Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Wyoming Women

I was recently invited to speak at an event in celebration of Women's History Month, along with a number of other women in the area both from the University of Wyoming and the surrounding community. It was a wonderful event, where I got to meet a lot of amazing local women and hear about their varied experiences. In the five minutes I was allotted, I talked a bit about myself and reflected on some of the challenges I face being a woman in science. This is a synopsis of what I said, stated perhaps a bit more eloquently now that I've had a chance to review it in my mind.


I'm an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Wyoming. I've been here at UW since 2011. And although I've spent most of my life on the East Coast, I've come to love the Mountain West and I now consider myself to be a Wyoming Woman.

This is a picture of me taken by the PR office at the university, to go along with an article highlighting my research. I study planet formation, running computer simulations of disk around young stars, trying to understand how planets form in these disks. This work is motivated by the fact that the planets we've discovered around other stars, which we call exoplanets, are very different from our own Solar System. We've discovered planets more massive than Jupiter orbiting their stars closer than Mercury's distance from the sun. We've also discovered Jupiter-mass planets more than Pluto's distance from the sun, too. So how do we get planets in such different orbits? That's one of the questions I'm trying to answer. This picture shows a simulated image of what a disk in which a planet is forming might look like, with the planet's location marked by the white dot. When we compare images like this to observations of real disks, we can learn where planet formation is actually taking place.
I fill a unique role in the faculty of my department. I'm the only theoretical astrophysicist in the department. I'm the only exoplanet scientist in my department. And I'm the only woman professor in my department.
Now, it's often said about feminism that the personal is political. And here's where that comes in for me.
(This was a picture of my kids in my original presentation. Sorry, internet, you don't get to have pictures of them. You can admire my cat, instead.)
I have two sons, ages 10 and 12. And if you paid attention to my bio and do the math, you'll note that they were both born while I was in grad school. I remember at graduation, watching all the newly minted PhD walking across the stage with children in tow. Several of the men went up with one, two, or even three small children. Very few women had any children with them, and I was certainly the only woman science degree recipient with two children. And when you look at science professors, not only are there fewer women in their numbers, but women are far more likely to be single and childless, whereas the opposite is true for men. There are any number of reasons for this, ranging from differences in the choices available to men versus women, to outright bias. For instance, if you present identical CVs to potential employers, including the line "active in the PTA," and simply change the gender of the applicant, you find that mothers are judged to be less committed to work, whereas men are judged as being more committed.
This is exacerbated by the fact that women are more likely to have a working spouse. Many of the men have stay-at-home wives to raise the kids, while most women don't have that luxury. To use my own life as a case study, the personal being political and all: my husband works in Denver, so we live in Fort Collins and we both commute an hour each way. We do what we have to to make things work.
I do my best to be an advocate for women in STEM. For several years, I served on the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. Through this service, I learned a lot about the issues facing women in STEM. I also founded the Women in Astronomy blog, and still contribute to it. (Here I showed a screen shot of this post) This is a recent post I wrote, about the double bind women face when trying to negotiate.
We have a lot of contributors to this blog, and I want you to notice that a good many of the authors of this blog are men. Because we aren't going to be able to change things for the better for women in STEM without efforts on the part of both men and women.
My own personal challenge is to raise my sons to be sensitive young men who value and respect women. Because in the end, it's not about trying to fix women to make them fit into a system that wasn't designed for us. Rather it's about fixing the culture to make it easier for everyone to succeed.