Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Gender Equality Campaigns in 2014

Have you heard of the It's On Us or HeForShe campaigns?  This year, White House and the United Nations both launched publicity campaigns aimed at encouraging men and women to support gender equality and end sexual assault.  These campaigns are being discussed on college campuses but not in the working or professional world where issues of concern often arise.  Why is this? How does one measure effectiveness of such efforts?  Are there lessons for CSWA and others?

The first reason for the lack of conversation about these campaigns may be lack of awareness.  The White House It's On Us campaign to stop sexual assault hasn't been mentioned in this blog.  The UN Women HeForShe campaign did get a brief mention in the September 26 AASWomen Newsletter along with a link to the launch address by actress Emma Watson, shown above.  But I suspect that, like me, most readers and most professionals, unless they are in an organization whose leadership has been informed and decided to participate, would have little reason to pay attention. 

The second reason may be a lack of relevance.  This seems unlikely, given the focus of these campaigns on ending sexual violence, sexual harassment, pay inequity, and discrimination in many forms.  Some may feel the campaigns are only relevant for college campuses, and indeed It's On us is directed to colleges, however partner organizations include AAUW and many companies in addition to many universities.  HeForShe deals directly with the issues of relevance to CSWA.  Both campaigns have excellent educational materials, brief and to the point.

The third reason may be discomfort with the marketing.  "It's On Us to end sexual assault" may seem off-putting to some.  HeForShe may seem divisive or patronizing to some.  I'm very interested in reader views of these issues, as many of us are trying to reach those who are not already listening, or who may feel unwelcome to participate in efforts to promote social justice and equality in matters of gender, race, and privilege.

One more reason there may be so little discussion of these campaigns is a possible lack of effectiveness.  What does effectiveness mean and how is it measured?  Both campaigns aim to increase awareness of problems, so measuring engagement aligns with their goals.  For example, the UN Women campaign measures are based on enrollment numbers (those who take the pledge) and numbers of events held or new stories produced by sponsoring organizations.  However, awareness of a problem is not the same as owning up to and solving the problem.  So the campaigns may be effective by the wrong measures.

Many of us want to increase awareness of social justice and equity problems, to do relevant work to solve the problems, to engage others with effective communication, and to know that our efforts are making a difference.  Successful change movements often start from the grass roots level, not top-down like the two campaigns discussed here.  Yet I believe it's crucial that leadership in all areas - governments, companies, universities - be committed to, and learn to be effective at, promoting equality and justice throughout their organizations.  Do large-scale campaigns help?  What about medium-scale efforts like this blog and the efforts by CSWA and similar organizations?

Reader feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Amelia Earhart: Early Pioneer in the Age of Technology

I recently ran across the Christmas card below from Amelia Earhart which got me interested in the remarkable story of this woman persevering against the pressures of her time.  Earhart spent her life pursuing her passion for flying and pushing the envelop in aviation.  Her motivation was to expand the capabilities of planes, not just of what women could do, and she had to conquer bias at every turn.

Earhart was born in 1897 and took her first plane ride at the age of 23.  She immediately became hooked and worked various odd jobs to save money for lessons with pioneering female aviator Anita Snook.  She spent every minute of her free time learning about planes and flying.  Within 3 years she had her own plane, international pilot's license (16 woman to have one) and set an altitude record (14,000 ft) for a female aviator.

In 1928, a year after Lindberg's transatlantic flight, she was asked to join a team with two men with the purpose of her becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic.  They flew that year and she gained fame from the accomplishment.  However, she wasn't satisfied since a man did the flying and she was only a co-pilot.  She later complained that she "was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes".  That was never to happen again.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gender Parity in NSF Astronomy Research Programs

During my first year as a Program Officer in NSF’s Astronomy Division, I was able to compile data on the success rates of different opportunities in the Individual Investigator Programs. As chair of CSWA, one of my top priorities was to look for gender differences.
The results* for Astronomy are summarized in the table. The top line is for the Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Grants (AAG), our main grant program. PIs are mainly (but not exclusively) senior and mid-career scientists. There is both good news and bad news here. The good news is that the percentage of female awards (19 +/- 2%) is equal to the percentage of females in the pool (19 +/- 1%). The bad news is that the percentage of women in astronomy at the senior and mid-career levels is still so low. The next line in the table is for Faculty Early Career Development, the CAREER program, which generally makes less than 10 awards per year. The following line is for the NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowships (AAPF), which currently makes 9 awards per year. Although the numbers are smaller and the uncertainties are larger, the results for both of these programs agree with those of the AAG. If we do weighted averages of all three programs, we again find that the percentage of female awards (22 +/- 2%) is equal to the percentage of females in the pool (22 +/- 1%).

