Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Diversity in Large Scientific Collaborations

Large scientific collaborations or teams are becoming more common in astronomy and present particular opportunities and challenges for diversity.  They have been the norm in some areas of physics, such as particle physics, for years and can be as large as 1000's of members.  Sizes in astronomy are more typically 100's, although larger teams are on the horizon.

The special attributes of a large collaboration that can affect diversity include election or appointment of collaborations leaders, organization of sub-teams, collaboration meetings with large numbers of attendees, papers with large numbers of authors, and presentations at conferences decided by committees.  In the context of the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy, I will concentrate here on issues for women.  I was motivated to write this piece by an excellent discussion of such diversity issues at a recent LIGO-Virgo collaboration meeting.

Even if the fraction of women in a collaboration is not much different from the fraction in astronomy / astrophysics in general, the representation in leadership positions is often lower.  This can be due to the female fraction being younger on average than the more senior members who are largely male.  Another factor can be the way the positions are chosen, either by election or appointment, that may favor previous leaders.  When unbalance exists, it ca be hard to change.

On the other hand, there is opportunity here and large collaborations can provide a means for advancement of women and other under-represented groups.  Since there are many members, there are also a good number of leadership positions.  These include the collaboration executives and leaders of the sub-teams.  If an effort is made to be conscientious in recruiting among the qualified women for top positions, they can be highly visible and provide motivation examples for young people.  A snow-ball effect an occur that produces a growing representation.  Particularly motivating is when the accomplishments of a successful woman are recognized by a leadership position.  Below are pictures of a few notable examples.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Math and Verbal Performance of Men and Women Under Competition and Time Pressure

The following post was reproduced (with permission) from the June 2014 Issue of Status: A Report on Women in Astronomy. The author is Nancy D. Morrison, The University of Toledo, Department of Physics & Astronomy.

Recently, we've heard a lot about the gender gap in wages: the full-time median salary for women is lower than that of men in almost all occupations, [1] and a gap persists in many occupations when age and skill level are controlled for. Explanations can be grouped broadly into three categories: bias, whether conscious or unconscious; entry of women into lower-wage occupations because of skills or preferences; and less competitiveness among women than among men.

There are many ways to slice the data. It is commonplace to say that workers in female-dominated occupations generally earn less than those in male-dominated ones. Women being less willing to negotiate is another point; [2] all are aspects of self-selection by women. Discrimination is still a factor. [1] Another recent finding [3] is that the salary gap is greatest in business and law, where per-hour pay for employees working longer hours is greatest, and thus reflects the culture and the structure of the occupation.

In science, we confront all these issues. In addition, the early stages of our careers are strongly affected by math-based tests such as the GRE, both the quantitative general test and the physics subject test, on which women tend to score lower than men. For example, on the quantitative general test in 2006-2007, the median score for women was more than 50 points lower than that for men, and the 75th percentile score was about 30 points lower. [4] This difference is enough to disqualify a significant number of women and minorities from graduate admission if a hard cutoff score of 700 is used, as it often is in elite programs. If we assume that women are just as good at math as men, then why the difference?

Interesting research on the performance of women and men on math-based tests has been carried out by Olga Shurchkov, Assistant Professor of Economics at Wellesley College. [5] In lab experiments, she assessed the performance of male and female students who were paid to solve verbal and math puzzles, in competitive and noncompetitive environments and with high and low time pressure. In her analysis, she took care to tease out various effects on the students' performance. She also carried out a labor market analysis to investigate whether her findings on time pressure and competition carry over into the workplace. Her paper provides background on the research area. The rest of this article discusses her methodology and findings, which bear on several aspects of the gender gap outlined above.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why Did You Decide on a PhD in Astronomy and not Physics?

Data from the American Institute of Physics indicate that the fraction of PhDs awarded to women is twice
as high in astronomy as in physics. Similar disparities exist at other levels. Note the difference in scales!

When thinking about the participation of women in astronomy, one of the most intriguing questions is why the percentage of women at each level is much higher in astronomy than physics*. 

Some readers of this blog may feel that there are enormous differences between the culture of astronomy and the culture of physics, and these cultural differences lead to different rates of participation by women. But, from a distant and broad perspective, it would difficult to identify two academic disciplines that share more in common while still, in many cases, having separate departments: Most astronomers (at least those educated in the U.S.) completed an undergraduate degree in physics, or at least have completed many of the same courses as physics majors. The core methodology of the two disciplines are very similar. The requirements for admission to graduate school are nearly identical; for example, nearly all U.S. PhD programs in astronomy require the Physics GRE and advanced coursework in physics and math.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Gender Breakdown of the Applicant Pool for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions at a Sample of North American Research Astronomy Programs

Figure 1: Left: Histogram of the number of searches versus F/(F +M) in the total sample (black) and for the searches at NRC ranked Astronomy programs (red). For the former, the mean and median of the distribution are ≃ 0.18±0.04 and 0.19, whereas for the latter they are ≃ 0.19±0.03 and 0.20. Right: F/(F + M) versus the total number of applicants.
Today's guest blogger is Todd Thompson. Todd is a professor in the Department of Astronomy at the Ohio State University. His research involves core-collapse supernovae, the birth of neutron stars, the origin of the heavy elements, gamma ray bursts, stellar and relativistic winds, and magnetars; the physics, structure, and feedback processes of starburst galaxies and active galactic nuclei; and few-body dynamics of stars and their compact objects.
The demographics of the field of Astronomy is an active area of investigation.  Among many characteristics of the population, gender --- including gender balance, gender bias, and the gender-related component of the leaky pipeline --- have been the focus of recent work. 
The American Astronomical Society's Committee on the Status of Women (CSWA) published the results of a survey in 2013 that provides information on the fraction of women at each level in the astronomical workforce. For graduate students (at all levels) they report F/(F+M)=404/1155 = 0.350, while for postdoctoral researchers F/(F+M)=186/645 = 0.288, and for assistant professors F/(F+M)=57/193= 0.295. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Normalcy Curve

Wanda Diaz Merced next to the Solar System Radio Explorer Kiosk, which allows users to learn about solar radio waves through hearing and touch. (Credit: William S. Leibman)
Today’s guest blogger is Wanda Diaz Merced. Wanda is a space scientist who lost her sight when she was a student studying physics at the University of Puerto Rico. Rather than give up the subject she loved, Wanda began to investigate techniques for analyzing astronomical signals using sound rather than visual information.

In the year 1999, an advisor told me to ponder changing careers. At the same time, noticing that I could no longer identify the location of obvious items in my house, a friend advised me to take control of my health, visit the rethynologist, and learn orientation and mobility. I could identify certain things while the sun was transiting my sky, but during the night I was completely blind. I kept the white cane hidden inside my backpack. When walking on campus during the night, I would close it quickly on arrival at the physics department. How would I do physics if I could not see the charts?

It is my personal belief that space scientists love to explore the unknown. It is really encouraging to witness them constantly polishing their intuition to explore signals and recognize patterns. They may even reach a point where those events are easily identified and interpreted. Their tasks are complex, necessitating a readiness to respond to items that may be ambiguous and of high uncertainty in presentation, as well as involving the presence or absence of background signals and visual noise. A constant mental effort and alertness to respond to infrequent changes in data display are essential to the completion of such tasks. As good explorers, they are always vigilant when performing their duties (Matthews Davies, Westerman & Stammers 2000; Washburn, Taglialatela, Rice & Smith 2004).