Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cogitations on Gender at the "dot Astro" Conference

Today's guest post is by Brooke Simmons, an astronomy postdoc at Oxford and the Henry Skynner Junior Research Fellow at Balliol College. Brooke researches the co-evolution of black holes and galaxies and is actively involved in citizen science within the Zooniverse, including Galaxy Zoo and other projects. 

Last week I was at the .Astronomy meeting at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. .Astro ("dot astro") is less a meeting about any specific science and more a meeting about being a scientist, and using the internet to do and communicate science. It's also more than that, and partly its structure is what makes it hard to define: about half of it is an unconference whose agenda is set on the fly by the participants. This choose-your-own-adventure meeting means that each .Astro is different, but it also means that a single .Astro is different for each person there. 

It was the sixth "dot astro" meeting (the first was in 2008), and it was my third time attending. It's my favorite conference in my schedule, and I spent some time this year observing the event itself and others' reactions to it. 

One of the things I was curious about was whether the expectations, experiences and reactions of first-time participants were different for different genders. Nowadays I find that a lot of my friends and colleagues have heard of .Astro, but they have wildly different ideas of what it is. I've heard "that's a meeting for astro coders, right?" and "that's a meeting about outreach, right?" from people on either side of me at the same group lunch. The answer to both questions is yes, and more. Anecdotally, I noticed a lot of conformation to gender stereotypes when talking to people about .Astro, mainly because when I've spoken to women who thought it was just for coders they've also usually followed up by saying they didn't think the meeting was for them. 

Rob Simpson, the creator and organizer of .Astro, spends a lot of time thinking about how to make .Astro a more diverse place. Last year he wrote a series of blog posts about taking steps to ensure better gender equality for .Astro 5. The steps worked pretty well, and this year he took pre-emptive action, changing the application form to decrease the barrier that makes women less likely to attend conferences "for coders" and less likely to volunteer to give a talk. 

That worked pretty well too, though there's still work to be done. The gender balance for the whole conference was 40% female, 60% male, 0% other, which continues the positive trend from last year. Although there was still a relative lack of female speakers giving longer talks, that did improve for the lightning talks. However, one of the attendees noted during an unconference session that despite this progress we were still self-separating into standard biased roles: the unconference sessions about software and development skewed male and the outreach-oriented sessions skewed female. 

On the last day of .Astro I sent out a short survey to the participants. Just over half of them answered it (thanks all!) and I found the responses very interesting. First of all, the survey responses are overwhelmingly positive across the board. All of the (anonymous) responses either explicitly state they'd like to come to .Astro again or talk positively about what they'd like to see in future meetings. 

Two of the questions on the form were "What did you think .Astro was about when you applied to attend?" and "What do you think .Astro is about now?" Both returning and first-time attendees generally changed their answers between these questions, either to describe a complete change of outlook between pre-attendance and now, or to add a few extra words to the "now" question. Nobody mentioned they had expected the meeting to be primarily about outreach, but a few people said they'd expected .Astro was about tech and programming for astronomy. A few representative responses are listed below. 

What did you think .Astro was about when you applied to attend?
  • A meeting about hacking
  • Learning about cool stuff people are doing at the intersection of astronomy, CS and education. Meeting cool, talented people.
  • I knew it was about tech and astronomy.

What do you think .Astro is about now?
  • A meeting about hacking and so much more.
  • And now I know what hacking is.
  • Learning about cool stuff people are doing at the intersection of astronomy, CS and education. Meeting cool, talented people. Feeling like I've had a lobotomy because these guys seem to know all this stuff I've never heard of.
  • AWESOMENESS.
  • I think it's about changing the field - of astronomy, but ultimately of science. I think it's about using technology, the internet specifically, to communicate, to learn, to visualize, to share science in a way previously impossible.
Each of these answer sets are from women who had never been to .Astro before. 

In a separate open comments box, 5 out of 15 women mentioned feeling like they didn't know enough code and/or wishing there was a tutorial day for learning some of the basic tools used in a lot of the hacks, like Javascript and D3. 1 man (out of 16) mentioned that a tutorial day or thread might be useful for the less confident. In a survey of 31 people total and where the sample is split into 2 parts, is 6% versus 33% in the noise, or is this saying that women and men report a different experience of .Astro? I'm casting my vote for the latter. 

It's no surprise to anyone who's paying attention that achieving gender balance in astronomy is a complex problem. .Astro is a unique conference where the organizers are very aware of how easy it is for the process of a conference to uphold gender stereotypes and have taken active steps to prevent it. Yet even though they've succeeded in achieving a gender balance of participants that's equal to or better than the balance of our field, there are still issues with encouraging women to give a talk, and women and men still self-select for more stereotypical roles. This in part means they still have different experiences of .Astro. 

One thing is clear, though: actively talking, strategizing and planning has made a dramatic difference in gender equality for this conference over the last 6 years. Given the .Astro philosophy and community, I have no doubt this active approach to diversity will continue and expand to improve .Astro's diversity among many other axes as well. 

.Astro is many things, but I think one of the underlying principles is a "yes, and" philosophy. If you're on board with that and you have ideas about how to do astronomy better, including how to make our field more welcoming to underrepresented groups of all kinds, please consider signing up for .Astro 7!