Thursday, September 26, 2013

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Consultant

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 Joseph Pesce, an astronomer turned consultant. 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, September 25, 2013

Sexism the Other Way Round

Today’s guest blogger is Gerrit Verschuur. Gerrit is a semi-retired radio astronomer who continues to study interstellar neutral hydrogen structure. He is the author of eight popular astronomy books and co-author or editor of three text books. He has also found the time to get his name on over a dozen patents. He claims that his primary accomplishment is that he is married to Joan Schmelz (me!).

Organizations, People and Strategies in Astronomy (OPSA, Vols. 1 & 2) presents a compilations of 49 chapters designed to reveal the way astronomy is practiced all over the globe. Or, to frame this in words used by its editor, it is a continuation of a former series in which scientists and non-scientists describe their experience on ’non-purely scientific matters, many of them of fundamental importance for the efficient conduct of our activities.’ While fascinating material, it is not a target for a book review for CSWA. What is interesting is what it does not do.  

First, it is striking that 41 chapters have lead authors that are men, or 84%, not surprising perhaps given the international nature of these two volumes. More interesting, from the point of the Women in Astronomy readership, is the lack of any chapters dealing with the issues central to the work of CSWA; harassment, prejudice, glass ceilings, leaky pipelines, and the subtleties of unconscious bias. In fairness, one chapter summarizing data from the UK shows that while 34% of post-graduate astronomy students are female, only 7% share the highest academic level of professor. Another chapter discusses the plight of African-American minorities in the field. But there is nothing that could remotely be described as chapters on the barriers faced by women in astronomy, worldwide. This caused me to send an email enquiring about this oversight to the editor in France.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Unconscious Bias: the Studies from Sociology

Steinpreis, Anders & Ritzke (1999) published a pioneering study on unconscious bias and gender. Panels composed of male and female university psychology professors were asked to evaluate application packages for either "Brian" or "Karen" and determine the candidate’s suitability as an assistant professor. The panels preferred 2:1 to hire "Brian" over "Karen," even though the application packages were identical except for the name. When evaluating a more experienced record (at the point of promotion to tenure), the panel members expressed reservations four times more often for "Karen" than for "Brian." So not only was unconscious bias operating, it got stronger with seniority. The study determined that unconscious bias would have a repeated negative effect on "Karen’s" career.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Patent Examiner

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 Cara Rakowski, an astronomer turned Patent Examiner for the US Patent and Trademark Office. 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, September 18, 2013

Postdoc-hood & Infertility: Part 2

Guest Post: the below post was submitted anonymously by an astronomy post-doc.

A few weeks ago I posted about my husband and my quest for fertility. The emails and conversations I’ve had since have been heart-warming. It’s so helpful to hear other people’s stories; those who have happily come out the other side, those who have adopted, and those who are in the thick of it now. It’s also been further confirmation that there are a lot of women and men in STEM juggling infertility issues and career uncertainties. My best wishes goes out to all of you.

In the most general sense, this experience has been a good reminder of the obvious – people present a certain version of themselves at work, but who knows what kinds of obstacles and hardships they’re dealing with outside of work. Remembering this has made me more empathetic in my workplace interactions, treating people with extra gentleness and give.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On The Math Achievement Gender "Gap"

In previous posts I have written in support of affirmative action under the assumption that "men and women are equally capable of succeeding as professional astronomers. There is no inherent (intrinsic) difference in mental capacity, creativity, ability to learn, or any other factor that plays into the success of an astronomer."  However, after digging around a bit, it turns out there is a difference in mathematical ability between men and women (Hyde, Fennema & Lamon 1990), and it's often cited as a reason why there aren't many women in "hard core" science fields. But it doesn't really work that way; the achievement "gap" is not at all what some would imply (h/t Slate).

Here's an insightful and witty slide presentation put together by computer scientist, Dr. Terri Oda, that should help explain things (see also this comprehensive review article by Elizabeth Fennema). Seriously. Go ahead and click through it. It takes less than 5 minutes. Then share it with anyone who attempts to explain the gender gap in the sciences on differences in the inherent math skills of men and women.

