Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Parental leave policies 2.0

The US remains the only developed country that has no national policy or law providing for paid parental leave. As a result, a plethora of different policies are utilized by employers and organizations. Several years ago the CSWA began a useful list of parental leave policies at astronomical institutions. Readers unfamiliar with this will find it interesting to compare their institution with others.

The vast array of different policies offers an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of different leave policies. Which policies promote employee well being and success? Which are the best for recruiting, retaining, and advancement of all workers? Which policies do employees most like? Do policies exacerbate or ameliorate inequality?

These questions are investigated by social scientists. Recently I've been reading some of the literature, motivated by two considerations.

The first is the periodic assessment of my own university's policies for paid parental leave and, for faculty, tenure clock extensions. The policies were enacted about 15 years ago in order to remove barriers to the success of women faculty, and were explicitly gendered. For example, we grant one-year tenure clock extensions automatically to birth mothers but others must request the extension. Is this fair? Is it effective? It is certainly effective for many individuals, but is it the most effective for everyone?

The second factor is an important new law in Massachusetts, a significant revision of the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act. The new parental leave law enhances the US Family Medical and Leave Act by requiring 8 weeks of parental leave for all employees, regardless of gender, for the adoption or birth of a child. Crucially, the law states that an "employee on parental leave for the adoption of a child shall be entitled to the same benefits offered by an employee on parental leave for the birth of a child." It has been described by some as a paternity leave law.

Gender dynamics is no longer binary. Gender-neutral parental leave laws and employer policies are important for protecting the rights and supporting the success of LGBT parents including those who adopt. Considerations of LGBT equality were not part of the calculus when our policies were implemented more than 15 years ago, but they are important now.

Sociologists study leave policies and their effect on organizations. Sara Mitchell has compiled a listing of faculty parental leave policies. Erin Cech and Mary Blair-Loy have studied "flexibility stigma" among academic scientists and engineers, which they define as the devaluation of workers who seek or are presumed to need flexible work arrangements.They note that the stigma applies to men and women, and that all suffer the consequences. Avoidance of this stigma is one of the reasons many universities have adopted gender-neutral parental leave laws. On the other hand, some have argued that policies favoring women are necessary because men will use parental leave to further their research careers instead of for childcare. Researchers Jennifer Lundquist, Joya Misra and KerryAnn O'Meara find otherwise. They provide excellent guidance in a recent article in Inside Higher Ed and emphasize the need to destigmatize leave-taking as mommy's work. They provide excellent summary advice for any, like me, who are looking at their university parental leave policies:

"Cultural change recognizing the need for ... work-family balance policies is crucial. Faculty members should be made aware of and encouraged to use available work-life policies in order to promote a culture of use. Strong support from the administration in favor of balanced lives has important multiplying effects on campuses. Departmental chairs can set cultural standards by holding important meetings during school hours and scheduling teaching slots during school hours for parents of children. Part of changing the culture is also publicizing best practices. Administrators should publicly recognize departments with a good track record of benefit usage and supports." -- Lundquist, Misra and O'Meara.

Returning to the questions I posed at the outset, we have few answers. We know that stigmatization is associated with social class and identity, and that parental leave policies reduce stress of those using the policies, at least the stress around parenting. (Eldercare and other family and medical needs also cause stress and loss of productivity, and are not always given as much attention as childbirth and childcare.) I have not seen a study showing the effectiveness of leave policies in terms of recruitment, retention and advancement of employees. Perhaps an informed reader will help!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Woman Astronomer of the Month: Joan Schmelz

As a new series to the Women in Astronomy blog, each month we will highlight one female astronomer for her work in the field and outstanding service to the community.  This month we are featuring past Chair Joan Schmelz, whose excellent work as Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy has been a vital part of the success of both the CSWA and the Women in Astronomy blog.

figure 1: Joan Schmelz

Joan Schmelz currently serves as the deputy director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. She is a solar physicist who received her Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from Penn State University in 1987. She then joined the operations team for the Solar Maximum Mission Satellite at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. She is a professor at University of Memphis and a regular visitor to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Her research investigates coronal heating and coronal loops as well as the properties and dynamics of the solar atmosphere. She is a former program officer for the National Science Foundation's Division of Astronomical Sciences. Schmelz is also the former chair of the American Astronomical Society's Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. In addition to writing science papers for the Astrophysical Journal, she also writes regular posts for the Women in Astronomy blogspot on topics such as unconscious bias, stereotype threat, and the gender gap.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Diversity Matters: Calling In or Calling Out?

Melissa Harris-Perry is the host of a TV talk show and a professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University. Her book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, argues that persistent harmful stereotypes profoundly shape black women's politics, contribute to policies that treat them unfairly, and make it difficult for black women to assert their rights in the political arena. Harris-Perry is my go-to source of information on issues of intersectionality. I’m a dedicated viewer and a fan of her show.

Nicholas Kristof is a journalist, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. Along with his wife, Sheryl Wudunn, he is the author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. They write that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. Far from merely making moral appeals, the authors posit that it is impossible for countries to climb out of poverty if only a fraction of women participate in the labor force. I read Half the Sky from cover to cover, but I had to do it in small doses because it was quite depressing. I so admire Kristof and Wudunn for bringing these stories to light.

Harris-Perry often writes a letter of the week to a public figure on a matter of social injustice. They are often snarky, condescending . . . and well-deserved! Some examples are her letter to Nikki Haley about taking down the confederate flag in South Carolina; to Jeb Bush for choosing the same man who advised his brother on Iraq to be his foreign policy adviser; and to Sam Brownback on the effects of his tax policy on the poorest people in Kansas.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Midterm Exam for Faculty Members

Astronomy 501: Departmental Methods for Faculty (Fall Semester)

Mid-term Exam.

You have 50 minutes. Answer all questions. Show your work to maximize partial credit.

Question 1: You are a faculty member in top US astronomy department and serving on a search committee for an assistant professor. Which of the two candidates below gets your vote for the job?

Candidate A is a father who has 10 first author papers and has appeared frequently at international conferences to give invited reviews. He completed his PhD 2 years ago.

Candidate B is a mother who has 8 first author papers and currently travels only rarely to give talks. She completed her PhD 3 years ago.

Explain your decision using the standard metrics of academic success, and present a compelling case for your candidate.

Bonus: Imagine you are an untenured professor and a woman. Explain how your decision about which arguments you present to your senior colleagues on the committee is unaffected by your gender and junior status.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Astronomy in Color

A group of astronomers started a new blog last week: Astronomy in Color.  The blog consists of members of the astronomy community committed to increasing diversity by recognizing, confronting and removing the barriers to racial equity and inclusion. They are committed to an intersectional feminist approach combined with a framework of cultural materialism to understand the past and present repercussions of systemic oppression of marginalized groups on our ability to study the Universe.

Astronomy in Color kicked off the blog with two great posts.  One which is an introduction to the lingo of the social justice movement with definitions of commonly used social justice vocabulary words.  The second is a statement of support for Ahmed Mohamed, the Texas high schooler who was arrested for bringing a home-made clock to school.  

We at the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, and the Women in Astronomy Blog are very excited at the formation of Astronomy in Color, and look forward at ways to collaborate and support each other in increasing inclusion and equity in the Astronomy community.