Friday, May 22, 2015

Homework for Those Seeking to be Allies

The below by Dr. Sarah Ballard is cross-posted (with permission) from John Johnson's blog,  Dr. Ballard is a Carl Sagan postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, and soon-to-be Torres Fellow at MIT.

The writer and activist Janet Mock describes the idea of an “ally” as more of an action, and less of an identity. “Ally” is something that we actively do, not something that we can ever passively be. I found this conception very helpful to hear because it posits “ally” within the context of hard work. Being an ally is hard work. It is similar to my other kinds of work (in astronomy and elsewhere) in that (1) improvement is not only facilitated by criticism from respected peers and colleagues, it relies upon this criticism, and (2) it’s characterized less by large leaps and bounds, and much more by constant and small day-to-day efforts.

AASWOMEN Newsletter for May 22, 2015

AAS Committee on the Status of Women AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of May 22, 2015
eds: Daryl Haggard, Nicolle Zellner, Meredith Hughes, & Elysse Voyer

This week's issues:

1. Letter of Recommendation for Letters of Recommendation

2. #GirlsWithToys

3. The Broader Impact of Broader Impacts

4. In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last

5. Being "out" as a #scimom

6. Gazing at the Future: The experiences of male and female astronomy doctoral students in the UK

7. Job Opportunities

8. How to Submit to the AASWOMEN newsletter

9. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWOMEN newsletter

10. Access to Past Issues

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Letter of Recommendation for Letters of Recommendation

My wife pointed out to me an interesting article in the May 2015 issue of Science about gender bias when writing letters of recommendation.  It is by Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt and describes her personal experience in reviewing graduate student proposals for small research grants.  She found systematic differences in letters of recommendation for female and male proposers that were detrimental to the females.

Here are some specifics.  Ten percent of the 60 proposers had one or more letter with inappropriate content for the purpose of the letter and all such cases were in letters for the women.  Prof. McNutt cites examples of mentioning that the candidate was "so good to her elderly mother", "spending time in nature with her husband and her animals friends".  Another discussed the candidate's balancing being a scientists and a mother.  Also, the language was on-average different between men and women in a detrimental way for women.  In some cases, the women got adjectives such as "friendly", "kind", "pleasant", "humble", and frequently "nice".  Typical language for the male candidates, and also many of the females candidates, included "brilliant", "creative", "hard-working", insightful" and "showing leadership".

Graphic from Science May 2015 issue (McNutt)

Monday, May 18, 2015


"Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call 'boys with toys.' I really like playing around with telescopes. It's just not fashionable to admit it." These are the words of Caltech Professor and Optical Observatories Director Shri Kulkarni, shared with NPR's Joe Palca on Weekend Edition Saturday May 16, 2015.

The photograph of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin on the left shows that women have also been fascinated by scientific instrumentation since before Kulkarni was born. They just haven't always had access to it, unlike the boys.

Kulkarni himself has supervised several female graduate students and postdocs, so his choice of words was surprising. They do seem like a prime example of unconscious bias. Are there still scientists, or others, who believe that they are completely objective and fair? If so, please share with them the Implicit Association Test, so that they can match their wits against a computer. For a little background, see this nice explanation within the SPLC Teaching Tolerance curriculum.

Words matter. When a leading scientist excludes girls, it sends the message, whether intended or not, that girls should not apply because they do not belong. The same  message is regularly heard by people of color, transgender people, and others. We expect better of our community members.

Fortunately, social media enables us to advance a different narrative, one that shows women (and, one hopes, people of color and other genders) playing with their scientific toys. I don't know how Twitter views compare with the audience size of Weekend Edition, but I know that it can have an impact. If more young people are drawn into STEM fields through the inspiration of  role models showing up under the #GirlsWithToys hashtag, Kulkarni's comment will have served a useful purpose.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Statement affirming respectful debate during current TMT protests

This was submitted to the WiA blog by leaders on diversity issues from within the AAS community. There has also been a statement from AAS President Meg Urry.

The last few weeks have brought to a head a confrontation between Native Hawaiian protesters and the Thirty Meter Telescope project. There are varied perspectives on all sides of this issue, amongst supporters and opponents, Hawaiians and mainlanders, astronomers and the general public, and all intersections of these groups. Events associated with the protests, including some cases of violence or threats of violence, have created significant divisions within our community, divisions which have manifested themselves in heated debates and discussions both in person and over social media.

Unfortunately, recent rhetoric in our community has crossed the line into racism and hostility, with language (e.g., describing Native Hawaiian protestors as a “horde” or other people of color as “snakes”) that dehumanizes individuals who oppose the placement of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna a Wakea. This language is a painful reminder of past acts of violence perpetrated against native people and others, and only serves to inflame rather than bring about understanding and resolution. In many cases, apologies have been issued, and these have been appreciated. Still, that this language was used in the first place by highly esteemed members of our community is troubling, because the effects linger, are particularly harmful to junior researchers and students, and create an environment of hostility and exclusion.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Family Friendly Faculty Retreat

Future faculty scheming how they will run their retreats.
Does your department or research group undertake an annual retreat? If so, is it family friendly?

Retreats offer the chance to break from the routines and confines of day-to-day work to gather as a group to consider the Big Questions facing an institution. In my view, an essential part of an effective retreat is that it be away from the office, and that it span at least one overnight.

I know of several physical science departments for which the "retreat" consists of a full-day meeting at their workplace. But I worry that in the temporal and physical space that houses our day-to-day work, it is all-too-easy to fall back on day-to-day thinking. The goals of the retreat is much more grand: First, we seek to build community. Second, we seek to engage in blue-sky thinking and fresh approaches aimed at tackling the Big Questions! An overnight also means meals together, and it is over meals that I have experienced the most thought provoking conversations, and the opportunity to really check-in with colleagues.

However, (overnight) + (away from office) puts a retreat on a collision course with that sacred family-work balance that we seek. I have written previously about the excellent evidence that concerns about family-work balance adversely affect the retention of women in the sciences. So, isn't the idea of a retreat inherently problematic? Perhaps not, if the families are invited!