Tuesday, October 28, 2008

InaDWriMo 2008

I am a bad writer. Well, more accurately, I'm a lazy writer. The actual text I write tends to be pretty good, but getting them from the brain to the page is like pulling teeth. My backlog of paper writing is embarrassing.

So, I've just committed to writing 12k words in InaDWriMo 2008, over at Dr. Brazen Hussy's blog.

Because there's nothing like the fear of public humiliation as a motivating force, right?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Depressing statistics

It just so happens that I'm applying for jobs this fall. So seeing this graphic on PhD comics this morning made me feel like crawling back into bed and sobbing.


Friday, October 17, 2008

AWIS & SWE vs. Presidential Candidates

From the AWIS website:
Earlier this summer, AWIS and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) submitted a list of questions to both the Obama and McCain campaigns regarding the candidates' positions on issues which affect women in STEM.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have long since decided who I'm going to vote for, and my choice will soon become clear. Still, I'm curious to see what the candidates have to say in response to the questions, to determine which candidate might be more friendly to science & technology in general, and to women in STEM fields in particular. The answers from the campaigns of McCain and Obama are located here, and my take on the responses are below. (Note: I've abridged the questions for length.)

(1) As President of the United States, how do you plan to address the need for more women in STEM?

Obama: Lists specific measures: requiring minority & female representation on government panels, establishing mentoring programs, enforcement of Title IX, funding for COMPETES and NIH. But what about funding for NSF and NASA, for those of us in physical sciences?

McCain: Discrimination is abhorrent. duh. Mentions an overhaul of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but what does that have to do with encouraging girls in math and science?

Obama wins hands down here for actually answering the question, even if I might quibble about some of his ideas.

(2) What is your position on H.R. 6314, the “Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” ?

Obama: "Joe Biden and I endorse these efforts." Oh good.

McCain: "I will closely examine any legislation addressing this issue that reaches my desk." Well, I would hope you'd closely examine any piece of legislation.

Obama wins, for actually expressing support.

(3) As President, how would you seek to ensure that Title IX is evenly applied to all sectors of academia, including STEM departments, rather than just athletics?

Obama: "Joe Biden and I will fight to make sure women have equal opportunities and access from pre-kindergarten through graduate school." No specifics beyond that vague promise.

McCain: Actually, it looks like McCain doesn't like Title IX at all. So I guess he thinks discrimination is abhorrent, but not so abhorrent that any laws should actually be put in place to fight it.

Obama wins. I sense a theme.

(4) What is your position on anti-affirmative action initiatives on ballots in Nebraska and Colorado?

Obama: Opposes the initiatives, but notes that affirmative action is "a useful, if limited, tool" and thinks that increasing opportunities for everyone is more effective. Talks about investment in education and supporting college students from low-income backgrounds.

McCain: "I support the initiatives." Thinks that problems would be solved by fixing poorly performing schools, which smacks of NCLB. Also, casting a wide net for recruitment.

Personally, I have mixed feelings on affirmative action, but ultimately share Obama's point of view, that it's a useful but limited tool. I also think that McCain's solutions are too limited. Casting a wide net for recruitment is a good thing, but changing the numbers of women and minorities means addressing more than just the schools that are performing poorly. So I'll have to give this one to Obama.

(5) As President, how do you plan to maintain and/or strengthen existing NSF programs targeted to increasing diversity in STEM education?

Obama: "The ADVANCE program, which aims at institutional transformation, has been hugely successful in creating academic environments that work for everyone." Kudos to Obama for recognizing this! Many programs that seek to help women to succeed help everybody, actually. He also notes that the "broader impact" criteria imposed on NSF grants are good for engaging minority groups.

McCain: "I will support programs that increase the representation of women in science fields in a cost-effective manner without resort to preferences on the basis of sex." That's pretty non-committal. In fact, I would go so far as to read between the lines here and interpret this to mean that McCain does not favor programs that refer to women and minorities at all for fear that they might somehow favor them.

Again, Obama wins.

(6) What do you believe is the responsibility of the federal government with regard to paid family leave?

Obama: He doesn't seem to support efforts by the federal government, but would like to see paid-leave programs instituted by the states. But, he'll provide $1.5 billion to help states implement these programs.

McCain: He's such a maverick, he actually voted for FMLA! Boasts that he "co-sponsored the Family Friendly Workplace Act, which would permit employees to receive paid time off in lieu of overtime wages if they so choose." Which doesn't sound like much of a maternity/paternity leave plan to me. He's in favor of flexible workplace policies including telecommuting.

This is actually a bit of a draw. Obama makes no commitment at the federal level, except for helping fund state initiatives. McCain favors flexible work options, which do help working parents. Neither of them addresses the issue that family leave policies in the US are pathetic compared to most industrialized nations.

(7) To date, appropriations for the America COMPETES programs have not been consistent with the levels authorized by this bill. As President, how will you seek to ensure that this law is followed and that these funding levels are realized?

