Monday, May 16, 2011

where did the women go?

i helped organize a Women in Astronomy Workshop for the astronomical society of australia that took place in sydney this past friday the 13th of may. a major goal of the workshop was to raise awareness of general issues that face women, who ultimately drop out of the field in huge numbers within a few years of getting a PhD, and work towards finding solutions that can be applied by institutions and individuals to retain women in the profession and help them succeed.

so what is the problem exactly? the good news is that half the students attaining undergraduate science degrees from universities are women. not everyone is interested in attaining a degree beyond a bachelors degree, and that is absolutely reasonable, but of those that choose to pursue a PhD, roughly 40% are women (in australia anyway, the percentage worldwide is probably between 30% and 40% for astronomy). but within a few years of getting a PhD the percentage of participating women starts dropping dramatically, such that less than 8% of science professors are women and less than 4% of the top level positions at science institutions, universities, and observatories are appointed to women. from a management standpoint, it is an incredibly poor business practice to invest in the training of so many women only to lose all their knowledge, expertise, and training within a few short years.

keep in mind that this isnt a problem unique to astronomy or even academia: in the corporate sector, women hold something like 15% of the highest positions and board seats, and of all the people in parliament in the world, only 13% are women (source: see video below). it is not possible just simply to say - women have babies and then decide to drop out of their profession. this is true for some, partially because there is not yet adequate support and flexibility to help parents get back into the swing of things after such a career break, but overall the reasons are much more complex and not discussed openly enough, in my opinion.

one point made at the workshop that i had not fully appreciated before is that women tend not to say things in meetings (big or small) unless they are almost certain that what they are about to say is absolutely "correct." it is more common for men to throw out speculative ideas without regard to whether someone might show they are wrong, or without considering whether their statement might hold up an otherwise very tight meeting agenda.

one of the many reasons for this might be something called "the imposter syndrome," which affects most people to some degree, but much more often women, and potentially to a career-debilitating degree. the imposter syndrome describes the fear or worry that eventually someone will figure you out and realize you're not actually as smart and capable as they think you are! this can prevent you from negotiating contracts, asking for promotions, or applying for grants or positions that you think you probably wont get. of course women and men are equally capable, but the trouble is, you can never get something you don't apply/ask for, and the numbers show that men more often ask for promotions and apply for grants than women.

i recognize that it is my responsibility to speak up at meetings and make a vocal contribution of substance in order to be noticed, heard, acknowledged and appreciated, but i have to admit that it's almost always a challenge. when i attend a meeting or listen to a talk and a question or comment pops into my mind, inevitably my heart pounds loudly and i feel myself shaking a little from nerves over the prospect of speaking out to the group. you'd think after attaining a PhD, thinking about this astronomy stuff for so many years, and genuinely believing that i have ideas to offer the discussion, i would have gotten over these feelings, right? wrong. i still have to force myself to be brave and make the statement, to let my face turn beet red and risk sounding unknowledgeable or stupid.

i know i'm not the only one with these feelings and fears and the only way to help get over them is to be aware of them, admit them, talk about them, and have courage (i hope!)! that is part of what the workshop was about. almost 70 people showed up last friday, including several heads of university astronomy groups and the directors of observatories. considering there are only about 400 professional astronomers in australia, i thought the turn out was a great success! there were many female PhD students present, but the audience was noticeably lacking young male PhD students.

photo credit: bryan gaensler

unfortunately, i think the tendency for most people is to think "well, i'm not sexist (or racist, etc...) and i don't understand how anyone could openly express such discrimination, so i don't have anything to gain by attending such a workshop."

it's not enough just to believe that you do not practice these behaviours and then ignore the issues entirely, because  
we all have "unconscious biases" and many of your colleagues are systematically suffering because of them.   we need to be aware of these biases in order to change the current state of career progression and not lose female talent from continuing along the academic (or corporate or political) pipeline.

instead of going on about more potential problems that lead to the decreased number of women at the highest levels, i will refer you to the video below for some other issues, and move on to sharing some practical suggestions that came out of the workshop that can be implemented by institutions and individuals.

action points for institutions:

  • appoint diverse committee members to select speakers for conferences and recipients of awards and jobs. our unconscious natural tendency is to want to work with people who are like ourselves. this is mostly ok, or at least understandable, but ever notice, for example, how invited speakers at conferences are almost always men despite the fact that attendees are much more gender balanced? of course there are fewer women who have reached the career stage to give invited talks, but we have to start recognizing and encouraging and exposing the women that are in the field. diversifying selection committees is one way of taking action towards this goal.

