This past week I attended the Inclusive Astronomy conference in Nashville and there was an incredible talk by Kenjus Watson about microaggressions. This term gets brought up frequently in feminist and equity conversations, but a lot of people I've talked to don't really understand what it means, or how microaggressions manifest in everyday life. In fact, I was guilty of one of the microaggressions that Mr. Watson highlighted, when I recently asked a trans* woman what the trans* community thought about Caitlin Jenner's transition.
I am a white woman, and I have spent most of my life not thinking about race. Not in a "we live in a post-racial America" type of way, but just that on an everyday level it didn't really come up that much. Of course when something overtly racist happened, I would notice and be upset by it. I knew that people of color (POC) are underrepresented in STEM, I thought this was a bad thing, and I wanted to increase the number of underrepresented minorities (URM) in Astronomy and Physics. But overall, race and racism was an occasional thought that would briefly come to my mind, and then quickly leave.
Last year several major tech companies released data revealing their lack of workplace diversity compared with the general population. This year three of the best-known companies have committed substantial funding to increasing the numbers and success of women and underrepresented minorities in their firms and in the industry as a whole. This is a major experiment worth following by the astronomy community. Not only do the tech companies employ many people who started in astronomy, but those of us in academia can learn from what works in an industry facing similar challenges to our own.
Intel is a standout. In January they announced $300M for engineering scholarships and for support historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In June they announced the creation of a $125M venture fund to support startups led by women and minorities. As the Intel Capital VP explained, this is a wise investment: private firms led by women do better than those led by men, yet 98% of venture capital funding goes to firms led by men. These investments are nearly 1% of Intel's total revenue in 2014 ($425M of $55.9B). Although they are not annual investments, Intel aims to make an impact in its own hiring over five years, so let's call it 0.15% of total revenue per year.
While it's not exactly tithing, Intel's investment is still very impressive. In 2014, MIT's revenue was $3.1B. 0.15% of that is $4.7M. If one counts all the student financial aid and faculty startup packages for women and underrepresented minorities, then we exceed that amount. Excluding these items, I'm not sure that we do.
Google is also impressive in its funding and visibility on diversity matters. In May, they committed $150M to diversity, after announcing that they had devoted $115M to diversity initiatives in 2014, which is 0.17% of their 2014 revenue. I've been unable to find any details on their investments, so I give Intel greater credit for their transparency. On the other hand, Google leads the tech industry in unconscious bias training including development of an excellent video and workshops that are being given to most of its workforce. Academia generally lags in such efforts, although the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) has made impressive strides and offers their workshops to other organizations. Google also permits some of its employees to devote 20% of their time at work to focus on diversity projects.
The other major tech company in the news for diversity funding is Apple, which committed $50M in March to supporting HBCUs and the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). This is an impressive contribution, but is less than 0.03% of Apple's 2014 revenue. Still, by focusing on the STEM pipeline, they have a chance to make big impact.
These efforts are noteworthy and are in the nation's interest, as well as the self-interest of the tech companies. Will other companies and academia step up to the plate?
The history of the women's rights movement in the US is interesting and I will have a couple of blogs on this topic. You my have heard of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention which is often listed as the first significant event in the feminist movement in the US. Here is what led up to the meeting and what came to pass there.
I believe there were two key developments in the mid-1800's that led to Seneca Falls, namely the abolitionist movement and steady pressure from the Quakers. The Quakers, or Religious Society of Friends, were founded in the 1600's in England and had a fundamental belief in the dignity of all people. They were persecuted in England, but flourished in the US. Although many Quakers owned slaves through the 1700's, there were early members who spoke out against the practice. The message slowly got through and by the late 1700's most northern states had outlawed the practice. Many of the notable meetings and events in the US abolitionist movement were organized or motivated by Quakers.
By 1830, society was in an upheaval in the US. This period in American history has some similarities to the 1960's. Many people were questioning past practices and many others felt threatened by the changes. Inspired by the abolitionist movement, women of the time saw an opportunity to improve their lives. Again, the Quakers played a key role. A group of local New York Quaker women were the key organizers of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, along with non-Quaker Elizabeth Stanton. This was the first, or at least most notable, meeting to advance the status of women. Famous participants were Lucretia Mott, a Quaker from Philadelphia known for her speaking skills, and Frederick Douglass, the renowned African American abolitionist and orator.
Today’s guest blogger is Abraham Loeb. Avi is the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University. He serves as chair of the Harvard Astronomy department and director of the Institute for Theory & Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Avi is also the father of two young daughters and is working to make the scientific world a better place by the time they enter university.
Science can only blossom if young researchers are rewarded for acquired skills and growth rather than inherited academic ancestry.
Will a match catch fire when it scratches against the rugged matchbox wall? Knowing the answer is of paramount importance if we want to collect useful matches in our box. One way to find out is to try them all. The only problem with this approach is that by the time we will know the answer, the burnt matches will be of no value. The challenge is how to select useful matches reliably in advance? Putting this challenge into an academic context, how can we select a cohort of promising scientists before they have made their discoveries? This is the fundamental challenge of academic planning. Prestigious universities are plagued by past hirings which led to ‘duds’ or ‘dead wood’, namely faculty who when hired were labeled as geniuses with great promise but in retrospect, decades later, had little impact on the progress of science. At the same time, some of their contemporaries who were not endorsed by prominent scientists and hence moved to faculty positions at lesser schools, carried the day. Without mentioning names, suffice it to say that this is a familiar occurrence. Why is this phenomenon so prevalent?
Senior scientists who serve on promotion, prize, or search committees are often asked to evaluate the promise of their younger colleagues. One would naively expect them to approach this challenge in the same way that they address a scientific problem, namely study all available data and construct a model that extrapolates into the future. In order to avoid biases, it would appear natural to adopt a dynamical model which takes into consideration the special initial conditions of an individual and allows for growth in forecasting the individual’s future. For example, a young researcher who did not benefit from the privilege of being nurtured by top quality mentors or had to transition from a different culture or an inferior socio-economic status, should be given more slack. This is common sense. But is it common practice?