Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stereotype Threat and the Math Gender Gap

Negative stereotypes about women’s and girls’ abilities in STEM persist despite considerable gains in the last few decades. Stereotype threat is related to the anxiety women face in a situation where they have the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about women as a group. Two common stereotypes are prevalent in society and form the foundation for the threat condition: (1) girls are not as good as boys in STEM; and (2) scientific work is better suited to men than to women. As early as elementary school, kids are aware of these stereotypes and can express stereotypical beliefs about which STEM courses are suitable for girls and boys (Farenga & Joyce 1999; Ambady et al. 2001).
Girls and young women are aware of, and negatively affected by, the stereotypical image of a scientist as a man. Although largely unspoken, negative stereotypes about women and girls in STEM are very much alive (Buck et al. 2008). A large body of experimental research has found that negative stereotypes affect women’s and girls’ performance and aspirations in STEM. Even girls who strongly identify with math - who think that they are good at math and being good in math is important to them - are susceptible to the effects (Nguyen & Ryan 2008).
Stereotype threat may help explain this discrepancy: girls get higher grades in STEM classes but lower scores on high-stakes tests like the math SAT and AP calculus exam. Stereotype threat may also help explain why fewer girls express interest in careers in mathematically demanding fields. Girls may be trying to reduce the likelihood that they will be judged through the lens of negative stereotypes by avoiding these fields all together.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Respect Isn't Enough

My colleague John Johnson recently recommended the book Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race and asked that I read it so that we could have a more informed discussion as we work together over the coming years. I confessed to him at that time that I hadn't read a book in a long time (and I am now confessing the same to you, dear Reader), but that I would try. Well, I am happy to report that I am now halfway through. The last chapter I read described different frameworks in which to understand discussions of race and privilege, and I was particularly struck by the discussion of one such framework, namely that of Multiculturalism.

In the book's definition of Multiculturalism, a multiculturalist would express understanding for different groups, celebrate an appreciation of these differences, seek to ensure diversity in their community, and advocate respect for individuals in these different groups.

Perhaps many of you might be thinking: That certainly sounds pretty good! Respect, understanding, and diversity are all very progressive words. I might even go further and argue that many members of our astronomy community strive to achieve these goals.

So, what's missing from this picture?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Make the Breast Pump Not Suck

 Since our first encounters with the breast pump, we wondered how women had been duped into settling for such bad design. The pump is a symbol of the modern work-life conundrum. In theory, women have the freedom to honor the wisdom that “breast is best,” while still pursuing their own careers. And yet, to do so, they’re forced to attach themselves, multiple times a day, to a loud, sometimes painful machine that makes one feel anything but powerful. - Courtney Martin, Times Motherlode Blog

Monday, October 20, 2014

Confronting Race and Racism to Move Away From One-Dimensional Diversity

When I joined the CSWA last year, I had dinner in Cambridge with a number of fellow CSWA members who were in the area at the time. At one point we went around the table giving our reasons for serving on the committee. I stated that my motivation was the help people of color, particularly women of color. I found the success of the CSWA and the advances of (white) women in astronomy extremely inspiring and I wanted to learn better how they had moved from being minorities to having a more equal representation in astronomy.

The CSWA Chair recently told me that if I wanted to take on the subject of race and the issues facing women of color, that rather than expecting the committee's full support for this "specialized" issue, I should go ahead and lead the way. With this post, and my previous post, I endeavor to bring the issues facing of women of color in our community into better focus, with the hope that the rest of the committee might see this as a problem worth addressing. After all, if white women made up < 5% of the astronomy community, I think there would be widespread calls for action. To focus on a specific population, Black women make up about 1% of the astro community, and 0% of faculty hires over the past 10 years. The situation for Latina and Native women isn't much better (See Donna Nelson's statistics for top-40 astro depts as of 2007). In fact, the situation is even dire for Asian American women, broadly speaking.

On my personal blog I have given understanding of racism in America, and how I teach the concept to my children. The reading list posted therein informs much of what follows, so if you’d like references please see the end of that article. See also my introduction on the subject of race in (US) astronomy. For people wishing to comment on this, please do me, yourself and the community a favor and first read this excellent reader’s guide on discussing racism. You’ll be surprised how often the first thing that comes to your mind has been previously voiced and repeated ad nauseam elsewhere in similar forums, if not on the floor of the US Senate back in 1964 during debates over the Civil Rights Act. When in doubt, please frame your comment as a question, and remember that as an educated individual you are not entitled to your opinion.