Monday, December 22, 2014

Which Grad Program Will Be The First To Drop the GRE?

This year I am the chair of the admissions committee for the Harvard PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Around the country, committees such as ours are setting to work to select the incoming class. I thought it timely to share some worries I have been having about one required element of our application: the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) General Test, and the Subject Test in Physics.

My worry stems from three considerations:

First, I worry that the GRE doesn't actually measure the thing we really care about, namely the applicant's likelihood of success at creative and demanding research in astrophysics. So far, my search for such evidence has turned up empty: I can't find a persuasive study showing that the GRE Physics or General test scores provide a key measure of future research success. Yes, the scores do correlate with performance in graduate coursework, but to be honest I don't really care about that as an end in itself. If a student working with me finds Earth2.0, I am prepared to overlook a B- in one of our survey courses. And this isn't just my opinion: When is the last time the Hubble fellowship committee asked to see your transcript?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cogitations on Gender at the "dot Astro" Conference

Today's guest post is by Brooke Simmons, an astronomy postdoc at Oxford and the Henry Skynner Junior Research Fellow at Balliol College. Brooke researches the co-evolution of black holes and galaxies and is actively involved in citizen science within the Zooniverse, including Galaxy Zoo and other projects. 

Last week I was at the .Astronomy meeting at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. .Astro ("dot astro") is less a meeting about any specific science and more a meeting about being a scientist, and using the internet to do and communicate science. It's also more than that, and partly its structure is what makes it hard to define: about half of it is an unconference whose agenda is set on the fly by the participants. This choose-your-own-adventure meeting means that each .Astro is different, but it also means that a single .Astro is different for each person there. 

It was the sixth "dot astro" meeting (the first was in 2008), and it was my third time attending. It's my favorite conference in my schedule, and I spent some time this year observing the event itself and others' reactions to it. 

One of the things I was curious about was whether the expectations, experiences and reactions of first-time participants were different for different genders. Nowadays I find that a lot of my friends and colleagues have heard of .Astro, but they have wildly different ideas of what it is. I've heard "that's a meeting for astro coders, right?" and "that's a meeting about outreach, right?" from people on either side of me at the same group lunch. The answer to both questions is yes, and more. Anecdotally, I noticed a lot of conformation to gender stereotypes when talking to people about .Astro, mainly because when I've spoken to women who thought it was just for coders they've also usually followed up by saying they didn't think the meeting was for them. 

Rob Simpson, the creator and organizer of .Astro, spends a lot of time thinking about how to make .Astro a more diverse place. Last year he wrote a series of blog posts about taking steps to ensure better gender equality for .Astro 5. The steps worked pretty well, and this year he took pre-emptive action, changing the application form to decrease the barrier that makes women less likely to attend conferences "for coders" and less likely to volunteer to give a talk. 

That worked pretty well too, though there's still work to be done. The gender balance for the whole conference was 40% female, 60% male, 0% other, which continues the positive trend from last year. Although there was still a relative lack of female speakers giving longer talks, that did improve for the lightning talks. However, one of the attendees noted during an unconference session that despite this progress we were still self-separating into standard biased roles: the unconference sessions about software and development skewed male and the outreach-oriented sessions skewed female. 

On the last day of .Astro I sent out a short survey to the participants. Just over half of them answered it (thanks all!) and I found the responses very interesting. First of all, the survey responses are overwhelmingly positive across the board. All of the (anonymous) responses either explicitly state they'd like to come to .Astro again or talk positively about what they'd like to see in future meetings. 

Two of the questions on the form were "What did you think .Astro was about when you applied to attend?" and "What do you think .Astro is about now?" Both returning and first-time attendees generally changed their answers between these questions, either to describe a complete change of outlook between pre-attendance and now, or to add a few extra words to the "now" question. Nobody mentioned they had expected the meeting to be primarily about outreach, but a few people said they'd expected .Astro was about tech and programming for astronomy. A few representative responses are listed below. 

