Graduate student and astronomy writer

Archive for January, 2016

Comments on Sexism at AAS

OK, people, so I know that we talked about this during the AAS227 meeting. In fact, there was a whole hour+ seminar about sexual harassment, sexual assault, racism, and gender bias in the astronomical and related sciences. You did go to that session, right? Good. Unfortunately, many of the people who really needed to be there are the people whose demographic was sorely under-represented in the audience of that seminar: older white males. If you know of an older white male colleague of yours who chose not to attend that seminar when they had the option, please do forward this to them.

Note: for the rest of this blog post, I am going to limit my discourse to the subtle (and not so subtle) sexual harassment I noticed at AAS227. I’ll leave my discussion of the other forms of discrimination I noticed to another day.

Here’s why I say that the demographic of older, white males in the physical sciences most need to hear this message. They grew up and were educated in a time where women were treated differently by society. That was the age where women were mostly secretaries to high-powered male bosses, coffee fetchers, “doll” and “sugar”. This is not an exaggeration. Female engineers, scientists, and bosses were a rarity. I give major props to all of the more senior female professionals in my field for finding their way through that type of blatantly hostile work environment and coming out the other side of it into a (seemingly) more tolerant world.

I also specify white males because that demographic has held a position of power and privilege in this country literally since its inception. As a group, they don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of their personal identity (with the obvious exceptions of non-cis-gendered, non-heteronormative, non-Christian, non-able bodied, and non-neurotypical individuals, amongst others). However, because of long-standing societal discrimination against those demographics, their numbers are also very small in the physical sciences. As the most populous demographic in the physical sciences, older white males are the ones that need to adopt the changed attitude towards females and under-represented minorities (URMs), yet are the ones most resistant to change. They are the most hard-put to see the subtle discrimination against these groups, let alone to understand how it feels. This is why I am writing to them.

I hope it is blatantly obvious to everyone that if the only reason you are attending a talk (or stopping by a poster *hint hint*) is because you are physically attracted to the presenter, don’t. Just don’t. I guarantee it won’t end well for you. Go to a talk or stop at a poster because the work is interesting or thought-provoking. If it’s not, just don’t go. It’s that simple.

All right, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here is one example of subtle sexism that I noticed, and experienced, at this year’s AAS227 meeting. Oi vey, as a fair warning, once you see this one in action you can’t un-see it.

The infamous and dreaded questions portion after a talk. I am specifically referring to the propensity for males to take up the question time of talks by female speakers with “I have more of a comment than a question” or “I have a comment and a question.” This sort of happenstance usually takes the form of:

  1. “I want to make sure you understand that fundamental thing about your research topic or analysis method. Are you sure about that? Really sure? How about now?”
  2. “Have you considered this very tangential approach to your research that I, of course, am an expert in? No? Well let me explain to you in front of everyone why it is superior to your work.”
  3. “Do you honestly expect us to believe you when you tell us this unexpected result? My vast experience suggests otherwise.”

This happened to me for both “questions” in my research talk. I saw it happen to the other women in my talk session and others. Heck, it happened to a plenary speaker on Friday.

Sometimes comments in place of questions can be helpful to spark discussion in the room, if it’s done respectfully and equally to all types of speakers. But lest you think that this happens to all speakers in equal amounts, it doesn’t. Really, it doesn’t. Next time you’re at a AAS meeting, or at the next few departmental talks at your institution, take a census. Sure, there are always those individuals who ask these sorts of “questions” to all speakers. Those “questions” are still rude and don’t belong in the Q&A part of a talk (more on that later). But in the sessions I attended at AAS, these “questions” were only asked towards female (and POC) speakers, and only asked by males.

“Questions” 1-3 above are meant to assert authority over, establish dominance of, and diminish the accomplishments of the speaker in favor of the questioner. They say, in the subtle language of intellectuals, “I am better than you and here’s why.” Asking those “questions” in a public forum in front of the rest of the audience is attempting to humiliate/humble the speaker and elevate the questioner above her. How terrible.

