Monday, August 31, 2015

When Misogyny is a Symptom of Narcissism

Today's guest blogger is Anonymous. Anonymous has a PhD in chemistry and recently completed a postdoc at an unnamed national lab. She is leaving science after realizing that her interests lie elsewhere, but it’s all good. She’s interested in community organizing, the bugs in our neural programming, and the ways we transform our painful experiences into growth and value.

We hadn’t been friends for very long. In retrospect, a few warning signs had been quietly visible, but I generally don’t go into friendships expecting toxic behavior. Which is why it surprised me when, over lunch, he explained to me how I’d gotten into college.

“Maybe it’s because you’re a female.”

Surprise and anger rose inside of me, but since we were friends, I decided to reply very carefully. “What do you mean by that?”

“I’m saying that soooometimes, women and minorities are held to a lower standard in admissions.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Astronomer to Data Scientist, Three Years Later

In August 2012, I began my first job as a data scientist. I handed my completed dissertation to my committee on a Friday and the following Monday I started work. Leaving academia (and astronomy) was not an easy decision for me. I remember starting that first day thinking: "Well... if this doesn't work out, I guess I'll reapply for post-docs again next year." It ended up working out better than I could have imagined. I wrote several posts about this transition during my first year working as a data scientist, but I thought I'd reflect and talk about what it has been like working as a data scientist, now that I am further along in my career.

Much of what I said in my post Astronomy vs Data Science continues to hold true today, and so below I will simply add some new perspectives now that I have a bit more experience in the field. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Fierce Conversations

In my new role as Director of Citizen Science* at the Adler Planetarium, much of my time is spent in 'managing' - setting goals, determining how we'll reach those goals, pursuing grants, managing grants, mediating relationships within the group, across departments, and with external partners, etc. In seeking management advice that resonated with my personality and background, I had some difficulty until a friend recommended:
"Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time", by Susan Scott
I'll admit, as with most advice books, I skimmed through the fluff and much of the anecdotes. But each chapter has worthwhile specific advice and 'tasks' to test out new ideas. I was surprised by how empowered I felt by the advice that emphasized how I could take advantage of my strengths (being a good listener, asking questions rather than immediately providing answers, being diplomatic, bridging relationships, etc.) to be the most effective in my role. Somehow seeing it in print gave me permission to be myself and play on my strengths. The book also highlights that you don't need to know everything and have all the answers. In fact, it's beneficial to relationship building and empowering for team members to know you're authentically including their voice and insight in decision making. This probably seems obvious to you, but as a relatively junior person stepping into a management role, part of me felt that to prove myself worthy, I needed to immediately have all the answers and a crystal clear vision (or at least appear to). I can imagine I'm not alone in that feeling. 

In thinking about my reaction, I wonder whether management books tend to have gendered, career-stage reactions. Does the management style advice offered by this book typically resonate more with more junior women? Are there others in this genre that you'd recommend?

Friday, August 21, 2015

AASWomen Newsletter for August 21, 2015

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of August 21, 2015
eds: Daryl Haggard, Nicolle Zellner, Meredith Hughes, & Elysse Voyer

This week's issues:

1. The SEP in Astronomy
2. My Impressions: The IAU XXIX General Assembly
3. Status magazine for June 2015 is published
4. Practical policies can combat gender inequality     
5. Astronomer Celebrates Female Scientists’ “Special Natural Gift for Caring and Educating” 
6. Job Opportunities
7. How to Submit to the AASWomen Newsletter
8. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWomen Newsletter
9. Access to Past Issues of the AASWomen Newsletter

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The SEP in Astronomy

In his 1982 novel Life, the Universe, and Everything, Douglas Adams described the SEP.
The following is a thinly veiled transmogrification of his text.

“I think,” said the First Astronomer, “that there’s an SEP at work in our field.”

He pointed. Curiously enough, the direction he pointed in was not the one in which he was looking.

“A what?” said the Second Astronomer.

“An SEP.”

“An S ...?”

”... EP.”

“And what’s that?”

“Somebody Else’s Problem.”

“Ah, good,” said the Second and relaxed. He had no idea what all that was about, but at least it seemed to be over. It wasn’t.

Monday, August 17, 2015

My Impressions: The IAU XXIX General Assembly

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) XXIX General Assembly (GA) took place from August 3-14 in Honolulu, Hi.  In addition to a high-level scientific program, the GA included 4 Women’s Lunches and several Mentoring Events organized by the IAU Women’s Working Group (through Chair Francesca Primas) and the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (through me).  The events were highlighted throughout the two weeks in the IAU GA newspaper.  It was a busy two weeks, and this recap will include some key notes, highlights, and even a few concerning points from the IAU GA.

