Friday, October 30, 2015

AASWOMEN Newsletter for October 30, 2015

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of October 30, 2015
eds: Daryl Haggard, Nicolle Zellner, Meredith Hughes, Elysse Voyer, & Heather Flewelling

[This week's AASWOMEN guest editor is Mike Boylan-Kolchin. Mike is an assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on near-field cosmology, galaxy formation theory, and numerical simulations of cosmological structure formation.]

This week's issues:

1. Making Our Workplace a Place of... Work

2. Finding the Face of Genius

3. Taking the Long View on Sexism in Science

4. Famous Astronomer Accused Of Sexual Harassment At His Previous Job, Too

5. Zero tolerance. Period

6. A New Twist in the Fight Against Sexism in Science

7. AIP Statistical Research Center's "Physics Trends"

8. Facts, Instinct, and Gender: A Recent Case Study in the Media

9. How to Submit to the AASWomen Newsletter

10. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWomen Newsletter

11. Access to Past Issues of the AASWomen Newsletter

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Making Our Workplace a Place of... Work

I have been thinking recently on how different my perception of my workplace is from the one experienced by many of my junior colleagues who are women.

For myself and (I think) most of my senior male colleagues, the Observatory is exclusively a place of work. I type on my computer. I discuss ideas with colleagues. I participate in committees. I attend seminars. OK, that's sounding awfully dry! But of course it isn't dry at all: Many of my colleagues are also friends, and over coffee, lunches, and hallway conversations, I take joy in their company as we work together on astronomy and the general educational mission of an academic department.

However, for many of the junior women in our department, I worry that the Observatory isn't just a place of work. Yes, they also type on their computers, discuss ideas with colleagues, and attend seminars. But, some of them tell me, they need to become adept at dealing with occasional amorous advances (I'm using amorous here as it appears in the policy I'll discuss below.) Sometimes these are from their academic peers, and, yes, sometimes these originate from those who are higher up on the academic ladder. For these junior colleagues, the workplace isn't just a place of work. It's a place in which a seemingly normal day (or week, or year) of work can suddenly be interrupted by attention of a sexual or gendered nature.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Finding the Face of Genius


Today’s guest blogger is Bala Poduval. Bala is a research scientist in the field of Space Weather, studying solar wind conditions in the near-Sun region and at Earth. She is a research affiliate at Space Science Institute, Boulder.

