Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Uncomfortable conversations and my responsibility within our community


“I’m about to have an uncomfortable conversation with y’all.  I may turn red and become visibly emotional.  I apologize in advance.”  That statement is how I start almost every single one of my talks on anti-sexual harassment policies.  I know that the topic is hard for many in the room to discuss, that I may trigger an unwanted response, either in the form of a repressed thought or a negative defensive emotion, at any point in that hour.  I know that in order for those in the room with real power to hear about this topic, they need to see first-hand just how this unfortunate issue can negatively impact a person’s work, and their primary objective as a scientist. But I also know that for some people in the room, what they really want is for me to give them a hug and tell them it will be okay.  I know that my words will have a direct influence on the audience and I must act according to the level of respect and understanding every single person in that room deserves.  That’s not easy, and I know up-front that I have put myself into a position of responsibility.



As my career has moved along a path that has put me more and more in front of people, discussing tough topics, I’ve learned that it’s my job to be responsible for my actions and the words that I use.   As a contract Program Officer in Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, I often have to have uncomfortable conversations with proposers who are displeased with funding decisions that are likely beyond my control.  I know that people may be displeased with a review they receive, and may need to send an angry message, and I’d much rather receive that message than ever let it fall onto a reviewer to deal with.  Part of my job is to receive these complaints and do what can be done in the fairest way possible, and another vital part of my job is to be as respectful as possible when those complaints are brought forth, even when the other person does not behave in that manner.  As a member of the CSWA, and someone who often helps in organizing and discussing events with the Women in Planetary Science Working Group, I know that I will often be dealing with uncomfortable topics that are causing us to lose valuable scientists in our field.  By standing up and helping deliver these issues to a larger audience, and by doing the surveys required to start a conversation on what we can do to fix the problem, I can, at times, become a target for unwelcomed feedback.


But there’s another portion of my career/life that I also need to remember: I have direct influence on the younger generation in this field and I should always be projecting the type of person I would want them to become.  I want them to see that, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc., you can become a leader in our field and a great scientist and there are people who will support your endeavors and fight with you.  I want them to know that when I write or speak about an uncomfortable topic, I have taken the time to reflect upon how my words will affect them and everyone else in the room, and I understand that, as stated in a quote of debatable origins (was it Spiderman or Voltaire?): “with great power comes great responsibility.”  And if I make mistakes, I will admit that have screwed up, and will apologize for those actions.  But beyond apologizing, I will strive to come to a full understanding of my mistakes and work to remedy the situation through a larger, broader conversation on my actions, including in the larger context of our society.  I’m not perfect, no one is, and part of the process of coming full circle with respect is realizing that it’s your job as a mentor, as a person, to own that.

Recently, our community has been having many difficult conversations, including one conversation that has occurred just this week.  And that’s a good thing, as we are working as a community to improve the quality of life for our scientists, thereby increasing the work output and making the pool of potential future scientists a broader, more amazing pool.  I hope that in coming days/weeks/months/years we will continue to strive as a community to become a healthier, respectful group to everyone, regardless if they agree with out stance or opinion, and will use our intelligence and hard work effort towards achieving success in science.    There are many resources available here at the Women in Astronomy blog on this topic, and elsewhere (STEM Women, The Women in Planetary Science Working Group, the CSMA, WGLE, etc.)  Please feel free to add other resources to the comments.