Obama: "I co-sponsored the America COMPETES Act and added several amendments that help to improve the diversity of our STEM workforce." Obama wins big points here. Notes that's he's strongly committed to increasing funding levels at NSF, DoE, NIST, and NIH. (But you left out NASA!)

McCain: "I will fully fund the America COMPETES Act." Yay.

I give Obama the win here, for co-sponsoring COMPETES, and noting that diversity is a part of it.

As if there were any doubt, I am an Obama supporter. His support of science and diversity in science only bolsters my opinion of him. While I like that he expresses support for federal funding agencies, I'm a bit befuddled that he specifically brings up NIH in addition to NSF and NIST, but not NASA, for instance. I mean, yes, there are lots of women in biological sciences, and they should be fully supported and not have to face discrimination. (And yes, they still do, even as PhDs in bio-sciences reach or even surpass gender parity.) However, not all women scientists are biologists. In fact, some of us women scientists (and engineers) are supported by agencies like NASA, which is conspicuous by its omission in any of the discussion.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

ICWIP: Day 3

I might as well as stayed in bed for the last morning's plenary sessions. As it was, I was late for the first talk, so I'd already missed most of it. The second speaker had poor speaking skills in any language. She rambled, she went off on tangents, and she went far over time. Her highly-accented English only added to the problem.

The rest of the morning was spent discussing and voting on the resolutions of the Working Group on Women in Physics, which are to be presented at the IUPAP general assembly this week. Really, most of them are pretty straightforward. The bulk of the commentary was based on the fact that so many different nations of different sizes and wealth were represented, and this meant that the needs of one group were not necessarily representative of the whole. For example, in the discussion about the global survey (resolution #5), the question of how to define a physicist was brought up. Do you include physics teachers in the definition of physicist? Now for some nations, it makes more sense to only include those with post-graduate degrees. However, in some nations, those teachers might be the highest educated physicists in those countries. In the end, the resolutions were passed unanimously: the resolutions really are pretty straightforward.

I commented on the feedback for conference organizers that childcare needs were poorly dealt with for this particular conference. However, it wasn't until after the conclusion of the meeting while I was talking with people, that it occurred to me that conference childcare was hardly addressed at all. Now I wish I had brought it up. After all, so many of us women physicists are affected by childcare issues. Could the Working Group have made a resolution regarding providing conference childcare at IUPAP meetings, for example? Or is that reaching too far? After all, the question of who would pay for the childcare then becomes an issue. For my own perspective, I felt like I had the responsibility to take care of my childcare needs on my own, but then again, I've become used that perspective. How many women were prevented from coming because of childcare needs? Well, they didn't come to have their voices heard, so perhaps we'll never know.

ICWIP: Day 2.5

Thursday night was the conference banquet. Interestingly, the food was entirely Western cuisine, but the entertainment was traditional Korean dances. I was pleased that there were male dancers as well as female dancers. All too often, only female dancers are featured, so perhaps it was only appropriate that they would have mixed-gender dances for a women-in-physics conference.

There were a number of dignitaries who spoke at the beginning of the meal, including the deputy mayor of Seoul and the chair of the Korean Physical Society and whatnot. But then, it seemed to transition over to some kind of open-mike session, where anyone who felt like they had something heartwarming to say, got up and did so. This went on for almost the entire meal.

Now, the best parts of any conference are the interactions that take place outside the planned sessions, and this conference was no exception. After the dinner, several of us Americans recruited a few locals to take us to enjoy the nightlife in Seoul. By the end, I had swapped some important career advice with some of them. My personal take-home message from this meeting is to stop underestimating myself. For myself and many other women in science, the biggest obstacle is simply ourselves and the fear that we might be revealed as imposters despite our obvious successes. Seeing so many successful women physicists from around the globe and hearing their stories was certainly very empowering.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

ICWIP: Day 2

The plenary talks this morning included one about physics education at a women's college in India, and an astronomy talk on supermassive black holes (yay, astornomy!). While I think that it is pretty cool to hear about the cutting-edge research that women in physics are doing, I feel like too much of the time at this conference has been spent on the plenary scientific talks, and not enough about women in physics around the world. And if we were meant to network more informally during breaks, that doesn't really seem to be working either, since they give us so little time for coffee breaks, lunch, and poster sessions. Today, they grouped us at lunch by field of study, so I got to sit with fellow astronomers from other countries, so that part did help.

The bulk of the work of the meeting seems to be taking place within the four themed workshops: Attracting Girls to Physics, Fund-raising, WIP Working Groups, and Site Visits & Improving the Climate for Women. I've been attending workshops for that last theme.