What did you think .Astro was about when you applied to attend?
  • A meeting about hacking
  • Learning about cool stuff people are doing at the intersection of astronomy, CS and education. Meeting cool, talented people.
  • I knew it was about tech and astronomy.

What do you think .Astro is about now?
  • A meeting about hacking and so much more.
  • And now I know what hacking is.
  • Learning about cool stuff people are doing at the intersection of astronomy, CS and education. Meeting cool, talented people. Feeling like I've had a lobotomy because these guys seem to know all this stuff I've never heard of.
  • I think it's about changing the field - of astronomy, but ultimately of science. I think it's about using technology, the internet specifically, to communicate, to learn, to visualize, to share science in a way previously impossible.
Each of these answer sets are from women who had never been to .Astro before. 

In a separate open comments box, 5 out of 15 women mentioned feeling like they didn't know enough code and/or wishing there was a tutorial day for learning some of the basic tools used in a lot of the hacks, like Javascript and D3. 1 man (out of 16) mentioned that a tutorial day or thread might be useful for the less confident. In a survey of 31 people total and where the sample is split into 2 parts, is 6% versus 33% in the noise, or is this saying that women and men report a different experience of .Astro? I'm casting my vote for the latter. 

It's no surprise to anyone who's paying attention that achieving gender balance in astronomy is a complex problem. .Astro is a unique conference where the organizers are very aware of how easy it is for the process of a conference to uphold gender stereotypes and have taken active steps to prevent it. Yet even though they've succeeded in achieving a gender balance of participants that's equal to or better than the balance of our field, there are still issues with encouraging women to give a talk, and women and men still self-select for more stereotypical roles. This in part means they still have different experiences of .Astro. 

One thing is clear, though: actively talking, strategizing and planning has made a dramatic difference in gender equality for this conference over the last 6 years. Given the .Astro philosophy and community, I have no doubt this active approach to diversity will continue and expand to improve .Astro's diversity among many other axes as well. 

.Astro is many things, but I think one of the underlying principles is a "yes, and" philosophy. If you're on board with that and you have ideas about how to do astronomy better, including how to make our field more welcoming to underrepresented groups of all kinds, please consider signing up for .Astro 7!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On Being a Transgender Astronomer

Today's guest post is by Jessica Mink, a positional astronomer and software developer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, who has written the commonly used software packages WCSTools and RVSAO and worked on a variety of astronomical projects over 40 years. Much of her story is told in this interview with the American Astronomical Society's Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality (WGLE). 

While I consider myself to be a woman astronomer, I have not always been one. Since I made much of my reputation with a different gender expression and remain in the field, I have to accept the fact that I am also a transgender astronomer, and as a representative of that small group, serve as an ambassador to the rest of the astronomical world.

While gradually (over 40 years!) transitioning from male to female, I have thought a lot about gender and its various facets, but when I volunteered to write a blog entry representing my gender minority for the Women in Astronomy blog, I realized that I hadn't been very systematic about it. It is likely that most readers don't have any trans* friends (that they know about), but this far into the 21st century, most thinking people are aware of our existence and might even know of one of us.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

2014 Holiday Gift Guide

With the holidays fast approaching, a common question that I see many of my colleagues struggling with is what to purchase our next generation of budding scientists for the holidays.  A recent study featured in CBE-Life Sciences Education showed that family plays a vital role in initially attracting young people to the science, technology, engineeringand math (STEM) fields.  As we look towards toy aisles, we are distracted by the massive aisle of pink for girls and robots, action figures, and toy weapons for boys, which have lead to many calling out the normalization of gender roles at very early ages that may also impact the career paths young girls take later in life.  All of this leads to a dilemma for many of us with young girls in our lives to look outside of the standard pink aisle for gifts for those that have a genuine interest in the sciences.  Legos, one of the greatest toys of all time, has stepped up several times and recently posted this great commercial for girls, which even focuses on the difference between how young children play (boys typically follow the design on the box, while girls tend to build from their imagination).  Here are some shopping and blogging sites focused on science and empowering girls for my version of a 2014 Holiday gift guide (aside from Legos, found nationwide, and etsy, or as I call it, the online land for everything homemade).