  • supply childcare at professional meetings, especially national meetings, so that parents can also benefit from the community and the networking possibilities for themselves and their students. and since we all know that a lot of ideas and new collaborations happen at the pub and over dinner, offer a few evenings of childcare as well so parents can spend some time with contacts outside of the rigorous daily conference sessions.

  • offer more flexible working arrangements and small grants to encourage mothers and fathers to return to work while dealing with all the unpredictable time frames of children. examples: if you are advertising a position and it is possible to hire someone at part time, mention that in the ad! monash university offers a populate and publish maternity leave grant (what a name!?!). offer an option to take unpaid holidays for school breaks, provide onsite childcare, support a child friendly work environment (and tell employees!).

  • encourage employees at all levels to participate in organized mentoring programs. if there is no program in place, develop one.  dont make the mistake of assuming that "hard work and merit" are the only factors necessary for advancement for every individual. people also need encouragement and mentoring.

  • in applications, ask for selected 5 years of publications, instead of just previous 5 years, to account for career breaks.

  • institute a double blind academic journal refereeing system. (can someone explain to me why this isnt already in place? that's not the only problem with the academic journal racket though.)

  • have open discussions about these issues inside your working groups!! encourage the acknowledgement of unconscious bias.

action points for individuals:

  • speak up at meetings (be brave), network broadly, find mentors, set goals, know when to say no, apply for things!! do not let people assume that just because you do a task once that you will always be responsible for it, especially if it isnt gaining you any prestige or career benefit! dont fear that because you say no you wont be "liked." the point is not to be liked, but to be respected.

  • goals should be specific, measurable, attractive to you, realistic, and time-framed (short- and long-term).

  • find mentors!   seek senior members who can be active mentors (both men and women), or widespread university programs, and do this at every stage in your career!  recognize who in your department or institution is useful, successful, powerful, and/or influential and get to know them! seek their advice and mentorship.

  • pay attention to words used when writing recommendation letters. (as a test, search through the adjectives you have written in a letter for a man and a letter for a woman. it was a telling exercise in unconscious bias for one speaker at the workshop) 

  • use appropriate titles (Dr, Prof, etc...) consistently for all colleagues regardless of gender.

    • surround yourself with happy (not miserable) people in your working environment.

    • make sure your romantic partner is a real partner in every sense of the word.

    • be self aware of personal biases

    please share any other ideas in the comments and i'll update this list if possible.  for further reading, the american astronomical society provides a nice page of resources for all.

    i'll leave you with yet another excellent TED talk by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on "Why we have too few women leaders." she articulates some of the above, but also brings up several other very interesting points, including why it's true that "success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women."

    UPDATE: if you're interested in this post, i recommend reading through the discussion happening inside the comments. i also encourage everyone to participate!


    heroineworshipper said...

    "surround yourself with happy (not miserable) people in your working environment."

    Sort of a cruel way to treat unhappy people.

    Rita Tojeiro said...

    Thanks for this - there are some important points here but I feel the need to speak out as the devil's advocate.

    I'm a girl, and an academic, and I sometimes get really really frustrated that all I hear and read is that I'm at a disadvantage for being a woman, that most of my colleagues have a bias against me (even though they may not know it) and that I don't trust myself enough.

    I certainly suffer from the so called imposter syndrome, and I don't speak out in most meetings. I also know plenty of male friends who are as insecure as I am, and I happen to have a lot more respect for colleagues (men and women) who speak up seldomly but wisely rather than often and foolishly (I can think of male and female examples of both).

    Sure, the numbers indicate that statistically perhaps there a causation in these things and a lack of women in higher levels of academic careers, but has anyone ever considered if singling out women as victims in the academic world has more of a negative than a positive effect?

    I dislike 'Women in Science awards' sort of things. As a good friend once pointed out, there's a serious lack of black astronomers (we were specifically talking about the US here), but no-one would consider having a 'Black Astronomer of the Year' award or such like. And I think it's because there's nothing more offensive that being told that it's OK to be mediocre because of gender/race/age/etc. What we should have is 'Science awards' and make a fuss (if one feels compelled to) of those female winners.

    I haven't gone to a 'careers + women' sort of meeting since the beginning of my PhD because I don't want to be told that I need to be different because I'm a women. I love my science, and I think I'm good at it. If I'm good enough, I'll stick around. But I'm starting to seriously dislike this idea that if I don't stick around it's not because I'm not good enough, it's because I'm a woman. It's an ugly, ugly seed to plant in a young scientist's mind.