[This post was inspired by an essay written by Avi Loeb entitled, How to Collect Matches that Will Catch Fire – eds.]
                        Only mediocrity can be trusted to be always at its best.
                        Genius must always have lapses proportionate to its triumphs.
                        -Max Beerbohm, essayist, parodist, and caricaturist (1872-1956)
I am not sure if I agree with this quote or how it could be incorporated into the evaluation methods used to select promising scientists. How do we identify these individuals before they make their groundbreaking discoveries?
I think one of the key aspects is the method of evaluation. Even after entering the Space Age and High-tech Era, we still haven't updated our methods of evaluation (though, whatever be the methods, groundbreaking discoveries are future events - has scientific progress ever been predicted?). How do we make a wise selection of scientists in a scenario where the number of scientifically literate individuals with advanced degrees is on the rise while artificial intelligence and mechanization tend to lower the number of job opportunities?
A person is usually evaluated for qualifications such as consistency (of performance), scientific productivity, and dependability. These qualities could be categorized under "known circumstances," and the evaluators are, knowingly or unknowingly, looking for "self-replications" (to borrow a phrase from Loeb’s essay). To be more quantitative, consider two researchers X and Y: Researcher X has 10 publications in 5 years, and researcher Y has only 4. The general tendency is to select X for an open research or teaching position where both X and Y have applied. And, then, years later, you realize that there hasn't been any impact on scientific progress and wonder why.
Let's take a look at the two candidates in retrospect. Researcher X has 10 publications but is the lead author on only two of them. Take a deeper look - none of X’s papers has been cited in any peer-reviewed publications! Now look at researcher Y. Y is the first author of all four papers and they have more than 10 citations each! That is curious, right? Now go deeper still. X has been working in the same field, applying the same techniques with only minor updates, over and again. As a result, X appeared to be the expert in that particular narrow field and technique. How about Y? Y has some expertise in one field, but Y has also branched out to tackle entirely different problems, acquired new skills in limited time, and produced first author papers that have been well received by the scientific community.
Now, if you assign points to all these parameters and then make an assessment (differential assessment?), where would you place the higher probability of seeing some innovation or discoveries? You should have hired Y!
While it is not always true that the type-Ys are the visionaries or the innovators, the point is that outstanding or groundbreaking discoveries are not guaranteed by the type-Xs either. When we look into the future, we talk in terms of "probabilities." To have an unbiased (or least marginally biased) sample, it is necessary to include some (with a sense of proportion) higher-probability Y's in the cohort. Inaccurate eliminations of the type described above may be one of the key points to be kept in mind to have a pack of "matches that will catch fire" without lighting them first. To emphasize: the problem may not be who you hired but who you eliminated.
The number of publications (of a person) over a given period of time shows more of his/her productive capability and not necessarily talent or level of innovation. One of the reasons for this type of evaluation is the necessity (by the funding agent, the host institute, even the society) for a quantitative description of the "profit" of funding a person. While it is important and necessary to have some standard of scientific productivity there is more to it than merely counting papers. Scientific productivity and the "profit" of scientific funding need to be better defined because the current approach is not sufficient to achieve the scientific progress we envisage.
It seems the wealth of scientific knowledge of the 19th and 20th century has been used in all possible ways towards improving human life in the form of medical and technological breakthroughs, making the world, in general, safer and healthier than it has ever been. To take the innovations to a higher level and for further betterment of human life, it is necessary to revive science (physics) from the apparent stall. Our efforts in this regard are reflected in the realization of having a cohort of promising scientists capable of making those discoveries that the world seems to be badly in need of.
Genius, as it is expected to be the trait of these promising scientists, does not imply being extraordinary in just one particular attribute but a unique and rare combination of many different qualities -- diligence, purposefulness, relentlessness, methodicalness, curiosity, open-mindedness, imagination, attentiveness -- that happens one in a million or so. Genius may not only require extraordinary intelligence, but exceptional creativity/imagination and perseverance as well.
To unearth such genius is a formidable task. In light of the discussion of the selection criteria above, we are forced to consider the implications of the opening quote: how to prevent losing a genius if we encounter him/her during the periods of the lapses. Geniuses were not born with a prophecy; it is an attribute that stays dormant waiting for favorable circumstance.
Consider an analogy where a professor gives a test where all the formulae, theories, and tools are provided - something like an open book test. The students then solve problems using all possible resources. So, rather than testing knowledge of memorized theories and formulae, the professor is able to test how the students make use of that knowledge to invent new ideas and solve problems. Creating the open-book equivalent to evaluate job candidates is not an easy task, but in my opinion, it is this kind of evaluation that may be required to identify real genius. In other words, the panel itself must have high level of ingenuity to identify genius.
Meanwhile, another possible solution would be to have more centers of excellence, government (public) funded institutes dedicated for fundamental research. These centers would offer long-term (if not permanent) positions where the researchers are free to pursue problems of their choice but falls within the general interests of these institutions. This would certainly avoid the unnecessary administrative duties of independent researchers and the uncertainty of continued research funding that can terminate many significant research projects prematurely.
Postscript: Discoveries (often) happen serendipitously. It may take a touch of genius to identify genius.

Friday, October 23, 2015

AASWOMEN Newsletter for October 23, 2015

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of October 23, 2015
eds: Daryl Haggard, Nicolle Zellner, Meredith Hughes, & Elysse Voyer

This week's issues:

1. Don’t Masculinize the Letter of Recommendation: Towards a Truly Gender-Brave Science Community  
2. The Discovery Program Series: Introduction and Interview with Michael New  
3. Op-Ed: Sexual harassment: Another roadblock for women in science
4. BBC Seeking Women to Speak on Sexual Harassment in Astronomy and Physics     
5. Emmy Noether Visiting Fellowship in Theoretical Physics
6. The Odds That a Panel Would 'Randomly' Be All Men Are Astronomical    
7. Job Opportunities
8. How to Submit to the AASWomen Newsletter
9. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWomen Newsletter
10. Access to Past Issues of the AASWomen Newsletter

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Don’t Masculinize the Letter of Recommendation: Towards a Truly Gender-Brave Science Community

The below is a guest blog post by Professors Andy Elby and Ayush Gupta.

