Monday, December 8, 2014

How Workplace Climate Changes the Knowledge We Generate

Reproduced from the June 2014 Issue of STATUS: A Report on Women in Astronomy.  The article below is written by Meg Urry, Yale University, Department of Physics and Department of Astronomy. Based on a keynote address given at the University of California ADVANCE Roundtable in April 2014, at UC Davis

Some years ago, at a major US university, a visiting faculty candidate was told by a senior colleague – an influential, Nobel prize-winning director of a major institute at that university – that she would not be welcome to work with him, that he would not allocate his institute’s resources to her, and that his research group would be reluctant to talk to her because they were basically in competition with her.

She wisely decided to build her career elsewhere, but not before describing the problem and leaking his email to others at the university. The ensuing scandal created a classic conflict between bad behavior and first-rate science.

Nobel Prize winners are important to universities; their presence conveys prestige and their work inspires the next generations of researchers. So the president of that university had to be thinking: maybe the guy acted stupidly but he's a Nobel Prize winner! He's done amazing science, and he is incredibly valuable to us. I know few university presidents would have wanted to penalize this high flyer because he impeded diversity or young scholarship. If you did nothing but subtract him from the picture, the intellectual life of the university would certainly be poorer.

But I had quite a different reaction to this dilemma: What if the senior faculty member had been a different kind of person – specifically, someone less focused on beating the other guy, someone who saw his role as supporting the next generation, someone who welcomed a talented young scholar in his own area of research. Would not the achievements of that person's institute ultimately be greater?

Conduct – climate – has a strong influence on the generation of new knowledge. That is my theme in this piece.

I don't suggest that competition is bad or that level of scholarship is not the most important criterion for assessing the value of a faculty member to an institution. Rather, scholarship is the most important thing; universities are in the business of generating new knowledge. It is our responsibility to foster the best research we possibly can.

One of the problems with making change at universities is that many faculty members feel the current research enterprise is as good as it possibly could be – and therefore change is bad, a step backwards. What I am suggesting is that the atmosphere in many science departments – where aggressive behavior is often seen as a proxy for ability – does not lead to the best science, and that institutional change leading to an improved climate would enhance intellectual accomplishments.

Many of us have worked in unpleasant environments. What happens? You spend a lot of time thinking about the sources of friction, complaining to yourself and to others about the bad things that have happened, trying to calm distraught colleagues so they won’t leave. In such places, a lot of energy is dissipated rather than channeled into productive research. In the worst case, the scientific productivity of apparent “misfits” can be badly affected by a toxic atmosphere, confirming preconceptions that some group just isn’t up to the task.

Humanity can't afford this kind of waste. Major problems confronting the world are increasingly rooted in STEM issues, including climate change, economic growth, energy, water, pollution, education, and cyber security. We must have a workforce that can respond to these many challenges.

Excellence is diminished when scientists are not at their best. Think about the best research you have ever done. Chances are it was done in a collegial environment, where people spoke openly of their work, without worrying too much about who would get the credit. Quite likely the work was stimulated by a free exchange of ideas, especially with people who think differently from you.

The myth of the lone genius working in the customs office has little relevance to most scientific research today. When I worked at the Space Telescope Science Institute, mostly I saw teams of people working together to build the Hubble Space Telescope (a six-billion-dollar project), to calibrate its instruments, and to interpret its data. Almost never did lone geniuses come up with valuable results – although plenty of individuals were rewarded for “solo” contributions that were actually the work of teams. After one meeting of a tenure committee, a colleague muttered under his breath, “That’s the third person we’ve tenured” for that particular achievement. That was the culture (in those days – it's changed a lot since then). Being called a “team player” was basically a negative.

The importance of teamwork is also seen at the ten-billion- dollar Large Hadron Collider; my physics colleagues in the 2000-person ATLAS experiment do science in a highly collaborative and coordinated way. Although only three or fewer people can be named as Nobel Prize recipients, it is often large teams – or large informal groups of colleagues – who make breakthroughs.

So, while increasing diversity is surely about excellence, and improving our hiring and promotion processes is essential, it is not sufficient. To get the most out of a community of scholars – to enable them to be maximally brilliant and creative and productive – we have to provide a good workplace.