The 1927 AAS meeting. In one key respect it is the same now as it was then.
The first concept I'll address is that of race. This subject is covered extensively in the easy-to-read textbook Seeing White (see my Twitter challenges #BloggingWhite and #TweetingWhite), as well as in numerous other books, research papers, blog posts, etc. Thus, I cannot do proper justice in the space here, but I can highlight some important aspects of race that should pique your interest as a scientists and citizen:
  1. Race has little to no biological basis. Many lines of genetic research have shown that when humans are divided into various "classical" racial categories (a process that is, itself, fraught with difficulty and ambiguity), that 85% of genetic variation occurs within racial groups, while < 7% of the variability is across racial divisions. At a genetic level, we are an order of magnitude more human than we are any specific race.
  2. While race is not a biological reality, it is very much real because we humans believe in race and act according to racial divisions. This started with the US Census, which needed to identify Black slaves in the South so they could be counted as 3/5 of a human each for congressional representation. It continued as a justification for slavery (slaves are happier when taken care of by white owners!) with the oppressive Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, as well as federal appropriation of funds, employment and military service. It also formed the primary basis of the problematic eugenics movement, and eugenics researchers produced most of the junk "science" that informs even modern conceptions of race. Race divisions continue today in the wealth gap, imprisonment disparities, school segregation, etc.
The key takeaway is: race, while not a biological reality, is a social reality with numerous and far-reaching consequences for how we live and interact in American society. Race is real, but only because we have created it, defined it, nurtured it and most importantly: used it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Resource Guide for Websites for Women in STEM (with an emphasis on Astronomy)

As someone who has spoken up for women within our field, people tend to come to me for advice from time to time.  One question that I have repeatedly received is “do you know of one great STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) resource for women in our field or young women looking to enter this profession?”  And every time I say "no, I know of way more than one, " then Google every website I can think of that I have found useful previously.  The person usually leaves with their head swimming full of websites, and likely forgets most of what I said within minutes (but now knows I have a strange relationship with my iPhone and Google).  So I’m going to use my blog time this month to include the many sites that I have found useful, add some others that have been suggested to me along the way, and hopefully readers will take the opportunity to chime in on the comments section of this blog to add their own useful sites.  I’ll focus on websites targeting issues for women already in the STEM field, but will highlight one site that points out several resources for younger women/girls looking to enter in to the field. So the next time someone asks this question, this blog can be easily pointed to as a starting point.

Monday, October 13, 2014

One Man's Perspective on Diversity and Inequality in Science

Today's Guest Post is by Ramin Skibba is a research scientist at the Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. He blogs about astronomy news and science policy issues at

It's obvious, but one thing I've noticed over my career so far is that many departments, institutions, conferences, organizations, committees, high-profile publications, big research grants, etc., both nationally and internationally, and especially leadership positions, are filled with straight, white, men. There are notable and impressive exceptions, but the trend is clear. The distributions of people in the scientific workforce clearly don't reflect their distribution in the overall population. For example, according to the AAS's Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, nearly half of undergraduate students who obtain bachelors of science degrees are women, but only a third of astronomy graduate students and 30% of Ph.D. recipients are. Women compose 25-30% of postdocs and lower-level faculty, and this drops by half (to 15%) of tenured faculty. This is not explained by historical differences in gender: if women were promoted and retained at rates comparable to men, then the fractions advancing to higher career stages should be equal. The demographics in terms of race aren't good either: according to the American Institute of Physics, African Americans and Hispanics combined account for only 5% of physics faculty.

Of course, this isn't news to readers of this blog. And the disturbing lack of diversity doesn't just affect us in astronomy and astrophysics or even just in the physical sciences. For example, as you've probably seen, the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley has deservedly been in the news lately. Tech companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have all been criticized for being dominated by white men (and recently, also Asian men). We definitely need to work more at improving diversity in all STEM fields. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Tenured Full Professor

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Joan Schmelz, an astronomer turned faculty. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every first and third Thursday of the month.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Do-It-Yourself Mentoring

Do-it-yourself mentoring sounds like an oxymoron, but the idea is that women can find mentors in not-obvious places if they look around.  Here are a few stories of life experiences from women in my family on finding mentoring and getting inspired.  In general, the lack of adequate role models and mentors can be a significant factor in hindering women scientists in their careers.   Starting in childhood, girls will typically find fewer scientists or engineers of their gender in their families to look up to than boys do.  This can be a serious impediment to considering science as a career since family experience plays a huge role in influencing our directions.  Later in life, women will see fewer female scientists in senior positions as examples to strive for.  The situation is improving with every year, but there are still challenges.

Extended family and friends can give a pool of role models outside the immediate family.  TV can also help.  My wife found a few successful women to look up to on television in her formative early years.  In my family, my mother went back to school while us kids were growing up and greatly inspired my younger sister.

In school, interactions with particular teachers and students can be quite important.  While in college, my sister-in-law heard about a woman doing exciting field work in geology who needed a research assistant.  She got the job and became hooked on geology.  My wife had an excellent chemistry teacher in high school who got her interested in science.  He was opened minded and was a role model for many boys and girls.  The important points were that he enjoyed chemistry, made it seem relevant and fun, and believed in the ability of his students of both genders to succeed.  In this case, a man was a fine role model even for the girls. 