Monday, December 8, 2014

How Workplace Climate Changes the Knowledge We Generate

Reproduced from the June 2014 Issue of STATUS: A Report on Women in Astronomy.  The article below is written by Meg Urry, Yale University, Department of Physics and Department of Astronomy. Based on a keynote address given at the University of California ADVANCE Roundtable in April 2014, at UC Davis

Some years ago, at a major US university, a visiting faculty candidate was told by a senior colleague – an influential, Nobel prize-winning director of a major institute at that university – that she would not be welcome to work with him, that he would not allocate his institute’s resources to her, and that his research group would be reluctant to talk to her because they were basically in competition with her.

She wisely decided to build her career elsewhere, but not before describing the problem and leaking his email to others at the university. The ensuing scandal created a classic conflict between bad behavior and first-rate science.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Personal Experience with Hiring

My Astroparticle Physics Laboratory at Goddard has 14 scientists, most of whom are physicists and 50% of whom are women.  That is a high female fraction for a largely physics-oriented organization and I thought it would be useful to write today about how it came about.

Goddard has good policies about diversity in the workplace.  Here is the policy statement, known as the Business Case for Diversity at Goddard:  "It is the policy of NASA's GSFC to develop and maintain a vital and effective workforce by involving employees in the creation of a work environment conducive to their best performance according to the Center's values and goals.  Our objective is to foster an organizational climate where employee diversity and mutual respect are catalysts for creativity and team effectiveness."

There are also strong policies at NASA against discrimination and bias, but I like the fact that the diversity statement is aimed toward performance and team effectiveness, and was developed as a business case.  It is a good way to think about diversity and the best motivation for open hiring practices.

The female fraction in the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory has increased over the past 15 years, a time period in which more women candidates became available to apply for openings.  In all of our hires, the job was open to all candidates and selection was based on skills, publications, letters and interviews.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Hacking a respectful and caring community in your department

Astronomy graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign requested a departmental colloquium on diversity and inclusion, which I gave two weeks ago.  Kudos to the department for agreeing to this and for advertising it widely, and to those who attended. The experience may be useful to others, so I share it here.

The punchline first: the graduate students are disappointed at how little progress there has been in increasing faculty diversity.  Even when proactive efforts are made by department leadership, change happens slowly at best.  Increasing the representation by 50% or even 100% seems like a drop in the ocean given the small numbers of women in most astronomy and physics departments, especially if there are 0 or 1 women faculty in the department.  Are we settling for permanent inequity if we talk about 25% women and not 50%?  And what about other problems of underrepresentation and marginalization?

These are the kinds of questions that can shift  attitudes, including my own.  Whereas I have taken pride in increasing the percentage of women in physics at MIT (for example, from 10% to 18% of the PhDs during my term as department head), I may be deluding myself that  this is significant progress.  Maybe it is, and maybe it is in the eye of the beholder.  The point is to see things with fresh eyes, to think, and then to act.  And no matter how much one has thought about such issues, there are always new perspectives that have the power to transform our understanding and engagement.

This experience reminded me of a meeting I held with women graduate students almost 8 years ago as I sought advice on how I could help as a new department head.  The students told me "You have to create a culture of caring in the department."  They followed this instruction with crucial guidance: “We think you can make a difference, we expect you to make a difference, and we will help you.”  I was being held accountable.  If I wanted to succeed as a leader, I had to make this a priority.

At UIUC I described some of the steps I took. I gave a primer on unconscious bias and an extract from the faculty search committee training that I do.  I spoke about privilege and marginalization, and steps individuals and departments can take to equalize treatment.  I made the business case for diversity and inclusion as a competitive advantage.  In short, I did what CSWA bloggers do all the time.  But I had many non-readers of this blog present in the room.

Are such efforts a drop in the ocean?  Obviously I think they make a difference, and I have data from my own institution to support that claim.  But at a personal level, I work on these topics because of my personal ethics, and my recognition that my greatest impact will be achieved by enabling and empowering others to succeed.

You're probably wondering why I titled the post "Hacking" and why I showed an old photo of the Hacker's Code of Ethics.  Hacking refers to creative, collaborative effort to solve technical problems.  Just as the meaning of “hacking” has evolved, “technical problems” can be extended to include factors that limit the success of many academic departments in technical fields such as privilege, unconscious bias, marginalization of out-group members, etc.  Creative, collaborative effort to advance a respectful and caring community can leverage the power of diversity, improve student and faculty success, and enhance the quality of life for everyone. Doing so is the ethical thing to do.