ADVICE: Being Ignored in a Meeting

Have you ever been in this situation: you're sitting in a meeting and make what you think is a great suggestion; you're ignored. Ten minutes later, someone else makes a similar suggestion and everyone thinks it's just the greatest idea. Are you invisible? Did you imagine it? Were you really speaking out loud? How can women deal with being ignored and/or having their ideas dismissed? Of course, this can happen to men too! Here are some suggestions:
  • Make sure you get an adequate seat at the 'table' (so that you are not hiding in a corner);
  • Choose your timing: wait for the 'right opportunity' to jump into the conversation (not always easy);
  • Speak slowly and clearly; offer more than a quick quip;
  • Make sure everyone can hear you; this may be especially challenging if you are naturally soft spoken or if English is not your first language.
  • Don't downplay your remarks: do NOT say, "I guess . . ." or "This may not be important, but . . ." or "This may be a stupid question, but . . ." or end with ". . . don't you think?"
  • Don't be afraid to say something like, "I am glad that xxx agrees with my previous suggestion . . ." if another person seconds your opinion.
  • If you notice this happening to someone else, try to find a way to attribute the idea to the original speaker: "xxx said that 10 minutes ago!" may not be as effective as something like, " xxx suggested . . . "
  • If possible, enlist the support of your peers. Example: a group of grad students meeting with their research advisor. Student xxx makes a suggestion and is ignored. xxx explains what happened off-line and asks his/her peers to look out for future examples. He/she suggests that they all try to back each other up at future group meetings.
  • The situation is tougher when you do not have supportive colleagues; you might be the only female director, department chair, manager, etc. at the table. Most of the advice above applies, but it might be even more challenging to be heard. If you know the agenda ahead of time and have one important point to make, you may want to rehearse it out loud; you might even over prepare so you can answer questions in the same well-rehearsed way. There is, unfortunately, still some truth to the old adage that women have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. This is especially true when you are pushing up against the glass ceiling.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Boys need outreach, too

Lately, I've been finding myself doing a lot of public outreach directed towards boys.

This is mostly because I'm the mother of two boys, and both are heavily involved with Boy Scouts, and whenever they work on a badge related to science, they call upon their in-house scientist, namely me. And while I'd love to do more outreach to girls as well, it's easiest to follow the path of least resistance in pursuing outreach opportunities, given my busy life as pre-tenure faculty and working mother. The Girl Scouts don't seem to be nearly as active in my kids' school. It seems like the girls lose interest in scouting by 4th or 5th grade. I do volunteer in my kids' schools, too, but I don't do much exclusively with girls when I do.

So how does this jibe with my commitment and desire to increase the participation of women in STEM?

While I may not be directly encouraging girls in STEM by working with Boy Scouts, I do serve as an example to them. When I volunteered to talk about being a scientist to my older son's Webelos den, the den leader introduced me by saying, "We have a special guest scientist to speak to you today," and the kids all looked around wondering who the scientist was. They were a little surprised when I stepped forward. I believe I made an impression on them that day, that a scientist can look like someone's mom, and not always a wild-haired white man in a lab coat. Perhaps they will be more respectful of their female peers who go into STEM fields. Someday, they might support their spouses' career ambitions, whatever they might be. Maybe their younger sisters will hear about so-and-so's mom who is a scientist, and realize that it's something they could do, too. So not only do I get to increase the scientific literacy of these boys, but I also get to set an example for them, as a woman scientist and a working mother.

There was a time I thought that raising a daughter to be a confident, successful scientist would be the best way to help women in science. It's become more and more clear to me that it's just as important to raise sons who respect women, too.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why So Few? High School Foundation I

The 2010 report entitled, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), describes how girls’ and women’s performance and participation in STEM fields have changed over time. Women have made tremendous progress in education and the workplace during the past 50 years, including progress in scientific and engineering fields.

Although, historically, boys outperformed girls in math and science, the gender gap has narrowed over time, and today girls are doing as well as boys in math in school by most measures. For example, in high school, girls’ average performance and participation in math and science has improved over time and, in some cases, has surpassed that of boys.

