Monday, December 31, 2012

Quality Family Time

Winter break is a wonderful time. If you're a younger grad student, it's a welcome respite from classes. If you're an older grad student or a postdoc, it's a welcome respite from hordes of undergrads. If you're pre-tenure faculty like myself, it's time to get back into all that work that you put off while teaching during the semester: doing research, writing papers, preparing for next semester's class, etc. My to-do list is a mile long. And above all, if you're an astronomer heading to the AAS Meeting next week, you're frantically doing last-minute calculations and polishing up your talk or poster.
The trouble is, my kids also have time off from school themselves. Now, if I had been on the ball, I might have been able to sign them up for winter break camp someplace, but my organizationals skills were all used up on other things during the semester. It almost would be easier if my kids were younger, because whatever day care set up I would have would probably be able to accommodate them.
And, of course, there's the question of why child care duties should always have to fall to me, the mom? Well, in my particular case, there's any number of factors that play into it, but one major point is that my husband has a "real" job where he can't work from home and has to use up valuable vacation time if he doesn't go in to work. On the other hand, my job is much more flexible: I can work where ever I like and no one keeps track of my vacation time. Hence, it's my problem if the kids aren't usefully occupied.
So, here's what we have been doing to keep the kids out of my hair while I try to get work done. There's been a lot of TV and video games, but I've been limiting their screen time to 2 hours a day. I insist that we go for a walk each day, no matter the weather. This keeps us all from going completely stir-crazy. We made each kid write a list of activities to do while I work to keep them out of my hair. Use of these lists has only been partially successful so far. There has been a lot of reading of books and playing with LEGOs. Not so much practicing of instruments or working on long-term school projects.
What do you do for childcare during school breaks? How do you keep your kids and yourself sane? Please share your ideas in the comments!
p.s. Best wishes to all WiA readers for a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Science is a girl thing

Any top ten list of affronts to women in science in 2012 would have to include the European Commission's tone deaf video effort purporting to encourage girls to enter science.   The video that presented fashion models in a misguided marketing effort raised more than hackles and protest -- it stimulated a series of responses from women scientists and girls interested in science, which continue to stir the blogosphere.  The cumulative impact of the marketing campaign gone awry reminds me of Neils Bohr's definition of a profound truth as one whose opposite is also a profound truth.  An exclusionary presentation of women as fashion models pretending to be scientists has inspired a democratic outpouring of women scientists showing how much fun and accessible their work really is.

My favorite among these is this contest entry to the European Gender Summit meeting last month, commissioned by the European Science Foundation.  I also recommend the Science Grrl website and Calendar and this video entry from Dartmouth graduate women.

How can we inspire more young women to enter science?  We must change the perception that science is done by old white guys by showing girls more role models (not fashion models!).  Videos are good, but so is in-person, as is done by women at my engineering school.  The fields of astronomy and physics would be well served by promoting and rewarding such efforts.  To all of you engaged in this work, thank you.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Invasion of Personal Space

Has this ever happened to you? You are attending a professional conference, like the AAS meeting, and presenting a poster on your work. Someone comes to talk to you, but they stand too close. They might even touch your arm or shoulder as they talk. They have invaded your personal space! First, a few things to keep in mind:

Diagram of Edward T. Hall's personal reaction bubbles (1966), showing radius in feet

(1) We are not talking about groping. Groping is unwanted explicitly sexual touching. It is illegal and should be reported. You might want to check out this article.

(2) Keep in mind the distinction between “intentional” and “clueless” behavior with respect to personal space. Sometimes, the area in front of your poster is just not big enough. If your work is really interesting, it could attract a crowd. People might get too close in an effort to hear you or because someone behind them is inching forward.

(3) AAS meetings are not only professional occasions but, at times, social events. Acquaintances are made, flirtations happen, and sometimes long-term relationships ensue – my husband and I met at an AAS meeting. However, when discussing your poster you have the right to expect professional behavior. A professional colleague (someone who is not an old friend, a former office mate, a significant other, etc.) should limit their personal contact to a handshake.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Spotlight on Careers - Request for Feedback on Interview Questions

Dear Readers,

In 2013-14, we plan to provide a series of ~50 blog posts highlighting the full range of career routes that astronomers pursue after their degree. Thank you to all our readers who provided great recommendations for people we should contact!

If you have additional recommendations, please email me at l-trouille [at] with the person's name and email address. We are especially interested in highlighting women, but are open to all suggestions.

We are now in the process of compiling questions to ask our interviewees. We would greatly appreciate your feedback on these questions and additional questions you recommend we include. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bullying: How It Affects You

Today’s guest post is from an anonymous contributor.

Joan Schmelz gave a wonderful talk at the Summer AAS in Anchorage, and I was so glad that a topic that certainly has impacted many people was on such prominent display. In fact, I almost wanted to email Joan and ask if she had heard about my experiences in particular, because it so well matched something I personally had gone through with a bully.

I am not sure if I am unique (I hope I am, but doubt it) in that I have had a chain of at least three bullies strung together in my young astronomy life. From a young hotshot professor who expected their new grad students to perform like postdocs, to a senior person in the field who took it as a personal affront (and went on a personal attack) when a student had a scientific disagreement with him/her, to a person going to my advisor and claiming that I was incompetent to do my own work without his/her having direct control over the science I was outputting. These incidents were daisy chained together: it seemed as if once I'd escaped one bully, another was waiting in the wings to take over. It got me asking many things, but firstly, was there something about me that attracted them to me as a target?

