Wednesday, January 15, 2014

CSWA Climate Site Visit Program for Astronomy Departments - Benefits

As a graduate student, I participated in a Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) joint site visit of the physics departments at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and University of California, Berkeley. The site visit was very valuable for both departments in highlighting not only the areas where we could improve in creating supportive environments for women, but also areas where we were doing quite well.

First I'd like to say that site visits create a better department for everyone.  Women (and other underrepresented groups) tend to be disproportionately negatively affected by general climate issues within departments.  For instance, graduate student salaries effect everyone, and having higher salaries helps with recruitment and retention for both genders.  However, we found at Berkeley -- a public school that tends to pay graduate students less than our private school competitors -- that admitted female graduate students were disproportionately more likely to reject our offer based on salary than male students.  Perhaps this is because women are more likely to anticipate having a family while in graduate school, and are more concerned about finances than their male counterparts?  I don't actually know the reason.  All I know is that increasing salaries disproportionately increases the acceptance rate of women graduate students.  So even if you are a person who doesn't think you are affected by the "climate for women" and that these site visits are of no benefit or interest to you, that simply isn't true.  Most likely the outcomes of the site visit will be a better department for everyone.

For the visits at Berkeley, members from the CSWP suggested that we have department wide meetings prior to the site-visit to prepare.  There were meetings that were both co-ed and women-only. There were meetings that were student-only, post-doc only, faculty-only, and department-wide. These meetings provided a forum where people could candidly discuss the goals for the visit, the areas where we ourselves would like to see improvement, and also to make everyone aware of all the practices in place within the departments.  Even though I was the head of the women in physics group on campus, and had previously discussed climate issues with many people within these departments, I was surprised that I learned a lot from these discussions.  In fact these preparational meetings were some of the most frank and informative conversations I've ever had about gender issues, and have been formative in many of my believes presented on this blog.

Critics may think that having a site visit will not tell the department anything that they don't know already, or will risk getting the department "in trouble" by highlighting problems like gender-bias, sexual harassment, or non-family-friendly practices etc.  I would say that having an external, objective committee who is properly calibrated in what the standards are in other departments, and how one department compares another, is actually extremely valuable.  The review allowed our departments to have a much more objective measure of how we were doing compared to other institutions, and also allowed us to more easily prioritize which initiatives/areas we should focus on.  It also validated what some of us already knew (but perhaps others needed convincing) -- the importance of several practices/programs we had in place and the value they brought to the climate in the department.

In the years following our site visits, there was an upward trend in the number of female students and post-docs that accepted positions at both LBNL and UC Berkeley's physics departments.  I am not sure how exactly these are correlated, but I suspect that having these department wide discussions, and the practices that were put into place after the visit, helped the departments as a whole be more cognizant of the importance of having a supportive climate, and the benefits of having more gender balance within our community.

I highly encourage Astronomy departments to take advantage of the CSWA Site Visit Program.  It was of incredible value to the physics departments at Berkeley and LBNL.