If the horribleness of this were obvious to the perpetrators, they likely wouldn’t do it (I’m casting no personal aspersions here). So let me break down to you why that’s a bad thing, for everyone.

  1. Public humiliation of a professional colleague? Really? That just looks bad and damages your reputation. “But that’s not my intent!” you say. “It doesn’t matter!” I say. That is still the end effect of the interaction you have with that person. If you step on my toes but didn’t mean to do it, you still hurt my foot. The polite thing to do after that is to apologize. The smart thing to do after that is to watch your step more carefully.
  2. You may think that what you’re really doing is making sure the speaker understands the fundamentals or subtleties of her work. OK, sure, that’s all well and good. Did you ever think that it’s not your place to do so? In all likelihood, you aren’t her boss, her academic or research advisor, her project manager, or someone with any responsibility at all over her education. The Q&A portion of a talk is not a quals exam. It’s not an interrogation. If you do have concerns about her education, the proper place to address that is in private, to her face, in a one-on-one setting. To do so in public is to insult her own intelligence and that of her supervisor and institution. And really, public insults? See Point 1 above.
  3. You are taking learning opportunities away from other colleagues and the rest of the audience. There are likely people in the audience who have legitimate comprehension questions about the talk, and you are impeding their opportunity to understand. Did you know that female audience members are more likely to ask questions of female speakers? No really, it’s true (25% female question-askers for female speakers, vs. 22% female question-askers for male speakers). So, not only are you questioning the intelligence of the speaker, you are taking opportunities away and discouraging other females from asking questions at talks. Save your “questions” until after, where they’re slightly less inappropriate.
  4. You discourage future female scientists from speaking at conferences, and from asking questions. You (or your institution) claim they want to increase gender parity in the sciences and encourage diversity. By asking “questions” like these you are actively working against those same goals. If I’m a female audience member who sees a female speaker being treated that way (and having everyone else accept it as par for the course) why would I want to put myself through the same situation? I would be more reluctant to participate in scientific discourse knowing the terrible times ahead (hint: there’s a reason that this past AAS was my first conference talk, but not my first conference presentation). If I have no choice but to give a talk (say, if I want to get a job after my dissertation) I will certainly be less confident in my work and more hesitant in asserting my authority. Is that what you want from the future generation of scientists?

If you have an honest concern about the integrity or quality of the work being presented, that is your prerogative. The appropriate place to bring that concern to the speaker’s attention is in a one-on-one discussion with the speaker after the session has ended. Here’s how you do that: *raise your hand during Q&A* “Thank you for your thought-provoking presentation. I have some ideas that I would really like to discuss with you after the session if you have time. I will stick around after. Thank you.” This acknowledges the work that the speaker has done and respectfully asks for an intellectual discussion, and then gets out of the way for other potential question-askers.

Keep in mind though, when you follow up on that request it should be a discussion, not a lecture or an interrogation. This still isn’t a quals exam. Understand that you may disagree on the best course of action on a project, and that the speaker (by virtue of it being her work with which she is intimately familiar) has an equally valid opinion. If you find that you can’t come to an agreement, THAT’S OK. As a professional person, the researcher will listen to your opinion and take it into consideration as she goes forward. That’s what the scientific process is about. If you feel so passionately about the research, do it your own way yourself and have professional disagreements about it in journals like you would with anyone else.

That’s about it for this. I’m sure that there are better ways to inform conference participants and session chairs than a blog post that (hopefully) a small fraction of the AAS membership will read. A reminder email before a meeting about how to be respectful during a Q&A? A mention during the session chair breakfast? Something. Until then, if you do notice one of your colleagues behaving this way towards a female speaker, SPEAK UP ABOUT IT! Approach that “questioner” (in private, remember?) and say that that sort of treatment of a speaker is not appropriate for a professional setting, and that next time they should bring that sort of comment to the speaker in private, not in front of their peers. Be an advocate and an ally for female speakers, and don’t let this continue to be the norm of how we treat our female scientists.

