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.

One approach, which I do not think would work in the U.S., is for universities or other employers to bar the hiring of male assistant professors in lopsided departments until the numbers improve, as is being considered at the University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands.  This is causing some backlash from men and also puts women in a terrible position of having to defend their ability, which leads to the second issue of gender equity on my mind lately.

How can we create a workplace culture that is fully respectful and gives equal voice to women, to service workers, to students - a culture where full professors are as respectful of all of these as they are of their (mostly white male) peers?  Strikingly, MIT President Rafael Reif called upon MIT to become more like this in his commencement address last week, when he said "But I also want the family of MIT to be famous for how we treat people:  Famous for sympathy, humility, decency, respect and kindness."

The first job of a theoretical astrophysicist is to find the right questions.  Only then can we find answers.  Do we have the right questions?  What you would like to see the AAS and the CSWA do to promote gender equity?