    I wrote a little more about it here, when I had more time to articulate:

    And I honestly don't mean to discredit the work that meetings like this do. I think they are vastly useful to a lot of other women out there. But the more I read the more doubts I have - if i'm such a minority that it doesn't matter then fine, and I will eventually learn to shut up ;) But maybe there are other women out there who are starting to doubt themselves for no other reason than they've been told they should.

    Anonymous said...

    And BTW, if my last post feels like a mis-directed rant, it's because it truly is one. It's not directed at you, nor at this meeting, nor at any in particular. It's just a rant, they come out when they do...

    Unknown said...

    hi rita. thanks for your comment! i dont think its misdirected at all - in fact, i'm happy to hear various opinions and i think you've raised some interesting points.

    i know that the "hard work and merit" strategy works for many people and i think this is the best way to push forward with one's career. if you're not producing good work, you wont get very far regardless of any other characteristic about you.

    but i think a bit more support, or just a bit of different support, can benefit people (of both genders, all races, sexualities, etc...) and i see the point of these workshops as a starting place for opening that dialog.

    now, if one doesnt think its a "problem" that women or other minorities are not following along the professional pipeline in representative numbers because there arent enough jobs to go around anyway, or some other reason, well, there's really nothing i can say to that.

    but, i'll address another point you raised. you say that "I'm starting to seriously dislike this idea that if I don't stick around it's not because I'm not good enough, it's because I'm a woman. It's an ugly, ugly seed to plant in a young scientist's mind."

    i absolutely agree that this is an ugly seed to plant, and i take it as a challenge to phrase my argument better. so let me try again...

    of course women and men are equally capable of doing good work. my point is that women tend to promote themselves less and to apply for fewer awards, grants, and jobs, etc... if women arent applying in the same ratios, they arent receiving promotions and awards and therefore arent getting the recognition they deserve higher up the ranks.

    not all women are hesitant to promote themselves and not all men naturally do it, but these are the dominant trends and i think they should be acknowledged as such. the reasons for them could be the imposter syndrome, unconscious bias, preparing for a family even before one arrives, personality traits, or many other factors i cant think of right now.

    is that any better?

    Rita Tojeiro said...

    I think maybe it is better.

    It's not that I don't think that there isn't a problem, is just that I'm not sure that polarising the community between 'women' and 'men' helps. If, as you say, what's at heart is a more inherent propensity for women to be more 'shy', as it were, or any of other reasons you mention, then one must admit that the problem is not confined to women alone. There are under-confident and single parent men. The problem is not gender, or race. The problem is correlated with gender and race (via social-economic causes) but to me, stressing that clearly, really takes the pressure off being a woman. It's the pressure that builds up due to these meetings that bother me.

    In other words, I feel the boat is now sinking for *everyone* in their early careers in Astronomy. The great advice that you wrote down, and the great discussions you must have had in this meeting, should not come under the banner of 'women' - they should come under the banner of 'young scientist'.

    I hope that made more sense...

    Unknown said...


    when i was writing the "action points" for both institutes and individuals, i realized they were applicable to anyone, regardless of gender or race or other characteristic. yet, and i think this proves your point, i put the whole discussion under the title of "women in astronomy" and then wonder why men aren't generally more interested in participating.

    my implication in using that title is that these things only affect women. but that's not true, as you rightfully point out. while the trends are correlated with gender, they are not exclusively tied to gender or race or anything. although in my personal experience, the correlation seems to be much stronger for my female colleagues... at least in the sense that they have been more vocal in discussing it with me and i've found these discussions very useful.

    even so, the problem still remains that i have never heard these issues discussed in terms of "early career scientists," and maybe that is indeed something i should strive to change. it would be much more inviting for everyone to participate in the discussion, instead of off-putting for anyone who doesn't fit under the category of "women in astronomy."

    thanks for your feedback, rita! most insightful :)

    Anonymous said...

    Just a short opinion... as a "male in astronomy" I wouldn't dream of going to a women in astronomy meeting, simply because the title is exclusive. If it were a "young researchers in astronomy" I would be far more likely to go, and if there was a session on "women in astronomy" then I would likely attend. But I thoroughly agree with Rita... is there a need to bring gender into it? I think we're in an era now where sexism in the workplace is on its way out (perhaps we're still 10 or 20 yrs away from "perfection", though) but highlighting the gender of a scientist just keeps it on everyone's minds. I'm not sure that's always a good thing.

    Rita Tojeiro said...

    Importantly for me, framing it in terms of 'young researchers' doesn't put an unnecessary burden on women astronomers. And it puts pressure on *everyone* to act, not just male employers and female post-docs/students.

