Monday, January 20, 2014

Our Women's Committee Ain't Like Other Women's Committees


After joining the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), I became very interested in learning what our partner disciplines were up to. Were there similar committees in Physics, Geoscience, Mathematics, Chemistry, or Computer Science? What were they doing? And, importantly, who were the members?

The Association for Women in Science has a handy list of STEM Disciplinary Societies. After following those links, I was struck by how different Astronomy and the CSWA were from most other similar committees: The CSWA has a lot of men!


The current CSWA committee as 12 members, of which 5 are men, putting us at 42%. Similarly, if you take a look at the list of blog contributors on the right side, you will see that 50% are men.

This is very, very different than most other Women in STEM committees: I read through the past 14 annual reports for the Committee for the Status of Women in Physics. I found that there were never more than 2 men on the committee (out of 9 individuals), so the fraction of men ranged from 0-22%. (There were a few years when the annual reports didn't list the members.) The current membership of the Committee on Women in Physics for the American Association of Physics Teachers has 2 men on a committee of 12 (putting it at 17%). The Geological Society of America doesn't (seem to?) have a committee devoted solely to the advancement of women. Instead there is a Committee for Diversity in the Geosciences, which is concerned with "ethnic minorities and women and persons with disabilities" -- but even then only 3 members on the committee of 10 members (30%) are men! The separate Association for Women Geoscientists has 6 members of the executive committee, none of which are men. Similarly, the Computing Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research has an all-women 23 member executive board. The American Chemical Society has a Women Chemists Committee. I couldn't find the listing of the committee members, but the fall 2013 newsletter includes a section entitled "WCC Leadership", which lists 10 individuals, all women.

OK you say, maybe the 2013-2014 CSWA team is just an anomaly? Not so!  All past members of the CSWA since its foundation in 1979 are listed online. Dividing the list roughly into thirds (according to the end year of their service on the committee), I find that from 1980-1990, 7 of 23 (30%) members were men; from 1991-2002, the number was 9 of 25 (36%), and from 2003-2014 it was 13 of 31 (42%). My point is that even 30 years ago, the CSWA had a higher participation of men than the corresponding committees in related fields have at the present time!

Up until this point, I haven't said whether I think this is AGT (A Good Thing) or ABT (A Bad Thing) -- I was just reporting that our group is, and has been, different in its approach.  So, now I would like to make the case that having men -- lots of men, particularly men in positions of power -- become active members of Women in Science Committees -- is definitely AGT.

First, let me say clearly what I have seen during my time on CSWA: The best insights and leadership on CSWA continue to come from members who have experienced and lived the challenges of begin a women astrophysicist first hand.  Given that, why am I pushing for the men too?

It all goes back to the title of this post: I hate the phrase "Women's Committee" (as opposed to "Committee on the Status of Women"), but I used it in the hopes of luring you in to read… (hey, it worked!  here you are!!)  However, it does epitomize the problem:  If a Women in Science (WiS) Committee is mostly, or entirely, women, then, Dear Reader I have bad news: Many of my male colleagues are simply going to view this as an activity by women and for women, and not view themselves as part of the solution.  The challenges we are working to address with CSWA are systematic problems in our scientific culture and all members of the AAS need to help fix them. If I can use my position as the tenured Harvard male to have some colleagues embrace an action that they might otherwise ignore, then let me bring that to the table.

There is a distinct second reason for wanting men on these committees: One issue we are focused on at CSWA is the fact that only a very small fraction of the most senior ranks in astronomy are occupied by women. If, in a discipline, (1) women occupy very few positions of power, and, (2) the committee has only women as members, then this is a recipe for either ensuring that your committee isn't going to have a lot of movers and shakers, and/or overburdening the few senior women with yet another committee (and they never get invited to those!). Several of the webpages for WiS Committees in other disciplines even had a button you could click to volunteer for the committee. Good grief! Women in STEM is a top national priority, and there is a Click Here button? Of course, we DO want to hear from volunteers. But my point is that many folks in power -- think of our most senior officials at NASA and the NSF, the directors of our largest research centers, our most visible ambassadors to the general public, and, importantly, folks with budgetary authority -- aren't likely to click these buttons.  But, if invited, they might accept an invitation to serve.

I don't know why CSWA is and has always been a little different in this regard, and I can't pretend to know the whole history.  But I think that we are on to something, and we should share our innovation with other disciplines.