Andy Elby is a Associate Professor of Teaching & Learning, Policy & Leadership and Affiliate Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland.  His research aims to understand how students’ views about what
counts as knowledge in a given setting affects their approaches to learning and problem-solving.

Ayush Gupta is a Research Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. He is interested in gaining a better understanding of how the human mind operates and learns. He wants to use this understanding to promote a more equitable education system and an overall scientific and rational way of thinking in society – awareness and education being the slow but steady path towards greater social justice without instability.

In a recent letter of recommendation about an ex-student applying for a competitive assistant professorship, we wrote, “It helps, too, that [Applicant] has a laid-back style and genuine humbleness…[Applicant] truly listens to other people’s perspectives.”  Was it misguided of us to include humbleness and good listening skills in our recommendation? And should the answer depend on whether Applicant is male or female?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Discovery Program Series: Introduction and Interview with Michael New (Lead Program Scientist)

As stated on the NASA website, NASA's Discovery Program gives scientists the opportunity to dig deep into their imaginations and find innovative ways to unlock the mysteries of the solar system. When it began in 1992, this program represented a breakthrough in the way NASA explores space. For the first time, scientists and engineers were called on to assemble teams and design exciting, focused planetary science investigations that would deepen the knowledge about our solar system.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Culture of Silence

This week the Astronomy community was rocked by the news that Geoff Marcy was found to have violated campus sexual harassment policies after a six-month investigation by Berkeley's Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination.

Until Buzzfeed News broke the story last week, Marcy's habit of making women uncomfortable was an "open secret" in the Astronomy community. Yet many people are reacting with frustration, saying: "If everyone knew, why didn't we do something sooner?" or "I am a woman in astronomy, how come no one told me?" The Marcy situation highlights a larger problem we have within the structures of academia: a culture of silence.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Career Profiles: Astronomer to STEM Education Policy Executive

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Anita Krishnamurthi, an astronomer turned STEM education after-school executive and advocate.   If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Still Anonymous

Today's guest blogger is Still Anonymous. She can tell you her story in her own words.
On Friday, Buzzfeed’s article on Geoff Marcy’s serial sexual harassment – and UC Berkeley’s non-response – went live. The story has enough momentum behind it for Geoff to toss off a non-apology to the CSWA as if pleading ignorance and promising maturation and growth make any difference this time. As if they ever have.
Students, postdocs, faculty, and staff have since issued letters condemning Marcy’s behavior and the University’s handling on the Title IX investigation.
Maybe a public shaming is what it takes to get the attention of the university officials who couldn’t muster a slap on a wrist. Maybe it is still not enough.
I did not share my name and my story with Buzzfeed. But as the article points out, this is an open secret. You don’t have to know much about the problem to identify potential victims. Complainants. Survivors. I’ve struggled with whether it is worthwhile to offer my name.

Monday, October 12, 2015

CSWA Chair's Message to the Greater Astronomical Community on Harassment

Early last week, the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) received a letter from Geoff Marcy, along with a request for publication in our newsletter.  On Friday, a buzzfeed article  describing the UC Berkeley Title IX investigation against Marcy for several alleged infractions of its sexual harassment policy was published.  The CSWA, through its leadership at the American Astronomical Society, declined to publish Marcy’s letter.  Later on Friday, an online petition was created for people to express their support for “the people who were targets of Geoff Marcy's inappropriate behavior and those who have spoken publicly about it.”  The event has been a key discussion point of the community through social media and various outlets throughout the weekend.

I’d personally like to thank those who brought the complaint forward for their courage to speak out and report the issues that were raised, and for continuing to speak out against the issue of harassment.  I also want to thank my fellow committee members and our previous chair for their work in making sure this issue is highlighted and addressed.  But the key group, for whom I intend to focus my comments, are the women (and men) who are encountering harassment within our field. I offer any assistance that they need. This post is meant for the greater astronomical community, and those who would like to help in fostering a safe and welcoming environment for all.

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.