AASWomen for December 14, 2012

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of December 12, 2012
eds. Caroline Simpson, Michele Montgomery, Daryl Haggard, amp; Nick Murphy

This week's issues:

1. Planetary Graduate Program Clearinghouse

2. Salaries of Women in Science

3. Women in Astronomy Blogspot

4. Nature Takes on its Gender Trouble

5. Upcoming in STATUS

6. Why do So Many Women Leave Science?

7. "Science: It's A Girl Thing" Parody Video: Woman Neuroscientists Respond

8. How to undo stereotypes that hinder women in science

9. Women in Science: The Voice of Experience

10. Where are all the Female Geniuses?

11. The Gender/Resource Gap

12. SPS Internships for Undergraduates: Applications due February 1

13. Job Opportunities

14. How to Submit to the AASWomen Newsletter

15. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWomen Newsletter

16. Access to Past Issues of the AASWomen Newsletter

Monday, December 17, 2012

An End-of-Semester (Check) List for Graduate Students

Greetings from Tel Aviv, where I am attending the exciting Exoplanets and Binaries Workshop hosted by the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Tel Aviv University - Harvard/ITC Astronomy Program!

One element that I particularly enjoy about the business of exoplanets is the relative prominence of young researchers: It is a commonplace for the first author of an important new paper to be a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow.  So, that got me thinking that it might be helpful to share some straightforward professional development advice for graduate students.

Of course, given the subject of this blog I have my eye here particularly on advising women on how they might leverage their exciting research results toward broader professional success: At conferences I frequently encounter graduate student women who have stunning research promise but who could do more to increase the visibility of their work. Regardless, I hope this advice is of general use for all.

Most of the hours of the workday for a typical graduate student might be spent on the labor of research, namely the gathering and analysis of data, and the writing of papers.  This post isn't about how to tackle this core task of graduate school: Instead, I wanted to share a quick check list of 3 professional development tips, particularly aimed a students in their first 3 years of graduate school:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

'Tis the Season: Job Interview Resources & Advice

With phone and campus interview season underway, I thought it would be useful to compile CSWA, AstroBetter, and other site's advice and resources.

If you know of other useful resources or have additional advice, please add a comment. The more we know, the better prepared we can be! 

Monday, December 10, 2012

End-of-Year Bits

It's the end of the semester, and for many of us, that means grading the last homework sets and papers, writing a final exam, and calculating final grades.  However, mentoring and professional development continue, even if the calendar says it's time to take a break.

Mentoring: Now is a good time to talk to your undergraduate students about applying for summer research positions at NASA, JPL, and with various NSF REU programs around the country.  Once the semester is over, they will have all the time in the world (well, between video gaming, texting, and FBing!) to research opportunities in which they have an interest.  If you have a colleague who has funding for an undergraduate (or more), now would also be a good time to do some networking on behalf of your students.  In my experience, undergraduate students who participate in summer research programs beyond their home campus return the following fall with renewed interest and motivation and are more likely to pursue graduate study in our field(s).

Thursday, December 6, 2012


I recently heard an interview with Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. The upshot of this book is that success in college in beyond depends less on IQ or however it is you decide to measure academic intelligence, but more on character traits like persistence and optimism. This is in line with studies of delayed gratification, where researchers found that pre-schoolers who were able to resist eating a marshmallow were more successful later in life.
I've certainly seen my share of anecdotal evidence of the importance of persistence in achieving success. The kids who were at the top of class in elementary school getting to high school and deciding that honors geometry was too hard. The students who entered college as pre-med majors graduating with English degrees. They all had been used to getting by pretty easily, but at some point they hit a wall, and decided that rather than trying to scale it, they would turn aside. But many of the students that were behind those leaders, who were used to things being hard for them, would come to that wall, see it as just another wall, and surpass the students who had coasted along up to that point.
I'd also say that the analogy applies to success in astronomy. Especially in these tough economic times, the people who end up getting permanent positions are the ones who just keep on applying for jobs year after year after year, not necessarily the ones who do the best science.
Now, suppose you are a girl interested in pursuing science, and you encounter a wall. And suppose someone tells you that you can't climb that wall, because you're a girl. Or that if you climb that wall, the boys won't like you. Or you see that none of your friends are climbing it. There are lots of easier paths for you away from the wall.
Suppose you are a woman applying for postdocs in astronomy. Your wall is just a bit higher than your male peers, because of unconscious bias. You get a little less support for climbing that wall, because your graduate mentor seems more interested in grooming his male students than yourself. You have troubling syncing your wall-climbing with your spouse. You don't see many other women climbing the wall. The paths away from your wall are well-trodden, not to mention that it's especially difficult to climb the wall with a baby.
I guess my point is that persistence is a huge factor in success in any endeavor, and women have to persist harder to succeed in science. I'd like to see both a more level playing field, and more support for women in climbing over the barriers to success.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Charting a New Course in Physics Education

The following is a guest post by four members of the Compass Project: Nathaniel Roth, Punit Gandhi, Gloria Lee, and Joel Corbo.

The first year of college can be especially tough for a student interested in pursuing the physical sciences: Daunting assignments. Competition for grades. Uninspiring lectures. And, perhaps most overwhelming of all, a feeling of isolation in the face of it all.
Finding a supportive community can be crucial in order to persevere in this transition. It’s certainly easier to grasp the difficult ideas presented in lecture and in the homework when discussing them comfortably with friends. More profound, however, is the sense of being welcomed into a group where one can feel some notion of belonging.
The quest for community is harder for students who feel like outsiders at the outset. Gender, race, socioeconomic status, and other factors can act as immediate barriers. When the inevitable struggles with the subject material arise, it can be easier for students to drift away when they feel they never really belonged in the first place.
With these ideas in mind, in 2006 a group of physics graduate students at UC Berkeley saw an opportunity to make their department a more diverse and welcoming place. They launched an ambitious program called the Compass Project designed to foster a more inclusive, creative, and collaborative scientific community, aimed especially at incoming undergraduates in the physical sciences.  Since then, Compass has grown into a vibrant organization that has improved the academic experience for nearly 100 undergraduates and dozens of graduate students. The American Physical Society presented Compass with the 2012 Award for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education.
We have recently been given an opportunity to tell the story of Compass' founding and its subsequent achievements in a Points of View column on Physics Today online (the pre-print can be found here).  Many of the ideas mentioned above are discussed in more detail, along with a host of additional information. We encourage you to read the article to learn more, and we hope that you'll find that our organization's philosophy resonates with your own. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Latent, Stereotypical Thinking

I got an e-mail from a local high school teacher that I thought I would share with you. Have you gotten one of these recently? If so, what did you decide do?

