Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Chairing Review Panels

Enough time has gone by that I can now tell this story without fear of breaching confidentiality. I “recently” chaired a NASA proposal review panel. The identity of the panel members is generally confidential; you don’t know the participants ahead of time, and you don’t discuss the results after the panel business is complete. I have participated in these reviews since I started in solar physics – almost 25 years ago. My name comes up every two or three years, and I head to DC. The panel spends several days reviewing proposals, and comes up with a ranking for NASA. The process usually works pretty well.

In all the years I have been doing this, I have never been part of a panel that was chaired by a woman. (Since the panel membership is not public domain, I only have information on the panels I have served on.) I have noticed a trend – the panel chairs used to be more senior than me, then about my level, and recently, younger than me. These chairs can be reasonably effective or not particularly effective; in some cases, the NASA discipline scientist takes over most of the chairing duties, so the panel still gets the job done.

A few months after participating in the panel review process, I happened to run into the NASA discipline scientist at a conference. The situation was right to have a quiet word about this business of chairing panels. It did not take me long to realize that I had walked right into a trap! Always on the lookout for panel members, he immediately asked if I would chair a panel in the next round of reviews. I was expecting to do this in two to three years, not two to three months. But I had asked for it, and here was an opportunity. I simply had to agree to chair the panel.

I thought I would share a few impressions about the experience. First, if you have been reading carefully, you will have noticed that I served on two panels in one year, when the typical burden is one every two to three years; so I worked twice as hard. The panel did its job as effectively as it could, given the tight funding. I did the chairing duties, which went well, and did not cede them to the NASA discipline scientist.

I would say that I did feel extra pressure to get things right. It was self-imposed, to be sure, but I did have those somewhat irrational thoughts about how the future of women chairing NASA review panels would be viewed by not only the NASA discipline scientist but by the other panel members as well. I realized that the extra stress completely exhausted me. We usually ended our discussions around 7 pm. I went back to my room, phoned my husband, brushed my teeth, and fell asleep! I dragged myself out of bed around 7 am to start all over again.

The CSWA Town Hall at the Indianapolis AAS meeting was about, “Unconscious Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Impostor Syndrome.” This story has hints of all three problems. Could it be that the NASA discipline scientist suffered from unconscious bias in his selection of panel chairs? Perhaps, or maybe it was just an anomaly of the panels I had served on. I certainly don’t blame him. After all, men and women both unconsciously devalue the contributions of women. Did stereotype threat affect my ability to chair the panel? Probably, since I was certainly in a situation where I had the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about women as a group (women don’t have leadership skills; women don’t make good managers; etc.). I also found myself in a new situation where I know I was questioning my own competence. Even senior scientists can feel the effects of impostor syndrome.

The good news: I’m sure it will be easier next time!