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.
  • AWESOMENESS.
  • 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.