Monday, April 13, 2015

CSWA Success Stories and Future Challenges

Recent data on demographics and conversations with my NSF colleague, Lisa Frehill, opened my eyes to a somewhat surprising fact. Young women in astronomy (assistant professors, postdocs, students) from some racial and ethnic backgrounds (white and Asian) may have reached parity with their percentages in the US population!
The STATUS magazine article, the 2013 CSWA Demographics Survey, was open on my computer screen. In particular, Figure 1 shows that percentages of women at the level of assistant professor and younger are about 30% (within uncertainties). These percentages are similar to those described in the article, The 30% Benchmark: Women in Astronomy Postdocs at US Institutions. According to this article, which was based in part on data gathered by members of the Astro2010 Demographics study group,
-Graduate enrollment for women in US astronomy departments has risen from 25% in 1997 to 30% in 2006 (NSF-NIH Survey of Grad Students and Post-docs in S&E).
-The percentage of Astronomy PhDs earned by women in the US has increased steadily from less than 20% in 1997 to almost 30% in 2006 (NSF Survey of Earned doctorates).
-The success rate of women in both prize fellowships and individual postdocs is about 30%.
-The percentage of women faculty at stand-alone astronomy departments in 2006 was 28% at the assistant professor level.

These results give us some good news that the astronomy community should celebrate: neither the grad student-to-postdoc joint nor the postdoc-to-assist prof joint of the so-called “leaky pipeline” appears to be leaking! The astronomy-specific data agree with the overall trend in STEM discussed recently in the article, Think Again About Gender Gap in Science, by Hilary Hurd Anyaso. This article describes a new Northwestern University analysis of 30 years of data that shows that the Bachelor's-to-PhD pipeline in STEM no longer leaks more women than men.
A pile of papers containing additional relevant data were sitting on my desk. These pages contained information put together by Lisa Frehill as she and I discussed what data she would include in the first of her astro-diversity post, The Pipeline to Astronomy Degrees. On the top of the pile was a pie chart of the U.S. 20-24 year old population in 2013: white, Asian, and under-represented minority (URM, which includes Native American, Alaska Native, African American, and Hispanic/Latina) women were 28%, 3%, and 18% of the population, respectively.
Before putting all these results together, I had naively assumed that women in the astronomy community were far from parity. 30% isn’t bad, but it is still far from 50%. These data made me realize that 50% was the wrong benchmark.
The 2013 Astronomy Demographics data set includes 106 assistant professors, 37 (26±4%) of whom are female. If these 106 were representative of the American population, then ~30 (28%) of them would be white, ~3 (3%) would be Asian, and 19 (18%) would be URMs. Because there are so few women in this group, it is actually possible to know many or even most of them personally. One thing that is painfully obvious is that there are far fewer than 19 URM women in this group. In fact, from personal knowledge of the 37 women, one could be fairly certain that at least 30 of them were white and at least 3 were Asian.
So this comparison gives us both the good news and the bad news. The good news is that young white and Asian women appear to have reached parity with their percentages in the US population! This is such an amazing thing that I just have to take a moment to celebrate it before moving on. This success comes in spite of the fact that sexual harassment, unconscious bias, and stereotype threat still play a significant role in our culture and our community.
But not so fast. This comparison also reveals that the major reason why women do not make up 50% of the assistant professors in astronomy - URM women are seriously underrepresented. There is both a layer of sexism and a layer of racism that they have to contend with. In order to make astronomy a true meritocracy, our community will have to continue to find ways to deal more effectively with these issues. Lydia Villa-Komaroff is the co-chair of the Committee on Advancing Institutional Transformation for Minority Women in Academia and one of the organizers of the 2013 NAS conference entitled, Seeking Solutions: Maximizing American Talent by Advancing Women of Color in Academia. According to Villa-Komaroff many of the issues mentioned above, including sexual harassment, unconscious bias, and stereotype threat, also affect women of color. The problems, however, are more severe, and the barriers are more difficult to overcome.
Another concern revealed by the 2013 Astronomy Demographics data set is that only 19% of associate professors and 14% of full professors were women. The percentages of deans, provosts, observatory directors, and laboratory managers are even lower. This problem will not be solved by simply waiting for the current assistant professors/postdocs/students to rise to leadership positions. Astronomy postdocs, for example, have been 30% female for at least 20 years! The leaky pipeline metaphor appears to be alive and well at the senior ranks.
As CSWA moves forward, a new committee will soon form under new leadership. All CSWA members, past and present, can not only celebrate these accomplishments but also look to future challenges. Young white and Asian women reaching parity with their percentages in the US population is certainly cause to celebrate. Recruiting and retaining women of color and promoting all women to leadership positions are the challenges that our community and our committee will face in the years to come.

Women of Color:
Women in Leadership:
On Leadership by Joan Schmelz
Becoming a Leader by Kelly Korreck

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