    It's the old 'correlation does not imply causation' chestnut - I'm particularly pedantic about this in science and I'm sorry that it boiled out to this issue too...

    Anonymous said...

    This is probably a *horrible* tangent, but are there conferences like that? "How to be a good young researcher", but focusing on research practice rather than research content. I've only seen similar things run by careers services, and they're too generalised to be of use (to me).

    (Same anon as before)

    Unknown said...

    Out of curiosity, how does the ratio of women in permanent positions (e.g. professorship) compare with men in age bins? I would assume (hopefully correct!) that the fraction of women to men in these positions would increase as you move towards younger ages.

    It may be more relevant to compare the ratio of women/men studying PhD in astronomy to the ratio of women/men 10 years late. For example, in 1990 the women/men ratio was X in PhD astronomy. In 2000 the ratio is Z. Is doing such analysis possible? Or has it already been done?

    Excellent article and very good summary of one of the issues in astronomy/academics.

    Unknown said...

    Most odd, for some reason Google says I'm tester in the comments (correction - Eli Bressert).

    Toner Stevenson said...

    Thanks astropixie for your views and summations. Despite some fabulous women at the University of Sydney like Prof. Anne Green, and many men who promote the capabilities of women, like Prof. Dick Hunstead, of the 153 students enrolled in postgraduate physics only 23% are women, less than the comparable science of Chemistry where women comprise 40% of post-graduate students.

    This is less than the percentage quoted across Australia. So my view is that the problem still also lies at the postgraduate phase.

    I debriefed the leadership team at Powerhouse Museum today and I hope we can influence the reduction of 'PINK' work given to only women, that we can speak of Netball, Women's Soccer as much as Football, that we can find ways of making women more visible in our Museums so school children see role models. Frankly, even through roles such as housemaking, apron wearing and fashion figures have an important place in our history, we need to show women more prominently than their percentage numbers present.

    Unknown said...

    anon - no, i dont know of any workshops that focus on these issues specifically to an audience of "young career scientists." the only people i've ever heard speak openly about such issues are groups focused on "women in astronomy." does anyone else know? i think a general session would be useful at national meetings...

    eli (tester?) - the age bins is an interesting test.

    the hard numbers are difficult/expensive to determine, but an interesting collection of statistics can be found from the american institute of physics (AIP) here:

    some numbers i have written down from the workshop: there was an increase in the % of female PhD candidates in australia from the late 1990s to 2005 when it reached 40%. has remained the same since.

    from the AIP site (so USA numbers): In astronomy in 2003, women earned 46% of bachelor’s degrees and 26% of PhDs. In stand-alone astronomy departments, the percentage of women faculty members is 14%, which increased to 17% by 2006 (source).

    Unknown said...

    i'll also say that we had a working group meeting today and the only absence was a woman who couldnt attend the late-in-the-day meeting because she had to pick up her son from school.

    so we decided to hold meetings earlier in the day to accommodate parents, and we even decided to change the time of our colloquium as well, from 3pm to 11am, in order to better accommodate the working parents in group.

    Anonymous said...

    Eli (tester), regarding bins- see the Women in Astronomy 2009 conference proceedings, pg. 229:


    This might also be of interest to other readers. For example, see pg. 222 for plots on % of women giving colloquium talks.

    Stuart said...

    Nice comments and discussion.

    I just wanted to add that I never thought I was allowed to attend the "Women in astronomy" sessions at UK National Astronomy Meetings. This impression was probably not helped by the fact that during my time at school there were several "girls-only" sessions on opportunities in engineering and science that I wasn't allowed to attend.

    These sessions probably aren't just aimed at early career researchers either and it is important that everyone is aware of the issues. As time goes on surely these issues (e.g. child-care) will increasingly affect men and women equally. The working environment of astronomy needs to be better for everyone.

    It might be better if these sorts of session were called something like "equal opportunities in astronomy" (not a brilliant title, I know). At least then they wouldn't appear as exclusive.

    Emma said...

    Stuart, at this year's Women's Lunch at the National Astronomy Meeting it was commented on that the name was off-putting and should be something more along the lines of 'Inclusive Lunch' with 'All welcome' written large somewhere. The things that were discussed (mainly mentoring schemes) were definitely applicable to men as well.

    heroineworshipper said...

    Personally think the smart ones are the ones avoiding trying to make money, in this economy. At least for the beauty queens, marriage to financial independence is just as available as the 1950's. Then, they're doing whatever astronomy they want, without worrying if it's the unglamorous topic that's making money.

