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.


The first event hosted was the Women’s luncheon.  The luncheon began with AAS President Meg Urry, who highlighted her trail-blazing path and discussed how progress comes from the realization that we still don’t know everything, listening to those around us, and constantly learning.  The lunch then moved on to past IAU President Bob Williams, who spoke about the changes he’s seen at the IAU and even at the Women’s lunch, and spoke of the pros and cons of the quota system for increasing women’s participation.  The program then moved into table discussions, and finished with incoming IAU President Silvia Torres-Peimbert, who focused on her vision for the IAU and the current membership statistics (while women were over 30% of the attendees at the conference, women account for only ~16% of the IAU membership and this number has been relatively stagnant for over 6 years).  

During the table discussions, each group was given 3 separate questions (from a pool of 16 questions total).  Each group was then asked to pick and focus on one question. The topics focused the most were microagressions, unconscious bias, mentorship, allyship, and healthy stress levels.  The detailed notes from these discussion were collected and will be posted at a later date on the IAU Women in Astronomy Working Group website.  Several groups admitted to being confused with the term ‘microagression’ and other groups defined the term as something similar to unconscious bias.  However, the two are different.  Unconscious bias focuses on the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious (without awareness) manner (for a more detailed look, see a previous CSWA blog post by Meg Urry).  Microagressions, however, can be both conscious and unconscious.  Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults which communicate hostility, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. For more information on microagressions, Jessica Kirkpatrick has previously posted on this blog about Microagressions.

Three Scattered Women’s Talks were held throughout the two weeks, and one pleasing theme was that each speaker was a current or previous member of the CSWA.  I presented on the topic of anti-harassment policies and procedures and presented preliminary results from the CSWA Survey on Workplace Climate (see the first figure attached to this blog post for one example of those results). Meredith Hughes discussed the Inclusive Astronomy Conference, focussing on a recap of the conference, as well as recommendations made from the meeting.  Videos and materials from the 2015 Inclusive Astronomy Conference are now posted online. Pat Kenezek spoke on the topic of Unconscious Bias.  The slides for each of these talks will be available on the IAU Women in Astronomy Working Group website.

A conference of this size and global scale will inevitably have a mix of cultures and cultural issues, including the treatment of women within the field, and the conference did include a few moments of concern.  For example, during the closing ceremony, incoming General Secretary Piero Benvenuti (Italy) stated he was looking forward to his female colleagues moving into leadership positions (3/4 of the incoming IAU leadership are women) since ‘women have a special gift for caring and education'.  Silvia Torres-Peimbert, Ewine van Dishoeck, and Maria Teresa Lago are all great people, but let’s remember the real reason they are in leadership roles for the IAU: they are fantastic scientists and leaders in our field.  And Benvenuti was correct that women were highlighted in the exhibit hall for their ability to educate; during the student outreach sessions there was a disproportionate ratio of women to men (in comparison to almost every session, except of course the women’s talks).  One note that I personally encountered was the repeated request from international colleagues for the need for more guidance internationally on gender issues.  Scientists from across the globe, particularly in Europe, asked how to implement several ideas from the CSWA and the Women in Astronomy blog for a broader audience than just the US.

The IAU GA was also the summer meeting for the American Astronomical Society and the AAS leadership was there, highlighting the American leadership in the field.  During the council meeting held over the weekend, several members of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy rotated off of the committee: Neil Gehrels (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), Meredith Hughes (Wesleyan University), Caroline Simpson (Florida International University), and Nicole Zellner (Albion College) have all excelled in their positions on the committee and will be sorely missed.  Joan Schmelz (Arecibo Observatory)  has been a fantastic leader as the Chair of the CSWA and while she is moving on to more exciting duties, she will continue on as a regular blog member for the Women in Astronomy blog.  New members of the CSWA include Heather Flewelling (The University of Hawaii), Jessica Mink (Harvard’s CfA) and Stuart Vogel (The University of Maryland), and I am extremely excited to take over as Chair.