AAS 227 Meetings: Pre- and Initial-Conference Thoughts

Hello all. This is the first in what will be a series of blog posts about the AAS meetings currently happening in Kissimmee, FL. I am trying to write my thoughts and experiences about the conference a day at a time, and post them as the conference is happening. These are my thoughts leading up the conference, and on the first day/impression of the conference. All thoughts are my own, and if I use ideas from others I will identify them unless they ask to remain anonymous.

So, this post is a bit different than my others will be about the AAS meeting. I’ve had most of these thoughts for a while, and while they’re not mainstream, I have heard others with similar opinions. I will preface this post by saying that I really do enjoy AAS meetings in general. I love seeing all of the people I collaborate with remotely, people I have followed (read: stalked) online, and learning all of the new science from people I have never heard of before. This post is mostly an explanation of a few issues I, and others, have with the current structure of AAS meetings, and will focus on the schedule of events, the timing, and the location. I can’t say that I have any concrete way of solving them, only suggestions of things to be done.

Organization of schedules

I’ve noticed that there are essentially two different conferences going on at the same time at most AAS meetings. In the one conference there are all of the science talks, large plenary talks, and science workshops. These are very talk heavy, full of 10 minute presentations occasionally broken up by 15 minute “D-talks” (for dissertation research) and large conference wide science talks.

The other conference I dub the “alternate” conference: science outreach, astronomy education and history, science writing, press conferences, town halls, career workshops, performing arts in science presentations, etc. While these are science related, most of those don’t have original research presentations. Rather, those are more of the professional development sessions that make you a more rounded scientist.

The problem? The science talks and “alternate” sessions happen at the same time! If you want to learn how to write your science for the public you must, perforce, miss out on some of the science you want to write about. And vice versa. While, yes, it’s impossible to go to everything (and indeed, you would quickly burn out if you tried), the schedule should be arranged so that people can attend multiple types of sessions if they want.

Also, to keep the two separate like this enforces the idea that the two are not equal, and not complementary. It enforces the mentality that if you do original research, you don’t need communication or outreach. And if you do communication or outreach, you can’t to original research. The two are not, and should not, be mutually exclusive.

Regarding the timing, specifically impacting health, inclusivity, and convenience

I’ve spoken before about my dislike of the timing of the AAS meeting. When you start going to AAS meetings, most advisors will tell you to go to the winter one, since that’s the “big meeting.” OK, that’s totally fine to have a “big meeting” where most of the community all gets together at the same time. That’s actually a really good thing.

My problem is that, somehow, the winter meeting became the “big one” and the summer one is very sparsely attended. Why is this an issue? Well, a number of reasons really (one of them is that it always conflicts with my birthday, but that’s neither here nor there).

First reason: logistics. Travelling to most of the USA in January is difficult. Especially difficult in the first week of January. There is snow everywhere (well, at least in normal, not freakish El Niño years like this one). If there isn’t snow where you are or where you are headed, there is snow in a connecting layover location. Snow leads to flight cancellations and delays and travel stress. No one likes to travel at these times, some people avoid it altogether. Also, just after New Years means that there is much higher airport traffic and higher prices due to demand.

Second reason: the start of the semester. The first week or second week of January is also the first week of classes for most academic folk. For students, this means giving up valuable prep time for classes, or missing the first week of classes altogether. For teaching faculty that means losing that last week of valuable prep time for the semester, getting last minute research done, communicating with their students, pre-semester forms and training. Also, many job applications, grad school applications, and grant applications are due just before or after the new year, and combining these with a large meeting can often be disastrous.

Third: international astronomers in the US. The American astronomical community includes a diverse spread of astronomers from around the world who have chosen to make the US their home, either permanently or temporarily. Many of those who have come here to do science have left friends and family back in their home countries that they don’t get to see often. Winter break, often being 2-3 weeks long, is usually one out of two times a year that those astronomers have the chance to travel to see their family. Making the winter meeting so critical is damaging to international astronomers who choose to travel home during this time. This is detrimental to astronomical diversity, and enforces the idea that a scientific career and healthy family life are incompatible.