Hello Mr. Schmelz,

I am a teacher of Honors English at ABC High School. I write you today to ask if you would be so kind as to allow one of my Honors students to contact you, via phone or via email, for a brief interview about Astronomy as a career choice. This young man, XYZ, is very bright and very congenial . . .

Honors English I Teacher
ABC High School

After much thought, here is how I replied:

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Disruptive Effects of Gender Equality

Last week's blog entry from John Johnson and the responses to it summarized well the cultural divide between those departments which celebrate diversity and the others. Both sides are represented even within one department like my own, which combines physics and astronomy. (Note that the diversity advocates are not preferentially astronomers, although some subfields of physics appear to be distinctly less female-friendly than others.) What determines whether a department with diverse perspectives describes itself as "defender of excellence" or "champion of success"?

When it comes to such questions I am not an unbiased observer. I believe strongly that departments with a supportive environment for everyone which fosters the development of talent have an inherent advantage. Would you send your students to a department with a poisonous atmosphere for women? Would you send your male students there?

Individuals aren't the only ones who suffer from the accrual of microinequities, or "molehills piled one on top of the other" (Virginia Valian, Why So Slow?). Institutions do, too. A toxic environment promotes conflict and decreases collaboration, which excludes a significant percentage of high-impact research opportunities. Hiring from only the club of the "Big-4" severely limits the talent pool; it is a form of implicit bias, whereby PhD department is a stereotype for quality. Schemas apply to more than just gender.

In the corporate world, giants can be felled by innovative dwarfs through the process Clayton Christensen calls "disruptive innovation". Bethlehem Steel was driven out of business by mini steel mills who used cheap scrap metal. The low-cost producers kept improving their market and capturing market share until it was too late for the old-fashioned behemoth. Might the same fate be in store for the academic titans who fail to add value to their faculty by maintaining inequitable environments?

I'm putting my money with gender equality as a disruptive transformation in academia.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Where are the women astronomy professors?

Entwives en Hiver by kaiorton

Guest-post by John Johnson, professor of Astronomy in the Caltech Department of Astrophysics. His research is on the detection and characterization of exoplanets. This post is a re-post from his blog.

I'm going to start off this first post on this topic with a simple axiomatic statement: Women and men are equally capable of being successful astronomers. There is no inherent difference in mental capacity, creativity, ability to learn, or any other factor that plays into the success of an astronomer.

Given this axiomatic starting point, it stands to reason that the fraction of women on the faculty at the top astronomy institutions should reflect the fraction of women earning PhDs. A quick glance through the "People" pages of the websites for Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley and Caltech astro departments (hereafter referred to as the "Big-4") shows that 31% of the graduate students (with gender-identifiable names) are women. Granted, there may be some errors on the various webpages, and I wasn't able to identify the gender of every student. But as a quick sanity check, I do have access to the student records over the past 10 years in Caltech astro. During this time (2001-2011) there have been 47 PhDs, 14 of them women, or 29.8%. So 30% is a pretty solid number for the fraction of women graduating with astronomy PhDs over the past decade (records going back to 1991 show about 27% over the past 20 years).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dealing With (Student) Harassment

A recent post by Christina Richey on the Women in Planetary Science blog highlighted some really good examples of what harassment is and how to deal with it.  It reminded me that women are more likely to face harassment at all levels and made me think that we don't always realize we are being harassed. As stated by the AAUW,

                     "Determining what is sufficiently severe, pervasive, and objectively
                      offensive..can be complicated. As this research demonstrates, people
                      disagree on the severity of the problem. What is a laughing matter
                      for one ... may be offensive to another and traumatic to yet another,
                      especially in the campus community, which teems with students and
                      staff from a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives."  

I know I have brushed off comments as jokes or in a few cases, have been completely oblivious to the fact that I was being belittled or intimidated.  This problem is not just prevalent at research institutions - even at small schools with small departments, I hear stories of women who are bullied by their colleagues. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Negotiation is a Dialogue: Compiled Advice

This post was inspired by the following paragraph from a Chronicle article:
If you're like most academics, you either negotiate a job offer poorly, or you don't negotiate at all. The cost to you of failing to negotiate your first faculty position can be significant. Here's just one example: Miranda, a recent Ph.D. in the social sciences, negotiated a 6 percent increase in salary over what her new department initially offered her, from $49,000 a year to $52,000. If we assume she enjoys a 30-year career and receives annual raises of 3 percent, the extra salary that she negotiated (just $3000 more) would translate into an additional $143,000 over what she would have earned without negotiating.
With this in mind, I’ve compiled advice from our CSWA resources, previous CSWA blog posts (here and here), other resources (here, here, here, here, and here), and advice I’ve been given.

Before launching into the advice, if you’re planning to attend the winter AAS, I highly recommend attending the ‘Negotiating Strategy and Tactics’ workshop on Thursday, January 10th. If you will not be attending the AAS, find out if your institution provides negotiation training.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Guest Post: Lauren Tompkins on Expanding Your Horizons

Guest Post from Lauren Tompkins a postdoc in the University of Chicago ATLAS group.

Last February, as my first winter as a University of Chicago postdoc wore on, I became restless with my everyday routine.  I was doing interesting work on an electronics upgrade to the Atlas Experiment at the LHC, but felt disconnected from life outside of the Ivory Tower.  I thought that doing some outreach, particularly in a city as large and diverse as Chicago, would restore that connection for me.  As was mentioned in a previous post, finding an existing program is a good way to get started in outreach, so I set out to find a program that I was sure would exist in Chicago, Expanding Your Horizons (EYH).  