The faculty candidate from my opening anecdote was quoted as saying, after she accepted a job elsewhere, that she looked forward to the “unprecedented opportunity to just focus on science” and having “a lot of fun being in a highly collaborative environment.” She voted with her feet.

Research shows that diversity stimulates innovation [1] – indeed, this is one of the virtues of a diverse workplace. But the research also shows that diversity leads to increased conflict. If that conflict is well managed, innovation ensues, but if the conflict is left to fester, diverse groups do worse than homogeneous groups. One of the worst things we can do is hire women and minorities into STEM departments and leave them to sink or swim in toxic environments. This helps neither the young faculty members nor the STEM enterprise.

So let’s focus on collegiality. What is the climate like in academic science departments? Clearly it varies a great deal from one place to the next, and from one discipline to the next, but there are some common themes.

My own experience has been in physics departments, in which the percentages of women and minorities are as low as in any STEM discipline. We have been among the slowest to change, so we are perhaps at the far end of the climate spectrum, where the symptoms are most obvious.

Tolstoy said, in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Actually, I think the site visit teams sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) of the American Physical Society (APS) would say the opposite: all unhappy departments have a lot in common. In general, the undergraduates are fine: eager, happy, and excited about physics. The first- and second-year graduate students are the same, albeit slightly more stressed by qualifying exams and the pressure of finding an advisor.

The senior graduate students and postdocs are different, particularly the women. Most of the women are discouraged and unhappy, they feel they've made a mistake in pursuing physics, and they see no way to move forward. One young woman we talked to, who was known by one of the site visit committee members (someone in her field) as an up-and- coming young scientist with an excellent reputation, told us she had made a terrible mistake going into physics, that she had no good ideas, that she could not write a grant proposal to save her life, and that she was just hoping to finish her degree and get out of physics. In my experience on site visit committees, this kind of attitude was far more prevalent among the women than the men.

We saw this kind of thing in most physics departments we visited. The women faculty members were sometimes the saddest part of the story. They were often on the sidelines, marginalized and often seen – or at least treated – by their colleagues as unproductive or of lesser ability. Even the women who were held in high regard by their colleagues were often the most overworked, highly stressed faculty members in the department.

One time, as Chair of a CSWP Visiting Committee, I was debriefing the Physics Department Chair at a highly ranked physics department in a highly ranked university. He is a terrific leader on the issue of diversity – he understands the biases that have kept physics so male dominated – but he was taken aback when I described one female faculty member, in particular, as a rising superstar back when I was in graduate school. I remembered when his university hired her away from another highly ranked department – this had been seen as a major coup. Yet years later, her colleagues treated her more like furniture – when they weren’t being rude and belittling. I think our conversation was the first time the Chair thought about the scientific cost of a bad climate, as opposed to the social good of having a good climate.

I have one foot in the astronomy world, which requires the same skill set as physics yet for many decades has had twice as many women (percentage-wise) as physics. In my experience, the climate in astronomy departments is frequently friendlier, less over-the-top elitist, less dominated by super-egos. Of course, a relaxed atmosphere doesn’t guarantee first-rate scholarship – for that, one also needs ambitious ideas, hard work, and clever analysis.

In departments with troublesome climates, a good fraction of the faculty think the same way on a lot of matters. They easily reach consensus in back-room discussions, and they have difficulty appreciating other views. To the extent that the minority views belong to women and/or minorities, this can exacerbate the tensions of a newly diverse faculty and suppress innovation.

Of course, the majority don’t see themselves as I have described them – and this is my last point. Many years ago, I was complaining (naturally!) to Sheila Tobias, who has written extensively about gender and STEM. I was bemoaning the tough conditions for women in these male- dominated fields, and her reply really stuck with me. She wouldn’t trade places with them for anything, she said. In fact, she felt sorry for majority men. They never had any reason to examine themselves and thus they had far less self- knowledge than we who were fighting to get into the castle. This is a natural, human thing.

I remember vividly the first meeting of the organizing committee for the first meeting on Women in Astronomy, which we held in Baltimore in 1992. That meeting resulted in a document called the Baltimore Charter, outlining how change could happen. It was considered a radical document that only a few institutions were eager to endorse. Today it looks sweetly old-fashioned and almost toothless. I thought the conference should be about the extra obstacles women face in building a career, but a senior male colleagues insisted we talk about whether women face extra obstacles at all.