Preliminary results from the CSWA Survey on Workplace Climate that were recently presented at the IAU GA.  Note, the total number of respondents to this survey was 426.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fix the system, fix the people

Which system, which people? These questions were discussed two weeks ago at a very interesting session ADVANCE Grants: Increasing the Participation of Women in Physics at the summer meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

The NSF ADVANCE program seeks to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers. Many important contributions have come from major ADVANCE programs around the country, including the STRIDE workshops and materials from the University of Michigan and workshops and materials on Departmental Climate and Breaking the Bias Habit from the the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The AAPT session provided an overview by Program Director Jessie DeAro and summaries of several projects. A major recurring theme was the question of where to focus effort for best effect.

A nice dichotomy was presented by  Sherry Yennello of Texas A&M University in her talk "From ‘Fixing Women’ to ‘Institutional Transformation’: An ADVANCE Case Study". We have a problem to solve: women are underrepresented in STEM and are failing to advance at their capacity. The problem involves both women as a group and the organizational culture of academic science and engineering, i.e., "the system." It is interesting to ask: Are we trying to fix the women, or fix the system? Or is this dichotomy too limited?

Mentoring initiatives are an example of helping women (and all mentees) to improve their chances of success, and are a frequent organizational response to the problem under discussion. The academic system has lots of hidden knowledge to be acquired, and in male-dominated disciplines women can find it harder to acquire this knowledge without special efforts. At least, this is how universities tend to view things. Many universities offer mentoring and career workshops to all, but the motivation sometimes seems to be to "help women and minorities." A similar lens may work for work-life balance, which often is, incorrectly, regarded as a women's issue. And yet women still spend on average much more time in chores and family care than men do, so there is an issue here!

The other talks in the session addressed similar themes, including initiatives to support women in STEM at the Rochester Institute of Technology summarized by Lea Michel, and a peer mentoring network of senior women in physics at small liberal arts colleges described by Anne Cox of  Eckerd College. The talks were great but they leave me with lingering questions and uneasy thoughts: What problem are we trying to solve, and how?

It is easy to focus solutions on people, hence the natural tendency to "fix the people." But which people?

Unconscious bias training such as that pioneered at Michigan and Wisconsin-Madison is another example of "fix the people" -- except that now, in caricature, "the people" are men, especially white men. We all have blind spots, but those exhibited by people in power are the most consequential. So it makes sense to reduce their effects by training the white men (among others).

Sherry Yennello noted another perspective: we could fix the system that women and men operate in so that everyone can succeed to their potential. This involves shifting organizational culture, which is difficult and can take many years. As an interim, continue to assist those who are not fully reaping the benefits of that culture. This seems like a good approach.

Fixing the system is hard because we don't always see it: Lea Michel used the metaphor of a fish in water. It's also hard because people interact with the system and are changed by it more readily than they can change the system.

An example is the great variety of departmental cultures present in a given field or within a given university. The law of large numbers does not seem to equalize climate: two different departments, hiring from the same group of people, can have vastly different traditions, culture, and experience. Person A may thrive in Department B but not in Department C, and this varies greatly with the person and the department.

The NSF ADVANCE program has long recognized this difference. Its Institutional Transformation awards seek "to produce large-scale comprehensive change and serve as a locus for research on gender equity and institutional transformation for academic STEM." The ADVANCE program is in its 15th year. This seems like the right timescale on which to seek institutional transformation.

Maybe the system is what needs fixing, not the people. But the system is widespread, and every new person joining an organization brings their own history of systems. And that brings the final complication: ourselves.

Each of us has work to do. We cannot easily "fix" others, and even less fix a system. But we can fix ourselves. We are all broken in ways, we all needing mending. How much time and effort do we put into that when we think about fixing others or fixing the system?

Social change is hard, harder than physics or astronomy. But those who can start change from within, and then inspire others, can make a tremendous contribution to solving the pressing problems of inequality.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Strategies for Combining Family and Career

I read an interesting article this week about the challenges women face in having children while pursuing a scientific career.  It is "Balancing Family Life with Science Career" by Akiko Iwasaki in the August 2015 issue of Nature Immunology.  It has valuable advice for women scientists raising children that matched well with experiences that my wife and I had.