EYH is an international organization of over 70 one-day conferences for middle school girls.  At the conferences, women from the local STEM community do hands-on workshops with the girls, showing them that STEM careers are fun and accessible, hoping to empower them to take their place in the science and technology world.  Jessica and I participated in EYH several times through UC Berkeley’s Society of Women in the Physical Sciences.  Our perennial workshop was build-your-own radio.  Our group spent less than $500 on simple crystal radio kits which we helped the 45 girls construct during the workshop. Watching their faces light up when they first heard a transmission on a radio they constructed by hand was a treat. EYH seemed like a perfect way to get involved in outreach.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Scientific computing versus computer science

I recently attended a local meeting on women in computer science, at the invitation of someone I met at a different meeting on high performance computing. Not that I consider myself a computer scientist, rather I'm more of a scientific computationalist, with the major focus of my research involving high performance computing.
Still, it's an interesting contrast. While the percentage of women in physics and astronomy has generally grown over the last three decades, the percentage of women in computer science reached a peak around 1982, and has decreased ever since.
You can make any number of guesses for cause of this decline. I've heard that it's because computer science grew out of math departments, but moved into engineering departments in the mid-1980s, so it followed the trends of those two fields. I've also heard that it's due to the rise of gaming and the rampant culture of harassment of women (see here for just one article on the subject). However, I didn't see much exploration of that. Granted, I missed half the meeting because of teaching obligations. Still, it was really great to see a big room filled with women in computer science, ranging from undergraduates to tenured faculty.
There were discussions about imposter syndrome, gender bias, and work-family balance. At one point I was talking about my hour-long commute and my reasons for it (my husband commutes an hour in the other direction, so we split the difference), and I was asked, "how do you manage?" My answer to this question is always, "I make it up as I go along." Which is really all any of us can do, when it comes to work-life-family balance. On the other hand, I met another woman at the meeting who had the same commute as me for the same reasons. So even though we're making it up as we go along, at least you learn from meetings like these that you're not alone, and maybe you can even carpool along the way.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Does Organizational Culture Matter?

Yes! The reactions to an infamous letter to graduate students from the Academic Program Committee of a major astronomy department make the point clearly enough. So does the damaging effect of continued sexism in physics. I thought we had made more progress on these issues. Many years ago, the head of my department told proudly how he would come in on weekend mornings and walk around to see which junior faculty were at work. I don’t recall if I was tenured at the time, but I do recall being miserable. Although I remained at that university, I chose not to propagate the mythology of 80-hour work weeks or the prevailing attitudes that women were less qualified for the top ranks.

Dysfunctional and excellent organizations both contain good people. In my experience it is not the people but the institutional culture that distinguishes successful organizations, especially those that develop and retain their talent. To be sure, individuals can cause a lot of harm in any organization, for example by engaging in harassment. But in some organizations harassment is suppressed and ignored by the leadership while in others it is confronted and eliminated.

Edgar Schein is a management professor who has studied corporate culture over many decades. His book Organizational Culture and Leadership is a tour de force in how institutional culture shapes leaders and vice versa. His book is also a user’s manual for those who would pursue culture change. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to find this manual very useful.

Leadership matters. Sometimes postdocs ask me for advice about the kind of university they should aspire to join as faculty. Lately I’ve been suggesting that they favor employers whose leadership and institutional culture support the values that are important to them. For example, if you are interested in K-12 outreach, don’t go to a place where it is frowned upon, and don’t believe for a moment that by doing so you are settling for less than the best.

Institutional culture is slow to change. Over her 12 years as Princeton’s president, Shirley Tilghman began a long slow process of making Princeton a more supportive place for women and minorities. I admire her success and see it as a model for other university presidents. So it was with great delight that yesterday I was one of 30 members of my university community – students, staff, postdocs and faculty – who met with MIT’s new president Rafael Reif to highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion and to offer our ideas and support for the vision he presented in his inaugural address.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Ghandi’s quote is a model for all who seek to change culture. Find allies. They may come from directions you didn’t imagine. Yesterday, the air was electric as a student praised our Director of LBGT Services for how she establishes inclusion, respect, openness, participation, and safety, which she then described to our president. It makes me so proud to work with students, staff, and other faculty members to promote culture change in the university.

Organizations that help people achieve their best will outperform others. Faculty would do well to heed the concerns of graduate students and postdocs. With time and good leadership, culture change is possible. I would like to see it spread across the fields of astronomy and physics. Will you join me?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Anonymous Guest-Post: One Small Step

Anonymous guest-post by a mid-career scientist at a large public university. 

As a mid-career scientist at a large public university, I find myself increasingly frustrated with policies and procedures with which I disagree but feel powerless to do anything about. However, recently, I found myself in a position to strike a (teeny, tiny) blow for change -- and I took it.

My academic department has had a very traditional approach to hiring in my 17 years here. We hire in very specific sub-fields, the argument being that we need to reach 'critical mass' in each research group. (I should add I'm in a physics department of about 25, with a few astronomers, of which I am one). The hiring committee is thus invariably chaired by someone in the sub-field in which we are hiring, with two or three others on the committee who are preferably in the same subfield or hopefully a related one. The committee looks over applicant files and presents a ranked list to the department, which rubber-stamps it.  We have had no formal evaluation criteria, but the most important factor is the candidate's research record. Almost nothing else matters. As far as I can tell, the chair's opinion is therefore the one that matters to the committee, and to the department, as the chair is thought to be most knowledgeable about the research area. This means that essentially one person (the committee chair) is choosing the candidate -- again, as far as I can tell.

If one looks at any of the recent research on how to increase faculty excellence and diversity in academia (for example, see, this is described as the worst possible way to hire. I know this, but have had no say in the process in the past.  Because I was the last astronomer hired (17 years ago), I have never been on a hiring committee. Until now. We have a job opening for a physicist in a specific subfield. Because the university wants at least one minority on hiring committees, and since the other female faculty member in our department (who generally has filled that role on other hiring committees because she works in physics rather than astronomy) was unable to be on the committee, I was appointed.

In the past few weeks, as the job ad went out, I have been wondering how to spark a change in our usual deparmental hiring practices. I have the advantage of knowing that our Dean's office has become aware of best practices and is slowly trying to implement them across the College: we have an NSF ADVANCE grant to improve the recruitment and retention of women faculty in STEM. So I feel that I have administrative back-up if necessary, which is comforting.

