Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Backward and Forward

I'm back at Magellan, on a 13-night run with the Planet Finder Spectrograph. I'll write more about our observations in near-future posts, but feel compelled to reflect on what has been an eventful year in many respects. Stay with me, this is a long post but I think it's important. Thanks much to Belle blogger and Hubble Fellow Jackie Faherty for editing help!

This past year has been challenging for women in science, and especially women in astronomy. Remember the postdoc who was told to to put up with her advisor looking down her shirt? Remember the Rosetta Mission Project Scientist who, for a internationally televised press conference, wore a shirt covered in pinup-style drawings of scantily clad women? Remember how a Nobel laureate (who, like many others, is a white man) said, at the World Conference of Science Journalists, "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry"? Remember the prominent Caltech astrophysicist who said, in a nationally-broadcast NPR interview, "Many scientists are I think, secretly, are what I call ‘boys with toys'"(and the overwhelming response from female scientists on Twitter)? Remember the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS is one of the premiere and most distinguished scientific societies in the US, with exclusive membership), that claimed that gender bias in tenure-track academic job hiring is a myth? I know you remember the "revelation" (which really wasn't, to many of us) that one of the most well-known astronomers, both within the field and by the public, has been sexually harassing women for years. Two institutions that he worked at over decades did little to reprimand him.  The institution that did act, did so late, and did so with the seeming intention of covering it up. Unsurprisingly, NPR's Science Friday highlighted sexism in science, and the attention it has received this year, as one of it's top stories of 2015.

Looking at that list makes my heart sink, and it makes me angry. I know so many women in science who have had negative experiences while at work or at a work-related event (conference, field work, work party, etc.) that almost certainly would not have happened if they were men. There are women who changed careers because they felt uncomfortable or threatened in their workplace or with their colleagues. Women are not only undervalued, under-appreciated, disadvantaged in the job market, spoken poorly of, laughed at...they are being sexually harassed. Just to be clear, the US equal employment opportunity commission defines "sexual harassment" as, "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment."

Below are the figure highlights from the PLOS ONE paper, "Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault" by Clancy et al., published in 2014. I encourage you to read the whole paper, and share it with your colleagues and supervisors. 

This is unacceptable, right? Who am I to encourage a young female student to pursue a STEM career if this is the community she is entering?

There is some hope. People are talking about these events, both in and outside of astronomy and other sciences. There are heated discussions within the science community about how to change the system of sexual harassment reporting so it is not so dysfunctional and women are not left to suffer. At the November Division of Planetary Sciences meeting, and at the December Extreme Solar Systems meeting, CSWA Chair Dr. Christina Richey's talks about their survey of sexual harassment in astronomy spurred break-out meetings where many male scientists met to work out how to better support and act to help women. Belles blogger Katey Alatalo and Heather Flewelling, a member of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, started the ground-breaking Astronomy Allies program, a group of volunteers who act to form a “safe-zone” at meetings of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). "An Astronomy Ally can act as a buffer, bystander, or advocate. As a meeting participant, you can contact an Ally if you need help. Allies can provide confidential advice, support, information, and resources. They can serve as a liaison between you and the AAS administration." They also offer walks back from the well-known AAS party, which is held on one of the last nights of the conference at another venue and often serves alcohol. AAS President Meg Urry highlights other ways to help end sexual harassment in astronomy in Scientific American. If nothing else, at least in 2016 I think the treatment of women* in science will be on the minds of at least some scientists and decision-makers.

And yet...I could not help but cringe slightly when I read Dr. Urry's article. All that she writes is important and should be read. But I think she misses an opportunity, in a venue that many astronomers and scientists read and respect, to address another problem that has plagued the field for many years. I used * above because I think the treatment of white women in science will be on the minds of decision-makers in 2016. Yes, sexual harassment and sexual assault and discrimination based on gender all affect both white and non-white women. But their experiences are not the same, because of racism.  Dr. Sarah Ballard, one of the complainants in the formal case brought against Geoff Marcy and a white woman, made sure this point was not missed, even in the turmoil immediately after the case was made public. In fact, non-white women experience sexual harassment at higher rates than white women. And moreover, as Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein points out, "where is the Title VI office for redressing racist violations? There are none. Universities aren’t required to have one. There is no consistent mechanism for redressing racism on campus, whether it be in the classroom or the research environment. [...] In context, it’s hard to be thankful to people responding to sexual harassment with such verve when they don’t respond to racism with the same passion."

As I hope you realize, 2015 was an even more challenging year for non-white, specifically Black, women in science. I strongly encourage you to read (or listen) about their experiences from them. I am white, so I have not had the same experiences, and I am humbled by the way Black women scientists have handled and responded to what has happened this year. They deal with (more) sexual harassment and gender discrimination in science than white women. They have the highest court in the land questioning their ability to participate in science. But more importantly they literally have threats to their lives, and the lives of their family and friends...not for being female scientists, but for being Black.

Do non-white women scientists have reason to be hopeful in 2016? I honestly do not know...maybe. When I see programs like Dr. Aomawa Shields' Rising Stargirls, an interactive astronomy workshop for middle school girls "from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences (American Indian or Alaska Native, African-American, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander)" that uses "writing, theater, and games to process what we learn and discover," I am hopeful. When I see white women recognizing their privilege and speaking out in solidarity against racism, I am hopeful. When I see the significant number of astronomers and physicists who responded strongly and quickly to SCOTUS Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts' racist comments regarding affirmative action, I am hopeful. But my hope comes from a place of relative privilege, safety, and perhaps naive optimism. Time will ultimately tell if my hope is foolish, but so will my actions and those of my colleagues. For my part, one of my 2016 New Year's resolutions is to educate myself more about intersectional feminism, starting with a few good books.

This year has been great for Las Campanas Belles -- I have really enjoyed hearing about all of our bloggers' science and observations and instruments and opinions and adventures. In 2016, I'd love to see (and will work towards) more women of color blogging here, too.

                                           Las Campanas Observatory, 30 December 2015, before sunset 

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post! Thanks for thinking about WoC in our community. It's extremely encouraging to see a white woman leveraging her privilege in this way, recognizing that it doesn't detract from one's experiences with oppression by recognizing the different oppression faced by others. That's huge!

    One quick note, related to something I often find myself struggling to internalize and fully comprehend:

    There is no hierarchy to racial oppression. There's no such thing as a gradient of oppression going from Black, to other races, up to white. Racism is about the double standard between white and those who are not considered white.

    That said, anti-Blackness often serves as the "fulcrum" of racism (white supremacy), because anti-Blackness is old and built on strong stereotypes associated with fear. Invoking white fear of Blackness has proven to be an effective (and unfortunate) way to mobilize whites into political action. But it doesn't stop there, as we're currently seeing with Islamophobia and anti-Latin@ immigration policies.

    Anyway, this all came to my mind when you wrote "2015 was an even more challenging year for non-white, specifically Black, women in science" when talking about the racism faced by WoC. I don't know the right way to say what you said. But we shouldn't discount the problems faced by other women of color, especially during this racially charged political season.

    Again, thanks for writing that post. I really appreciate it!

    P.S. Here's the article that Dr. Prescod-Weinstein pointed me to long ago, which has really stuck with me:

    Blackness Is the Fulcrum of White Supremacy

    And here's a good article about the double jeopardy (sexism + racism) faced by WoC in STEM:

    Double Jeopardy Report