Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Hockey or STEM?

The below is a guest post written by Dr. Jo-Anne Brown. Dr. Brown is a radio astronomer and faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, cross-appointed to Natural Sciences, at the University of Calgary. 

Earlier this week I posted a Maclean's article on my FB page about the statistics of women in STEM, particularly in Canada. The article described the exodus of women out of careers in science as “death by a thousand cuts”, and identified a number of areas, including major award recipients, where women were vastly under-represented. One comment I received from a friend (and former student) was, “If 19% of first year [engineering] students are female, and 12% [of professional engineers] are female, that's of course a problem (both the low initial enrolment and the attrition). But if 18% of the [Canadian Science and Engineering] Hall of Famers and 28% of the Canada Research Chairs are women, wouldn't this indicate over-representation based on the percentage of women in STEM? ... How do we reconcile these numbers?”

Monday, May 4, 2015

Gender Representation at a Specialized Astronomy Conference

Today's guest blogger is Kyle Willett. Kyle is a postdoc in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota. He works on galaxy morphology and their relation to active black holes, particularly as part of the Galaxy Zoo project.

Members of the astronomy community have recently been tracking participation at conferences as a function of gender. This is intended to address some basic questions about behavior at conferences, such as:
  • How equal are the allotments of talks among men and women?
  • Are men and women asking questions of speakers at the same rate?
  • Does it matter if the speaker/session chair is a man or a woman?
  • Are women/men more likely to ask the first question in a session? Does this affect the gender balance of remaining questions?
In the broader sense, this is intended to measure if our collective behavior at conferences — in choosing speakers, engaging with them, and interacting with the audience — is as inclusive as it should be. If not, then hopefully the community can come up with some ideas of best practices to follow.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

I was wrong and I am sorry

I was wrong.
I made a mistake.
I messed up.

Why are these phrases so hard for us to say?

I used to think that admitting any of the above was the worst thing I could possibly do.  It triggered all sorts of shame, fear, and impostor feelings.  If I didn't do everything perfectly -- the first time -- there was something wrong with me.  If people knew there was something wrong with me, then they would know I was a fake and didn't deserve to be here.  So when someone pointed out to me that I had done something wrong, my first reaction was to be defensive, make justifications, deny the mistake or wrong-doing.  I acted this way because of some warped belief that it would make me look better and feel better about the situation.  

It did neither.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Uncomfortable conversations and my responsibility within our community

“I’m about to have an uncomfortable conversation with y’all.  I may turn red and become visibly emotional.  I apologize in advance.”  That statement is how I start almost every single one of my talks on anti-sexual harassment policies.  I know that the topic is hard for many in the room to discuss, that I may trigger an unwanted response, either in the form of a repressed thought or a negative defensive emotion, at any point in that hour.  I know that in order for those in the room with real power to hear about this topic, they need to see first-hand just how this unfortunate issue can negatively impact a person’s work, and their primary objective as a scientist. But I also know that for some people in the room, what they really want is for me to give them a hug and tell them it will be okay.  I know that my words will have a direct influence on the audience and I must act according to the level of respect and understanding every single person in that room deserves.  That’s not easy, and I know up-front that I have put myself into a position of responsibility.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Limits of Labels, Categories, and Classifications

Today’s guest blogger is Rebecca Oppenheimer. Rebecca is Curator, Professor, and Chair of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. Her optics laboratory in the Rose Center is the birthplace of a number of new astronomical instruments designed to dissect and analyze the light from a continuously growing population of exoplanets.
I am a half-Jew, white, private-schooled, astronomer from the Upper West Side of Manhattan who loves exoplanets and pizza. I am quite certain I am not unique in holding all those labels. In fact I know a few others who do. Except I am also a transgender woman.
Human beings have had a need, since Aristotle’s fundamental writings, to label and categorize everything. It makes it easier to discuss phenomena.

One might, for example, examine the contentious notion of whether Pluto is a planet. The word "planet" is so loaded that few even know what the word originally meant—a wanderer among the stars, the etymological meaning of the word from ancient Greek.