In graduate school, my wife was one of the small group of women students at Caltech and there were no women on the science and engineering faculty.  She found a good way to go by joining one of the few groups with women graduate students.  In fact, the female students tended to be found in clumps throughout the university.  This provided immediate excellent mentors in the older students.  She now wonders if it was the women who attracted each other to the group or if it was topic of the group (a new and growing field, surface physics, in her case) that was of particular interest to women.

After starting a career, men have lots of people to look up to, not to mention the old boys network to give support.  It is harder for women, but casting a wider net can do the trick.  The "new girls' networks" tend to be from larger groups of universities and across departments, instead of within a department.  There are actually some advantages to such a broad group in that women get to know colleagues in different areas and different institutions.

The bottom line is that it is harder for women to find mentors, but a little ingenuity can get the job done.   The women who succeed have the benefit of a wider group of contacts and more flexible approach.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Perspectives from computer science: Silent Technical Privilege

On Friday, October 3 MIT hosted a symposium addressing the well-known story told by Virginia Valian in Why So Slow?  It was a big hit with the audience of more than 200 students, staff and faculty who came to hear an outstanding panel talk about the problems and solutions. Why did we hold this symposium and what did we learn?

Two years ago, computer scientist Tess Rinearson wrote a blog On Technical Entitlement in which she poignantly discussed the challenges of being a female student in a male-dominated field.  This is a familiar, distressing story, with a twist: namely, her story inspired a male computer science student to reflect on his own technical privilege - on how being an Asian male gave him unearned privilege that helped him to compensate for deficiencies.  As Philip Guo said, "Nobody every says you only got into MIT because you're an Asian man."  He spoke up about micro-inequities, stereotype threat, and silent technical privilege.  Man bites dog is news, so Guo was interviewed on NPR.

Philip Guo's story resonated with many of us at MIT (where he earned his bachelors degree), so we organized a symposium to bring visibility to the topic.  This was an interdisciplinary effort involving Women's and Gender Studies, the Institute Community and Equity Office, the Office of Minority Education, and Computer Science.  It was well attended, with more than 200 people present, to understand how bias and other factors lead to the marginalization and underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM fields.  I was the moderator and there were 5 panelists.

Jane Stout, Director of the Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline of the Computing Research Association (CERP/CRA), is a social psychologist who presented her research on factors explaining the underrepresentation of women in some STEM fields.  Her analysis was powerfully supported by two MIT students, Jean Yang and Tami Forrester.  They shared examples of explicit and implicit bias and how they coped with the challenges.  Every faculty member in a STEM field should hear stories like theirs, along with the advice offered by the rest of the panel on how to prepare our students to face social as well as intellectual challenges.  Intel's Gabriela Gonzalez shared with us how important it is to go beyond data to tell personal stories.  In Mexico, she noted, engineering is not regarded as a man's field; engineers solve problems, and this is a desirable profession for women and men.  In the US, engineering culture is different.  Donna Milgram, Executive Director of the National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science (IWITTS), cited examples of schools that significantly increased the percentage of women in STEM, and noted the elements of their success: having gender-balanced outreach efforts, making STEM appealing to those who want to improve the world, and using an inclusive curriculum.

For me, the main lesson was this: our students have compelling stories of how to cope with the continuing challenges of inequity and exclusion.  Giving them voice, and supporting them with mentoring and sponsorship, is a great way to advance equality.  Speaking of which, Jean Yang has produced a wonderful annotated bibliography for those who would like more information.  You can also follow the conversations on twitter at #techprivMIT and read a news report of the symposium at

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Data Visualization Specialist and Adjunct Associate Professor

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Doug Roberts, an astronomer turned Data Visualization Specialist for Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope and Adjunct Associate Professor at Northwestern University. He spends 75% of his time on research and content creation for WorldWide Telescope and 25% of his time on his astronomy research. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every Thursday.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Worrying News from the Royal Society

The Royal Society is the preeminent scientific club in the United Kingdom, and it is arguably the oldest such society in existence. Each year, the Royal Society offers its University Research Fellowships. These are highly coveted awards! Applicants may be from a broad range of scientific fields (including the noblest of the physical sciences, astronomy), and it provides both salary and research support for 5 years (with the possibility to extend to 8 years).

The fellowship site states the goal clearly:

"This scheme is for outstanding scientists in the UK who are in the early stages of their research career and have the potential to become leaders in the field."

Importantly, the fellowships have a key relationship as a feeder program to permanent research posts in the United Kingdom, including faculty spots.

The instructions for the current round indicate that they expect a success rate of 10%. What the instructions don't say is that this was true last year only if you are a man.