This week, we were notified that the applicant files were ready. The chair of the hiring committee, Dr. X, sent an email to the committee saying that the applicants' files were in the main office and we should read them, then meet to form our short list. I took a deep breath, and sent a reply saying that I was uncomfortable with this process, and that we should meet BEFORE looking over the files to come up with evaluation criteria that we would all use. Then all files that meet the criteria are put on a 'long short list' -- these people get a short phone interview, from which we then compile a final short list. I stated I would not participate unless we followed this procedure. I attached a copy of the UMich candidate evaluation form (that I have sent to the department in previous years but to no avail), with the note that this was what the Dean's office is suggesting that departments use (which is true).

This felt like a very brave move to me. I was sure Dr. X wouldn't understand why I wanted to do this, and would think I was creating extra work and slowing down the process (moving too slowly has cost us positions in the past). I did figure they couldn't throw me off the committee because I was the only minority though! ;) I fully expected some kind of confrontation (Dr. X can be impatient...) and push-back.

Instead, Dr. X replied to the committee that I had a good point and we should meet as soon as possible to set criteria before looking at the files! My jaw dropped. And I was immensely heartened. Maybe change IS possible! Maybe things CAN get better! Maybe I CAN make a difference!

In some ways this seems like a small thing -- one hiring committee for one position in one department -- but it feels like a turning point. It's been one for me, anyway.

I feel empowered.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Different Opinions on Women Underrepresentation in Physics

I saw an interesting article in BuzzFeed ** about a published study on gender differences in physics and biology.  The paper is titled "Gender Segregation in Elite Academic Science" and is by sociologists E. Ecklund, A. Lincoln and C. Tansey.  The article took a new approach in this field, not just quoting employment or student statistics but surveying 2500 physicists at elite institutions for their opinions.

The survey asked scientists why they felt there is so much more underrepresentation of women in physics than in biology.  The survey was followed up by interviews with 150 respondents.

There were significant differences in the views expressed by men and women, but not between physicists and biologist.  Men tended to not notice inequalities as much.  They also, on average, viewed shortfalls in the advancement of women as due to shortcomings in their background and not discrimination.  Women, on average, viewed discrimination as the primary reason for few women in physics.  They viewed the physics culture as being more inherently discriminatory than that in biology.

It is instructive to see some quotes from the study:

“morphological differences and biological differences [make men better at] hardcore math and physics.” — male assistant professor, genetics

“Physics is more difficult for girls and you need a lot of thinking, and the calculation, and the logic. So that’s maybe hard for girls.” — male grad student, physics

"Women have to make a choice [because] the woman ends up being the primary caregiver if they have children.” — male postdoctoral fellow, biology


“I think women ... want to have more of a sense that what they are doing is helping somebody. ... Maybe there are more women in ... biology [because] you can be like ‘Oh, I am going to go cure cancer.’” — postdoctoral fellow, biology

“Male-dominated departments are really unpleasant for women. [...] Men can be huge jerks in those situations.” — female associate professor, biology

“It’s not going to be solved until we figure out how to help mothers figure out how to do the career and the kid thing.” — female associate professor, physics

One of the conclusions in the studies is that "few men in either discipline emphasized the present discrimination that women in science may face (and that men in physics hold a much larger share of senior faculty positions) suggests that discrimination is not being adequately addressed in physics departments at top research universities."


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Part-Time Scientist

Today's guest bloggers are Catherine Neish and David Choi.

As funding rates decrease, and the number of PhDs increase, establishing a fully funded career in planetary science and astronomy is going to be increasingly difficult to achieve.  This trend is already obvious in the grant statistics for NASA, the primary funding source for planetary scientists, and a major funding source for astronomers (Figure 1).  So the question becomes: are scientists willing to work part-time, or will this decrease in selection rates force scientists to leave the field?

Figure 1: Selection rates for NASA ROSES programs (solid line) in the Planetary Science Division (PSD) and Astrophysics Division (APD) have been decreasing with time, as the number of proposals increases (dashed line).  Charts from

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Guest Post: Eliza Kempton on Support for a Working Mom with Facebook

Eliza Kempton has recently started a job as an assistant professor of physics at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.  Her research is on the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, focusing on low-mass planets known as super-Earths.  Eliza is also a new mother of a 6-month-old baby.

A couple of weeks ago, the reality of being a working mom finally hit home.  I started in a tenure track position this fall at a fabulous liberal arts school.  My students are amazing.  My colleagues are friendly and supportive.  The institution provides a million avenues for mentoring, teaching support, and research support.  I’ve never been so busy in my entire life, but I love my new job.  I am also a new mom.  I am lucky to have a rather laid-back daughter... but she is still so little.  She is growing very fast, and if you blink, you miss her taking on a new milestone or doing something funny that we’ve never seen her do before.  I swear, each week she seems like she’s an entirely new person.

Like any working parent, I struggle with balancing work and parenting, but the pressure on women can be so much more severe because of the pressure that society puts on us and the pressure that we put on ourselves to “do it all”.  This really hit home recently, when I faced my first day of not being at home to put my daughter to bed.  We had a dinner at work and a weekend retreat to kick off a grant that we just received to support our intermediate-level science students as they make the bridge from freshman-level courses into the more vigorous upper levels of their majors.  It is something that I am deeply interested in, and I knew I wanted to attend the weekend events.  But on Friday night, as I mulled over the realization walking home that I had not seen my daughter at all that day, and I was going to spend half of Saturday (usually my only real non-work day to hang out with my family) at the retreat, I started feeling sad and guilty.  I knew I wanted to attend the rest of the retreat on Saturday, but I also felt that I should be... no, I *wanted* to be... at home with my daughter!  Ah, the conundrum of trying to have it all.

I did what any social-networking saavy woman in the 21st century would do.  I reached out to my friends on facebook.  My post, and the many supportive responses I received from friends and colleagues, are below:

Monday, October 22, 2012

Yet Another Invitation to Speak at a Career-Family Panel...