The graph above shows the average number of high school credits earned in math and science combined, by gender, between 1990 and 2005 (the most recent year for which data were available). Girls are in green and boys are in purple. Over time all students, both boys and girls, are taking more math and science credits - both lines are going up - and girls now earn more credits in math and science than boys do.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Women and Oil Can Mix

My wife attended a conference last week in Scotland where opportunities for women in technical fields of the oil and gas industry was one of the themes.  The 2013 Offshore Europe Conference was held in Aberdeen and is a huge biennial event for the oil and gas industry, with more than 31,000 attendees this year.  Ellen is the Chief Scientist for one of the large oil and gas companies and spoke in a technology session.  A number of the other sessions also highlighted women speakers, and there was a Women in Energy luncheon at which the Princess Royal spoke.  She is Princess Anne, the second child of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.  She is patron of Women Into Science and Engineering (WISE), which is an organization supporting women "from the classroom to the boardroom".

The oil and gas industry has historically not been the place to find many women employees in technical jobs.  This is partly related to the general weak interest in science and tech fields stemming from preferences and social pressure in schools, but also due to the perceived danger and physical labor in the energy sector.  Princess Anne made a strong case that the world should change, and is changing.  She told the attendees that their industry would greatly benefit from contributions by all people, regardless of gender.  She hit right at the bottom line, saying "“Improving your performance in promoting women will improve your profitability."

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

On reverse discrimination

Ed Bertschinger recently wrote an about his recent encounter with a response to the charge of “reverse discrimination.” It really struck a chord for me because I used to be “that guy” who would point to reverse discrimination as part of my general (uninformed) stance against affirmative action. More recently I’ve learned how wrong I was to take such a position. I'd like to take this space to explain my new way of thinking.

First, think about why discrimination exists and how it works in practice. Discrimination is a tool used by those in power to consolidate and preserve power by excluding others based on arbitrary distinctions such as race, sexual orientation or gender. By designating a portion of the population as “lesser” and “separate,” groups in power can very effectively reduce the size of the competitive pool, making it easy to e.g., win funding and get jobs. This can be done explicitly, but fortunately it’s rare these days. 

More often than not discrimination takes the form of an institutionalized structure left over from the past with little incentive for people who benefit from it to change, or implemented (poorly) in pursuit of other goals. However, implementing these arbitrary delineations for the benefit of the few requires an important ingredient, namely power. Thus for reverse discrimination to occur from, say, women toward men, we’d need an institutional structure with a powerful female faction who have the power to suppress male involvement.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What Can I Do? Form a Women in Astronomy/Physics/Science Group

Today’s suggestion comes from Sonali Shukla. Sonali researches the formation of young stars, in particular, X-ray and infrared signatures of disks around these types of stars. She uses data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope. After completing two years as a postdoc at the Pennsylvania State University studying properties of brown dwarfs and young stars, she is now in an education and outreach position in the physics department at the University of Maryland. 

Ever wonder what you could gain from joining or starting a local Women in Astronomy/Physics/ Science group? When I was an undergraduate, I was the only female student in the physics program until my junior year. With such small numbers, there was no such women’s group in my department. However, I got along well with all my fellow students, and was blissfully unaware of any unconscious bias against women.

In graduate school, I had several female friends, and one of my colleagues and I decided to start a Women in Physics group – something that didn’t exist at my university. Our first meeting was a tea, and was well-attended by faculty and students. I mostly expected the meetings to mainly be of a social nature, but our next tea meeting brought up some surprises: while chatting, many students discovered some common slightly negative interactions with certain faculty and staff. Most of them consisted of only mildly insensitive comments, but it wasn’t until we were together as a group that we were able to put the pieces together. Working as a team with faculty support and our department chair, we were able to positively address some of these issues and the group went from strength-to-strength afterwards. During my time in graduate school, the group became a fixture in the department. We held group lunches and social events, established a mentoring program, shared resources, and even managed to instigate and create a college-wide policy on parental leave policies for graduate students.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Advice to search committees

September marks the beginning of the academic year in most universities, and soon the cycle of postdoc and faculty recruitment will start.  Search committees will be formed, candidates recruited, short lists formed, candidates interviewed, and hiring decisions made.  If you are involved in this process, now is a good time to educate oneself about best practices for recruiting the individuals most likely to succeed.

Much attention has been devoted to implicit bias, for good reason: science faculty systematically rate male students as more competent and hireable than female students who are identical aside from the name (Moss-Racusin et al, 2012).  Both male and female faculty exhibit the same bias.  Thus, the efficacy of combating gender bias by adding women to a search committee is dubious.  Also, if there are few women on the committee, they may be concerned about appearing biased toward other women and may therefore not advocate for them, an effect called favoritism threat (Duguid et al, 2012).