Science is a wonderful career track for people wanting to solve fundamental problems and follow their curiosity.  It can offer a diverse life-style with time split between such activities as laboratory work, interacting with students and postdocs, analyzing data, writing papers and presenting results at conferences.  However, it is not an easy path to follow.  Success depends on being able to identify important and interesting problems and to set up experiments to solve them.  Young faculty must create and manage a research group with students and postdocs.  Research funding is necessary but hard to come by in today's highly oversubscribed programs.  Papers must be written and have broad impact.  This is usually all in addition to teaching classes and serving on multitudes of committees.

Everyone is in the same boat and success can be obtained through hard work.  For women, an additional factor can be the desire to have children and raise a family.  Both men and women participate in family activities, but there is usually much more time off needed for women.  This can be a profoundly difficult problem and one of the factors in the imbalance of women and men in science careers as shown in the figure.

Figure Caption:  Demographics comparison for US general population and US science and engineering population showing the reduced fraction of women in science and engineering.  From Iwasaki (Nature Immunology, Aug 2015).

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Obscene Phone Calls and Emails

Today’s guest blogger is Maura McLaughlin. Maura has been a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at West Virginia University since 2006. She received her PhD from Cornell University in 2001 and did postdoctoral research at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory for five years before coming to WVU. She is a Cottrell Scholar, a Sloan Fellow, and serves as Co-Director of a recently awarded NSF Physics Frontiers Center.
I’ve been dealing with sexual harassment via phone calls and email by an astronomer, and I believe this originated with a colloquium that I gave in the spring. The harassment continued for months, culminating in me reporting it to his university, but no evidence was found and the case was dismissed. I remain incredibly frustrated, and also scared, and hope that by writing this post I might identify others who are victims of harassment by this same person. I have provided a lot of detail in this post, as I think it will be helpful, but have not included the name of the university or astronomer who I believe is responsible, as I know these allegations carry serious repercussions.

The months-long incident started when I gave a colloquium this past spring. After the colloquium, one of the several people who approached me with questions (I’ll call him "X") asked if we could meet later on to discuss my research. I agreed and suggested that he sign up for a slot in my official meeting schedule, as there were several still available for that afternoon. X said that he'd rather meet up informally, and requested my cell phone number. I told him that it wasn’t necessary, as I'd be in the visitor office from 4-6 pm and he could stop by anytime. X said something like "Yes but it would just make me feel better if I could check and make sure you were there" and for some reason (I suppose because he’s an astronomer at a prestigious university and it’s a work-related interest) I agreed and gave him my cell number.

He texted me at 4:30 or so to make sure I was actually in the visitor’s office, I of course texted back in the affirmative, and he showed up for a meeting at 5 or so. We talked for an hour. He demonstrated some odd behavior (he was barefoot, sat a bit close, and took over my laptop for brief stretches) but no alarm bells went off for me and it was generally a pleasant interaction. He asked if he could join our collaboration and attend our meetings, and I encouraged him to email me with his interests and we would discuss further over email.

That evening I had a lovely dinner with other faculty (not including X), got back to my room around 9 pm, set my alarm for 3 am (as I had a ridiculously early flight home), and crashed. Between midnight and 1 am my phone rang and I clumsily answered to a strange and menacing computer-generated voice (or perhaps a real voice put through a voice synthesizer) shouting the same sexually explicit directive (involving male genitalia) at me over and over and over. I immediately hung up, of course, and received two more calls after that initial one, both repeating the same thing. The calls came from Google voice so were anonymous.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Women in Astronomy, 1000 Posts Later

Today marks our 1000th blog post on the Women-in-Astronomy (WiA) blog. I thought I'd use this post to talk about some of the blog's history and where I see our future. Former Bloggers-in-Chief Hannah Jang-Condell and Laura Trouille as well as CSWA chair Joan Schmelz also contributed to this piece. 

This blog was started in 2008 by former CSWA member Hannah Jang-Condell in an effort to reach out to a younger, more socially networked audience. While the CSWA already had a weekly newsletter (AAS Women, sign up here) and a quarterly magazine (Status: A Report on Women in Astronomy), Hannah felt that more informal, shorter posts, would engage a different audience. 

Initially the blog consisted of posts by Hannah sharing her thoughts about women in science, and providing commentary on news items that crossed her path.  It wasn't too long before she realized that she needed help and recruited other members of the CSWA to contribute to WiA.  In 2009 Joan Schmelz and (then-CSWA-chair) Geoff Clayton started contributing posts and Hannah became the first 'Blogger-in-Chief'.