For much of the past 6 weeks since the September start of the academic year, my wife has been traveling to Switzerland, Kosovo, New York, and Washington DC for her research on the relationship between the military and health care systems. And I have had trips to Pasadena and Chicago, and tomorrow I'm off to Baltimore. This has certainly made for some challenging logistics on the home front, as we have three young daughters and the timing of these trips coincided not just with the start of the semester, but also of course with the start of public school. It's all going went well (both the research expeditions, and on the home front), but I was recently reminded of a conversation we had at the end of August (and on the eve of that very hectic September).

On that particular evening, after the kids had finally agreed to go to sleep, my wife and I were each checking in on the emails that had poured in during the 5-8pm window. "Another invitation for us to speak about work and family" she said. But then she furrowed her brow and didn't look enthused. "What's up?" I asked.

Over the past couple years, we have participated in many of these opportunities to speak with younger researchers who are on the academic path but wondering about how to navigate it with family. I guess we are a natural fit for such panels: My wife is a double-board-certified MD with a full-time research career, and I am professor of astronomy, and we have young children.

So, what was my wife's worry about the invitation? Our concern is that these invitations are (almost) always from women-in-science groups and the audience is (usually) overwhelmingly women.

(Let me first be clear on a couple issues: First, we love doing this, and are delighted to speak to exactly these audiences, and so please invite us for more! Second, what I'm about to say pertains to hetero couples, but I certainly don't want to imply that this is the only family model!)

OK, so what we would REALLY love is to receive such invitations from groups with a heavy participation from men, particularly given that men are still the significant majority in our field even at the graduate student and postdoc levels. Postdoctoral associations, graduate student associations, a Friday 4pm chat... I don't have an easy answer, but surely there is a way to have these sorts of discussions with our students and postdocs as part of their professional development, just as we hold journal clubs and workshops on grant-writing and speaking, and not leave this to be arranged by women-in-science groups. I would love to be approached by a group of men-in-science who are excited about the future but worried about their ability to balance family and work!

Our feeling (and what we try to convey at such panels) is that in the present climate you really can have both a family and a stimulating research career. The key is that your partner must be exactly that! If you are going to have a partner and the partner is a man, then it is essential that he views this as his issue every bit as much as yours. There are many men out there who have lots of advice, both about the practical issues as well as the broader challenges.  However, until we create a mechanism for these discussions to include most of the junior men in our field (and ultimately instill a sense of co-ownership among men of this issue), we will likely continue to stumble on the same problems that have plagued us in the past.

I would love to read in the comments examples for work-family events that could engage (or have engaged) a larger number of the junior men in our field.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

'Wikithon' Honors Ada Lovelace and Other Women in Science

Today, October 16, is Ada Lovelace Day, an annual observation designed to raise awareness of the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. Groups in the U.S., U.K., Sweden and India are marking the occasion with a 'Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon', creating and improving upon the Wikipedia pages of prominent women in STEM fields. A Wikipedia edit-a-thon seems like a fitting tribute to the woman many consider to be the first computer programmer.

Science writer Maia Weinstock is the organizer of the U.S. Ada Lovelace Day edit-a-thon. She helped compile a list of scientists who should have Wikipedia pages or whose pages need cleaning up. A secondary goal of the project is to encourage more women to edit Wikipedia. Only about 10-15% of regular contributors to Wikipedia are women, which impacts the information provided and the lens through which it is written.

See Evelyn Lamb's post at the Scientific American Blogs for more details and resources.

Also, check out this sweet cartoon about Ada Lovelace from BrainPOP.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Making a Difference

I'm starting my 8th year at my liberal arts (LA) college, which is probably the longest I've ever lived anywhere, except for growing up and my extra-long-undergraduate+first-job stint in Madison.  Each year I learn more and more about the lack of women in STEM fields, but I become more and more comfortable with my place in life. Each year, I am ever more glad that I chose science.  I love my research and I greatly admire my department colleagues. As a professor who teaches a large number of non-science majors every semester, I am more confident in insisting upon rigor in my classes. I also stress to my research students that I expect them to be on-time, organized, well-versed, and prepared for anything.

Recently, my colleagues and I took three undergraduate students (all women) to the annual conference of the Michigan Space Grant Consortium.  Though my college is not an official member, I felt that this was a great venue for our students to present research, and when I asked, the organizers graciously allowed us to participate. All of the students had attended other conferences, but for two of them, it was their first time presenting. For the third, it was the first time she was giving an oral presentation.  Logistics were complicated, so we all drove separately, but all of them arrived on-time (or at least before the opening "welcome"), all were well-dressed, and no one had forgotten their poster or flash drive! Whew.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On the detection of interstellar boron sulfide: a response

Many of you have probably seen this letter making the rounds on Facebook, or even appearing on AstroBetter. While I can't verify the provenance of the letter, it's dismaying to see the pressure being put on the students in that astronomy department to buy into a workaholic culture. Not all the advice is bad, but there are some real stinkers in there.
So, here's my own letter of advice.
First, at the risk of revealing myself to be an imposter, let me say that I work 40-50 hours on a regular basis, and almost always have. This may change when there's an important proposal deadline looming, but I have never found working 80-100 hours a week to be sustainable. In fact, my productivity generally takes a big nose dive as I increase my hours of work, because I just can't think as clearly when I don't sleep, eat, and exercise regularly.
I don't think my career has suffered as a result. I graduated with a PhD from Harvard, had two named postdoc fellowships, and am now tenure-track faculty at a research university. I even managed to have two kids along the way. Granted, I may not be at the most prestigious university in the country, but quite frankly, if it takes 80-100 hours a week to succeed there, I'll stay right where I am, thank you very much. I am very pleased to be in a department where the typical Monday morning conversations goes something like: "What did you do over the weekend?" "I took my family camping/pumpkin picking/to the zoo. How about you?" "I went hiking/skiing/rafting up in the mountains, want to see pictures?"
Just because you don't spend every waking hour thinking about your research doesn't mean you're a bad scientist. I love that fact that nearly everyone in my department has interests outside astronomy, whether it's enjoying the outdoors, writing novels, performing music, or playing sports. It makes us all well-rounded people and better colleagues. We are all also passionate about our research, too, it's just not the only thing that gets us out of bed in the morning.
Second, the bad news. The job market is definitely worse than it was a decade or two ago. Budget cuts to universities and federal grant agencies have dried up funding for jobs at all levels. It would be disingenuous and a disservice to you to tell you otherwise. I wish I had something encouraging to say about this, except that in my experience, perseverance is key.
Third, faculty should be willing to listen to complaints and criticism from their students, even if it comes across as rude. If the students are pissed off, something has gone awry, and getting in a huff about it won't fix the problem. You know how getting a negative referee report can feel bad at first, but in the end you have to take the feedback like a big girl and address all the comments in a mature fashion? Yeah, this is the same thing.
Also, don't talk down to your students if you really think of them as peers.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Impostor Syndrome

