Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Pockets of Parity

I have just started a one year sabbatical at the Geneva Observatory. July was a very hectic month! Our fourth daughter, Terra, was born July 7th, and then our team of six packed up our home and hopped on the plane to Geneva only a couple weeks later. We are beginning to feel somewhat settled here, although each day brings new and interesting questions on the home front. (Yesterday evening had us preoccupied with two: Do girls play soccer here? Can our kids keep chickens here?)

Feeling somewhat settled, I set about firming up the plan for remotely advising my research group in Cambridge. As with every August, there have been a few departures and arrivals, and I carefully typed in the email addresses for my entire group. There are eight of us: myself, a staff scientist, a Hubble fellow, two postdoctoral fellows, and three 4th-year graduate students. But what struck me was this was the first year my research group had reached gender parity: Four women, and four men.

This past year saw a similar milestone for an important activity we hold at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: Our exoplanet pizza lunch. Roughly every two weeks, scientists from the CfA, as well as individuals from nearby MIT and Boston University, meet for an hour to discuss the most recent (often unpublished) results in exoplanets (and we eat pizza). The event typically draws 35 scientists, and it has been going on for at least a decade. At the beginning of each lunch, I usually scan the tables (we sit in a large square), looking for new faces, and, silently, I count: I count the number of men and women. (Why do I count? Because it is very easy as a man to scan a room of astronomers and delude yourself that there are roughly equal numbers of men and women, when in reality the group might be less than 25% women. The numbers -- the exact numbers -- don't lie.) About 8 months ago, we had our first exoplanet pizza lunch with more women then men, and the gatherings have continued to hover right about the parity level.

Interestingly, I learned quickly that I was not the only one who had been counting. Shortly after that particular exoplanet lunch adjourned, two senior astronomers independently pointed this out to me (I presume there may have been others counting all this time as well).

This post isn't about WHY some groups or gatherings of astronomers are at parity and others are not. (There is a lot to say on that front of course! Certainly this is an issue I care about deeply, and I know many of my senior exoplanet colleagues at the CfA care similarly.) Rather, this post is about the simple fact that some groups ARE at parity. (In the comments, I would enjoy hearing about other groups that are similarly at parity.)

I think many of us (particularly the men) have ceased to recognize how very, very odd is the makeup of our gatherings compared to everyday life. When I walk along the street, I see equal numbers of men and women. When I visit the hospital where my wife is a physician, I see that half of her colleagues are also women. But in astrophysics, it is so common to find myself in groups that are almost entirely male: When giving a visiting colloquium, lunch with the postdocs might mean 8 men and 2 women. Dinner with some of the faculty is often all male. At AAS sessions, conferences, or just walking down the hall of most institutes, and the faces and voices are overwhelmingly male. Of course you all know this. But I think for many of us, we get used to it, and we stop feeling that there is something deeply strange and broken and urgent about it.

How exciting, then, to see these genuine pockets of parity, where fully half of the faces and voices and opinions are those of women! And how jarring when I leave those groups and step back into gatherings that are not this way.


Anonymous said...

It is interesting to notice how the parity (or lack thereof) oscillates from one institution to the next. I think that confirms that it is an important cultural issue, and not related to women's intrinsic abilities, right?

These days, I could be in a meeting of my extended research group and easily find myself with in the majority as a woman. And yet, recently I went to a another institution very nearby to attend a talk and found myself to be the *only* woman in an audience of 20! One of the scientists there admitted to me afterward that they have more work to do on that front. I found myself appalled that he was the only one who seemed to care.

Anonymous said...

In reply to the commenter above: I had a very similar experience this year when visiting two institutes back to back. At the first, the women to men ratio among the scientists I met was about 2:3. At the second, I gave a talk to an audience of ca. 25 men. No women at all.

BTW, the first institute was at a university, and the second was a research center of a space agency. I'd be curious to hear from others if this might be a pattern...