    Anonymous said...

    Since people here are not mincing their words, I won't mince mine. In my opinion, the main cause of the lack of advancement of women in their career is the biological fact that men cannot get pregnant. All the policies in place to help parents of young children help the men more than they help the women simply because no amount of policy can allow a woman to be operational the last month of her pregnancy and the couple weeks following childbirth. Even with a modern, understanding husband, it is still the woman who goes through weeks of sleepless nights after that. Work, understandibly, suffers.

    I realized this in graduate school and have not gone to any "women issues" conference since a AAS meeting when I was in graduate school. The bulk of the issues raised at such meetings appeared to have a very simple solution: give up on raising a family. That's the choice I have made and indeed so far, I do not feel like my career is very different from that of my male colleagues. Yes, I have observed some unconscious discrimination and have been guilty myself, but I don't think that's the show stopper. All it usually takes is to speak up. And I am not exactly imposing, loud or outgoing.

    I have observed friends and colleagues give up on their career or really struggling along once they started a family. I also have a few colleagues who have made the choice I have made and they are by and large still going strong in their careers.

    I have of course also heard stories of superwomen who raised 9 kids while taking their career to the top. But these are superwomen. The rest of us can't keep up with both a successful career and raising a family.

    Unknown said...

    from the anonymous link about to the "WIA2009_proceedings" document pg. 223:

    in 2004, the % of women getting an astronomy PhD was 17% and % of colloquiua given by women was 28% (up from 21% in 2000)

    in 2008, the % of women getting an astronomy PhD was 25% (overall rise) and % of colloquiua given by women remained at 28%.

    Rita Tojeiro said...

    Regarding pregnancy and raising a family - I've always made the distinction between that particular barrier and all the others, for one main reason: in spite of probably being the main barrier towards permanent careers in Astronomy for women (and I mostly agree with the anonymous poster above who raised this), it's also the most quantifiable.

    We can't quantity unconscious bias, or the impact of personality traits, or the imposter syndrome. But we CAN quantify (and we freekin should!) how much time women (or men) spend out of work due to family reasons and, by now, we can also probably quantify a decrease in productivity in the months (year?) following the birth of a child. In fact, the numbers these days are large enough that we can probably even normalise this to a decent standard.

    As we all know from our day jobs, anything that can be quantified can be corrected for. Sure there'll be noise and scatter from one person to the other - but then these won't be any more serious than the inherent and ever-present stochastic element in getting jobs and fellowships anyway.

    Some of the suggestions that Amanda has in the post go someways towards this - why they're not standard practice is beyond me. But then again, we work for an industry where it's not standard practice to tell candidates if they got a job or not within *any* time frame, where there is NO formal feedback on performance, where quantity of output is preferred to quality and where the young workforce is exploited to no end. Shouldn't we have an Union?

    Stuart said...

    Rita, it is interesting the you mention a union. I've suggested a postdoc union in the past but nobody took it seriously. Part of the problem is that there is very little to bargain with. Postdocs are mostly doing astronomy because they enjoy it, not for the money, so going on strike only really hurts the postdocs. Also, postdocs are a very disparate group.

    Another suggestion I had was postdoc agents in the same way that actors have agents. I see quite a few parallels between the two professions as the work can take you to jobs around the world and tends to last for short periods.

    Unknown said...

    the postdocs of the university of california successfully unionized last year, as reported by the LA times and AstroBetter. the UC system has more than 6500 postdocs (10% of US postdocs) so this result is a great example!

    the union terms guarantee salary raises each year, and caps on health insurance premium increases (an issue unique to the US), but it does not guarantee beneficial mentoring or regular professional feedback for postdocs. those are things that the institutes and departments must organize and that individual postdocs must demand from the working group around them, as much as possible (a lesson i sourly learned form my last postdoc)!

    another issue to consider in the unionizing of UC: they were in negotiations for 1.5 years, which is a long time in the life of postdoctoral academic.

    the only trouble i see with comparing postdocs to actors is that we hardly make actor-level salaries! who has the money to pay for an agent?

    Rik Gern said...

    The vast majority of actors don't make a heck of a lot of money. For every Julia Roberts there are thousands of actors who, like astronomers, work for the love of their craft. I'm not sure, but I believe agents work on a commission basis.

    Stuart said...

    I was thinking like Rik that the acting profession generally has the reputation for being poor but they still have agents.

    If your agent negotiated your contract for you, handled your expense claims, and sorted out your visas, wouldn't that be worth something?