Guest-post by John Johnson, professor of Astronomy in the Caltech Department of Astrophysics. His research is on the detection and characterization of exoplanets. This post is a re-post from his blog. Thank you John for being willing to share this with our community. 

I remember waking up in a cold sweat one night in early 2010, about six months after I joined the faculty at Caltech. I woke up to the terrifying realization that I didn't have a contingency plan for my family for when I would inevitably be either let go or denied tenure. Erin woke up wondering what was wrong with me and I told her that I was sorry, but it was only a matter of time before my colleagues discovered how little I know about astronomy. They were going to discover that they made a mistake in hiring me as a professor.

I remember this event vividly, and I can even recall the feeling that I was thinking critically and purely objectively. It's really amazing that I made this self-evaluation despite my achievements, my publication record, the job offers I had the year before, and the praise that I've received from my community. None of this mattered to me because I had managed to either fool everyone, or I simply worked much harder than my intrinsically talented peers. There were smart people (others), and people (like me) who had to work twice as hard to break even.

Since that time I have received counseling and treatment for acute anxiety, as I have written about previously. I now recognize that I was also suffering from something called the Impostor Syndrome. Many people, including myself, have heard about impostor syndrome, but few understand the symptoms. Further, when suffering from the syndrome, one has a tendency to feel that they alone are judging themselves objectively while everyone else is fooled by a partial picture of reality. While others might suffer while actually being good at their jobs, I'm the true exception. I know I'm not good enough while others are. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Guest Post: Graduate Student Mom

The below blog post is from guest blogger Hannah Fakhouri, a graduate student in astrophysics at UC Berkeley:

Greetings!  My name is Hannah and I'm guest blogging this week about being a graduate student and a mom:  I am a seventh year PhD student in (astro)physics and I have a three month old son.  

(As an aside, some people say graduate school is a great time to have a baby, but that is highly dependent on other factors in your life.  Not only do I have a supportive advisor, but I am married and my husband has a stable job and a good income.  These considerations make having a baby feasible, though certainly not easy.)

I want to share with you a few lessons that I have learned in my journey thus far; they are things that I have always known, but now know much more fully:

1)  Don't be afraid to ask
At the end of my fifth year of graduate school, I walked into my advisor's office and said, "How about instead of graduating next year I have a baby and tack on an extra easy year?"  (Okay, in truth it was much more awkward and halting than that.)  To my great relief, he said "That sounds great."  (Or something there abouts.)  A few months before that my husband and I had started talking about the possibility of having a baby before I graduated.  I knew that gauging my advisor's support would be critical and although he is friendly and we have a good report, I was very nervous to actually say the words.  My advisor is so supportive, in fact, that I am not taking official maternity leave; he allowed me to stay on as a graduate student with a reduced work load.  (I am sure this is not the case for everyone and I commiserate with you if you find yourself having to choose between a leave of absence or returning to work immediately; there is much to be done to improve maternity leave policies for graduate students.)  In truth I have found much more support from my colleagues than I had expected; so if you're in a similar situation, ask! Your needs and desires are important; they are worth pursing.

2)  Deadlines are motivators
An impending due date is a whole new kind of motivator.  My goal had been to send out a draft of my thesis analysis to my collaborators before going into labor.  The internal review process takes a while in my group, so I was hoping to overlap that with the time I would be least responsive.  About a month before my due date, I didn't have anything written and the analysis was still in flux.  Knowing that contractions could start any day, I became more firm with my colleagues about halting the never-ending investigations and choosing a single result to focus on (a skill that will continue to be useful).  Much to my surprise, I finished the draft and sent it off to my colleagues two days before the contractions started.

3)  Children require sacrifice
I am very thankful to be a mother; but I now know that parenting is not for everyone.  In many ways I knew what to expect, but knowing that you won't get any REM sleep for a month doesn't help when you're staring down the barrel of another sleepless night.  Those weeks do come to an end, and I now have some spare cycles to think about research again.  I'll spend the next while working from home (as the nature of my research allows me to do that) and when my son gets a little older, we'll likely do part time day care while I finish my degree.  I don't know what the future of my career will be; I know I won't have the career I had envisioned in the past, but when I look at my son, I know it is a worthy sacrifice.

In the end, I don't have grand answers to the question of how to balance family life and work as a graduate student.  I've only just started the journey, and all I have is my story.

Friday, October 5, 2012

(Posted on behalf of Michele Montgomery, CSWA member and organizer of the UCF conference)

From January 18-20, six regional Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics will be held at

-California Institute of Technology (
-Colorado School of Mines (
-Cornell University (
-University of Central Florida (
-University of Illinois (
-University of Texas (

The four major goals of the conferences are to * foster a culture in which undergraduate women are encouraged and supported to pursue, and also to succeed in, higher education in physics; * give women the resources, motivation, and confidence to apply to graduate school and successfully complete a Ph.D. program in Physics; * provide information and dispel misconceptions about the application process for graduate school and the diverse employment opportunities in physics and related fields, enabling women to make more informed decisions about their goals and attain them; and * connect female physics students with successful female physicists to whom they can relate and who can act as inspirational role models and mentors.