I was initially annoyed and disbelieving, but later I realized this was one of the most useful lessons of all. A clear lesson in diversity: we all prefer to associate with people who are like us and listen to people who agree with us. I'd been discussing these issues for years with people whose attitudes and sympathies were close to mine, and therefore I had zero understanding of different views. This guy had never thought there was anything unusual about a modern institute with less than 5% women faculty and no under-represented minorities. Now I always start my talks on women in science with demographic data and review the social science data on unconscious bias.

I am convinced that most white male scientists don’t see anything off-kilter in the typical unbalanced department. When I arrived at Yale in 2001, I was the only woman in the Physics Department and the first woman they had ever tenured. (A few years earlier, Karin Rabe had been the first woman tenured by Yale's Applied Physics Department.) It’s the same everywhere in the academy but perhaps particularly in science, because being objective is so central to our scientific identity. Other people might be biased, but we fancy ourselves gender blind and color blind, or so we would really, really like to believe. (Those who have visited usually know better.)

A story illustrates the problem: I was a member of the organizing committee for the 2007 APS-sponsored meeting of Physics Department Chairs, which was focused on diversity and equity. We arranged for the University of Michigan CRLT Players [2] to present one of their skits just before the opening reception. This theater troupe uses extensive interviews to develop scripts depicting key moments in academic life. Every incident depicted is based on reality and the words are often direct quotations.

We saw the “faculty meeting” skit, which I have seen three times now. Six faculty members discuss minor business and then which of two faculty candidates (one woman, one man) to hire. This last part is really the meat of the piece, but here I want to focus on the beginning. The department chair raises an issue about the Xerox machine and suggests a solution that he and another senior faculty member appear to have agreed on in advance. The senior woman objects, with detailed reasons, and is supported by a junior male. The remaining faculty members, all male, dismiss her concerns and support the Chair. He closes the Xerox machine discussion by saying, “We’re all agreed, then. We’ll do [what I suggested].”

At the 2007 Chairs’ meeting, only one or two of the roughly fifty department chairs were female, but the dozen or so women attending the meeting (mostly members of the organizing committee) sat together in the front row and laughed through the choicest parts. We all thought, “This is my life.” But the reaction of the male chairs was quite different. At the reception following the skit, one person after the next said the skit was terribly exaggerated, that no one would behave that boorishly, it simply wasn’t realistic.

The next day (bear with me, this leads to the punch line), the meeting began with plenary talks followed by breakout sessions in which each group was asked to discuss how to deal with a particular scenario. A good friend who is a senior woman in physics later told me what happened in her group. Their scenario concerned a group grant, such as is common in nuclear and particle physics. The PI of the grant, a senior man, wanted to repurpose the funding allocated to a junior woman, over her objections, and she had brought the issue to the department chair.

The convener of this group started the discussion by saying, “First, let’s all agree that this has nothing to do with gender, it’s simply bad behavior.” Several men in the group agreed. Then my friend said, “I don’t agree, I think it has everything to do with gender, and how power intersects with gender.” The only other woman present, much younger, agreed with her. Then several men explained why they thought this view was wrong and the discussion moved on.

When the full conference reconvened, each breakout discussion was summarized by its convener. The man leading the group described above began his presentation by saying, “First, we all agreed that this scenario had nothing to do with gender.” It was precisely the situation depicted in the CRLT Players skit – behavior that the physics chairs believed was greatly exaggerated. This man also said the scenario simply described bad behavior, implying no one would ever do such a thing.

The point is, we do not always see ourselves as others do. Our challenges are to hold up the mirror in a way that does not offend and to inspire our colleagues to consider diverse points of view.

Let me close with two pieces of good news.

Twenty years ago, astronomy departments looked a lot like physics departments today – the same percentages of women (10%) and minorities (near 0%), the same attitudes, the same resistance to change. Now, astronomy appears to have hit the tipping point. About half the Ph. D.s over the past 5 years have gone to women, and it appears (small number statistics) that women are getting their share of the top faculty positions and are starting to win some of the prestigious prizes. This means change is possible.

Second, there are some really outstanding women professors out there who have been marginalized at their current institutions. If your university can get ahead of the pack, you can make some excellent acquisitions.


[1] S. E. Page 2008, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (Princeton University Press, Kindle Edition) Chapter 12


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