Monday, December 1, 2014

Hacking a respectful and caring community in your department

Astronomy graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign requested a departmental colloquium on diversity and inclusion, which I gave two weeks ago.  Kudos to the department for agreeing to this and for advertising it widely, and to those who attended. The experience may be useful to others, so I share it here.

The punchline first: the graduate students are disappointed at how little progress there has been in increasing faculty diversity.  Even when proactive efforts are made by department leadership, change happens slowly at best.  Increasing the representation by 50% or even 100% seems like a drop in the ocean given the small numbers of women in most astronomy and physics departments, especially if there are 0 or 1 women faculty in the department.  Are we settling for permanent inequity if we talk about 25% women and not 50%?  And what about other problems of underrepresentation and marginalization?

These are the kinds of questions that can shift  attitudes, including my own.  Whereas I have taken pride in increasing the percentage of women in physics at MIT (for example, from 10% to 18% of the PhDs during my term as department head), I may be deluding myself that  this is significant progress.  Maybe it is, and maybe it is in the eye of the beholder.  The point is to see things with fresh eyes, to think, and then to act.  And no matter how much one has thought about such issues, there are always new perspectives that have the power to transform our understanding and engagement.

This experience reminded me of a meeting I held with women graduate students almost 8 years ago as I sought advice on how I could help as a new department head.  The students told me "You have to create a culture of caring in the department."  They followed this instruction with crucial guidance: “We think you can make a difference, we expect you to make a difference, and we will help you.”  I was being held accountable.  If I wanted to succeed as a leader, I had to make this a priority.

At UIUC I described some of the steps I took. I gave a primer on unconscious bias and an extract from the faculty search committee training that I do.  I spoke about privilege and marginalization, and steps individuals and departments can take to equalize treatment.  I made the business case for diversity and inclusion as a competitive advantage.  In short, I did what CSWA bloggers do all the time.  But I had many non-readers of this blog present in the room.

Are such efforts a drop in the ocean?  Obviously I think they make a difference, and I have data from my own institution to support that claim.  But at a personal level, I work on these topics because of my personal ethics, and my recognition that my greatest impact will be achieved by enabling and empowering others to succeed.

You're probably wondering why I titled the post "Hacking" and why I showed an old photo of the Hacker's Code of Ethics.  Hacking refers to creative, collaborative effort to solve technical problems.  Just as the meaning of “hacking” has evolved, “technical problems” can be extended to include factors that limit the success of many academic departments in technical fields such as privilege, unconscious bias, marginalization of out-group members, etc.  Creative, collaborative effort to advance a respectful and caring community can leverage the power of diversity, improve student and faculty success, and enhance the quality of life for everyone. Doing so is the ethical thing to do.