To obtain more information, please see the APS website

Avoid the tiger

Are you biased? I am. I try not to be, but that is impossible, as social scientists have shown us for decades. Check yourself at Harvard Project Implicit.
Biases can be helpful. They can steer us away from danger – if one sees eyes reflecting a flashlight beam in the jungle at night, natural selection favors those who presume the worst. But biases can also cause harm, for example, by keeping good scientists from advancing in a culture that is biased against outsiders.
Last week, an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says it all in the title: Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students by Moss-Racusin et al from Yale. They used a classic double blind job application test – randomly assigning a male or female name to otherwise identical applications – to show that both male and female faculty members are biased against female applicants for a laboratory manager position. This study confirms the long-standing results of Steinpreis et al (1999) cited by CSWA Chair Joan Schmeltz in her talk at the summer 2010 AAS Meeting.
I that expect nearly all readers of this blog entry will say “I know this and it makes me angry.” In the hopes there are some who feel differently, I invite you to conduct your own experiment. Look for gender bias (or other forms) and see how many examples you can identify in a month. Here is my list:
1. An all-male colloquium committee is embarrassed to find that there are no female speakers this semester.
2. An undergraduate confides to a postdoc that her advisor assumes that because she is struggling in a class, she doesn’t want to become a physicist.
3. I overlook a female colleague when listing the mentors who have guided my journey.
Are you chagrined yet? I am. By the way, women and men science faculty are equally biased against women job applicants, as are biologists and physicists, and young and old faculty.
Awareness is the first step towards salvation. We can’t always see the tigers in the dark, but we can look out for them.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Speaking Up at Meetings

There is an interesting article on the TODAY web site of MSNBC about different behaviors of women and men in meetings, with some unexpected twists and turns.  It is authored by Seattle-area writer Dana Marcario and reports on a study by researchers Chris Karpowitz of BYU and Tali Mendelberg of Princeton published in the American Polical Science Review.  The study finds that women speak up 25% less than their male counterparts in meetings where they are in the minority, which is not the case with men when they are in the minority.

Quoting co-author Tali Mendelberg for Princeton:
“In school boards, governing boards of organizations and firms, and legislative committees, women are often a minority of members, and the group uses majority rule to make its decisions.  These settings will produce a dramatic inequality in women’s floor time and in many other ways. Women are less likely to be viewed and to view themselves as influential in the group and to feel that their ‘voice is heard.’”

However, the situation changes drastically when women form the majority or when a consensus is required.  Not unexpectedly, women speak up when in the majority, but this also happens when they are in the minority but the group needs to reach a unanimous conclusion.

I really like this quote from Ms. Marcario on unexpected things that happen when women do speak up:
"The study’s researchers noted that women not only flourished when the group had to build consensus, but discussions began to take a different tone as well. When women took more active roles, the whole vibe of the group changed. The researchers found those groups to be more positive, more inclusive and have fewer negative interruptions than the male-dominated discussion."

So there is a silver lining to this report.  Yes, women often speak less in meetings to their detriment.  But, in the right situations, they pipe up and change the dynamic of the group for the better.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

NYTimes Opinion Piece: The Myth of Male Decline

On Friday we posted a link to David Brooks' NYTimes opinion piece, Why Men Fail. A related opinion piece, The Myth of Male Decline, by Stephanie Coontz came out in the NYTimes on Saturday.

Below are excerpts of interest from The Myth of Male Decline:

On Wage Disparity

Women’s real wages have been rising for decades, while the real wages of most men have stagnated or fallen. But women’s wages started from a much lower base, artificially held down by discrimination. Despite their relative improvement, women’s average earnings are still lower than men’s and women remain more likely to be poor.

Today women make up almost 40 percent of full-time workers in management. But the median wages of female managers are just 73 percent of what male managers earn. And although women have significantly increased their representation among high earners in America over the past half-century, only 4 percent of the C.E.O.’s in Fortune’s top 1,000 companies are female.

On Skewed Studies

Proponents of the “women as the richer sex” scenario often note that in several metropolitan areas, never-married childless women in their 20s now earn more, on average, than their male age-mates. But this is because of the demographic anomaly that such areas have exceptionally large percentages of highly educated single white women and young, poorly educated, low-wage Latino men. Earning more than a man with less education is not the same as earning as much as an equally educated man.

On Prejudice against Working Mothers

Once they have children, wives usually fall further behind their husbands in earnings, partly because they are more likely to temporarily quit work or cut back when workplace policies make it hard for both parents to work full time and still meet family obligations. But this also reflects prejudice against working mothers. A few years ago, researchers at Cornell constructed fake résumés, identical in all respects except parental status. They asked college students to evaluate the fitness of candidates for employment or promotion. Mothers were much less likely to be hired. If hired, they were offered, on average, $11,000 less in starting salary and were much less likely to be deemed deserving of promotion.

According to the N.Y.U. sociologist Paula England, a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, most women, despite earning higher grades, seem to be educating themselves for occupations that systematically pay less.

On the Negative Impact of the Masculine Mystique

According to a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans now believe that a college education is necessary for a woman to get ahead in life today, but only 68 percent think that is true for men. And just as the feminine mystique exposed girls to ridicule and harassment if they excelled at “unladylike” activities like math or sports, the masculine mystique leads to bullying and ostracism of boys who engage in “girlie” activities like studying hard and behaving well in school. One result is that men account for only 2 percent of kindergarten and preschool teachers, 3 percent of dental assistants and 9 percent of registered nurses.

The masculine mystique is institutionalized in work structures, according to three new studies forthcoming in the Journal of Social Issues. Just as women who display “masculine” ambitions or behaviors on the job are often penalized, so are men who engage in traditionally female behaviors, like prioritizing family involvement. Men who take an active role in child care and housework at home are more likely than other men to be harassed at work.

Men who request family leave are often viewed as weak or uncompetitive and face a greater risk of being demoted or downsized. And men who have ever quit work for family reasons end up earning significantly less than other male employees, even when controlling for the effects of age, race, education, occupation, seniority and work hours.