I often get questions from graduate students and postdocs related to how they can help CSWA. They know they don’t have the time to commit to being a full-fledged committee member, but they believe in what we’re doing and want to do something to support women in astronomy & help create a female-friendly workplace. We have had some great suggestions from CSWA members, CSWA alums, and AASWOMEN readers. Today’s suggestions is especially timely because the CSWA Town Hall, “Unconscious Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Impostor Syndrome,” is taking place TODAY, Tuesday, June 4, at 12:45 - 1:45 pm in Wabash Ballroom 3 of the Indiana Convention Center.

Today’s suggestion: Invite your department chair/boss/research supervisor to attend the CSWA Town Hall.

Hope to see you there!