Fourth, and the important reason: physical and mental health. In the winter, colds and flus run rampant, and no place is a better breeding ground for germs than a conference. Lots of new people, close meeting quarters, sharing rooms, minimal sleep. Not good. As far as mental health: winter break should be about decompressing, not extra stressing. Everyone needs a mental break now and again in order to avoid mental breakdowns. I’m deliberate when I say “need.” This is not a suggestion, or a “well, it’s normal, whatever,” or a “just deal with it,” everyone NEEDS a break sometime. Knowing that there is an important meeting coming up right after the new year means that most spend the majority of their winter break stressing about finishing their calculations, their presentation, their poster, when they could be enjoying family and winter holiday time. This is not healthy.

Location of the meetings: accessibility and affordability

The past few “big meetings” of the AAS have been in strange locations: outside of DC, Seattle, and now Orlando. Future meetings will be San Diego and Grapevine, TX (I had to look up where that was myself). If you are hosting a meeting for the astronomical population of the US, shouldn’t you have meetings in locations convenient to the astronomical population of the US? Unless you live pretty close by, it is time intensive and really expensive to travel to most of those locations. They are pretty remote, and in the far reaches of the country rather than a fair middle ground. Those locations also tend to have really expensive hotels, food, and inner-city travel, making things more difficult on a tight budget.

Another issue with remote locations is often the lack of travel options. To get to many of these places from more than a state away requires air travel (for those who are from New England, that’s how the rest of the country works). Some people just can’t afford to fly everywhere. Some people can’t fly on airplanes for health reasons, and must take trains, busses, or cars instead. These people include, but are not limited to, pregnant women mid to late in their pregnancies. When we already ask (subliminally and through lack of standard maternity leave policies) future mothers to make career sacrifices for their children, we shouldn’t make it even harder for these women to participate in our community.

Now, I understand that the AAS has a multi-year contract with Gaylord Convention centers for some reason or another. I even hear tell that they say that this is supposed to be cheaper for everyone to work with them. But personally, I haven’t seen any evidence of the cheaper nature of these conference centers. When the conference hotels cost $300 a night, that’s not cheap, or affordable for most people. That’s almost a month of groceries for me. This cost is often not including parking, food, hotel shuttles from the airport, etc. and definitely doesn’t also cost meeting registration costs. (Edit: in adding up the total cost of the conference, it comes to almost a full month’s paycheck.)

The cost of travel, hotel, registration, and food can be prohibitively expensive for many people. It is particularly difficult for undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and low-income staff/faculty like adjunct, assistant, and associate professors. You know, the people who tend to get the most out of a meeting through experience and networking? When you can’t afford to miss a meeting professionally, but you can’t afford to attend economically, it’s a no win situation for the most professionally transient astronomers. Missing a meeting as an upper level grad student or a post-doc leads to missed networking opportunities, missed presentation opportunities, and missed job opportunities.

Tenured professors, who generally have a stable salary and career, can afford to miss meetings, might say “well then, just don’t go to this one!” (hint: if someone tells you this, they probably don’t have your best professional interests at heart). There are indeed ways to “virtually” attend meetings. Those methods are important and valuable, too. But when networking in person makes up such an important part of the field and of the job search, virtual attendance just won’t do.


I have no solutions here. Only suggestions, and many of them are untenable at the moment. Emphasize the summer AAS meeting instead. Hold meetings in more accessible locations, with a variety of hotel and food options and prices. Provide travel grants to economically challenged astronomers. Adjust the schedule so participants can (are encouraged to!) attend professionally diverse sessions. These are my suggestions to you, AAS, to make your meetings more diverse, more inclusive, and less prohibitive.

Also, I have almost lost my coat twice now because I have to carry it around everywhere. We should get a coat rack.

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