I was particularly interested in the presentation about the Juno project in the UK presented in the Site Visits workshop today. The program sounds much like the Pasadena Recommendations formulated by the CSWA. However, they've gone even further with it, having two levels of commitment: Juno supporter, which is similar to endorsement of the Pasadena Recommendations; and Juno champion, where the institution demonstrates that they have actually followed through on best practices. Now, the major difference between the UK and the US is that the UK actually has legislation mandating that insitutions demonstrate that they are practicing gender equity, so they have strong motivation to become Juno supporters and champions. In the US, there is no such high level mandate. Astronomy departments can choose to endorse the Pasadena Recommendations out of the goodness of their hearts.

Some other thoughts that are percolating in my head are with regard to work-family juggling. A common thread, especially among East and South Asians, is that women are pressured not to pursue science or perhaps rather, they are pressured to focus on family rather than career. However, an interesting result from a survey done in South Africa shows that women do not point to child care as an obstacle to pursuing careers in physics: rather it is the hostility of the environment to women in general. Then again, they listed flexibility of work arrangements as being important for maintaining careers in physics, so perhaps that very flexibility obviated the need for making external childcare arrangements.

Another theme is sharing information with each other, consolidating resources on a webpage so that people in smaller countries aren't scrambling to find the help they need. So the suggestion was made to create a wiki: sounds like a great idea to me!

My husband, who has been watching the kids for me during the meeting, noted that given that this is a conference on women in physics, there is a remarkable lack of childcare resources provided either by the conference organizers or the hotel. I have to say he has a good point. Then again, since so many of us are coming from so far away, perhaps most of us didn't even consider bringing our children along with us. Except for crazies like me. :)

Overall, though, this meeting has been quite interesting and a great opportunity to meet people both from the US and other countries who share the common interest of promoting women in physics and astronomy. I'm quite glad I came: I only wish I had business cards to hand out.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

ICWIP: Day 1 - PM

Whew! That was quite a day.

I had a meeting at 8am, and my last session ended at 9:30pm. We had all of half an hour coffee break in the morning, a 1 hr lunch, a measly 1 hr for poster session, 2 hrs for dinner. The rest of the time was filled with sessions. Yes, it was all very interesting, but also tiring.

I wished we had more time for the poster session, since the posters all looked very interesting, I had barely had time to make one pass around the room. Part of the point of this meeting is networking, and I've barely had the chance to meet all of the US delegation, much less people from other countries!

The workshop on site visits this afternoon was interesting. Successful implementations from the UK and the USA were discussed, and it seemed like a no brainer to recommend that countries try to carry out site visits modeled after the Institute of Physics (IoP, UK) and the American Physical Society (APS, USA) programs. Now, the thing that a site visit does is identify areas for improvement in gender/minority equity to the hosting department, so for that reason the results ought to remain confidential: after all, you have to get an honest assessment of the place before you can make improvements. That's distinct from an accreditation program that might be able to rank the female- (or other underrepresented minority group) friendliness of the department. Granted, I think an accreditation program would be very useful to people applying for grad schools or academic jobs, but I'm not sure that's within the scope of the workshop recommendations.

The other workshop I went to was on negotiation skills. Most of what was talked about could be covered in Women Don't Ask by Babcock and Leschever and this work on implicit bias. There was an interesting discussion, but quite frankly, a lot of us were pretty tired and low energy. I can't use jetlag as an excuse, though. Afterwards, a fellow US delegate recommended upcoming workshops hosted by the APS as perhaps a better venue to learn negotiations skills. Hopefully, posting this remind me to apply when I return to the States. :)

Time for bed now: I have another 8am meeting tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

ICWIP: Day 1 - plenary talks

The format of the conference consists of several plenary talks, as well as several parallel workshops. One of the workshops is simply personal professional development, intended to benefit workshop participants. The other four workshop are really working groups that will meet and make conclusions and recommendations about assigned topics: attracting girls to physics, site visits and improving the climate for women, successful proposals and project leadership, and organizing WIP working groups. The US delegation met before the beginning of today's sessions to figure out which sessions to attend: I'll be going to site visits.

The first thing on the program is "Opening Ceremonies," but our delegation did not actually get up and march or dance or anything. Rather, it might have been better named "Introductory Remarks," because several VIPs got up and make short speeches to welcome and open the meeting. Rather than list all the speakers, I want to comment particularly on just a few:
  • The chair of the LOC, Prof. Youngah Park, used to be a professor of physics, but successfully ran for office
    as a member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea. So she can now influence public policy with regard to women in science, rather than simply agitating as an academic. How inspiring!
  • Doyoon Byun, Ministry of the Ministry of Gender Equality in South Korea, mentioned that 5% of Korean GNP will go to R&D: I wonder how that compares to the US?
  • Elisabeth Giacobina, Director of Research of CNRS in France, emphasized the need for childcare, choosing between career and family.

The four plenary talks from the morning were scientific talks by women physics from different countries on different topics. The talks were all very good and extremely interesting, but rather than discuss their science here, I'll focus on their personal stories:
  • Prof. Young Kee Kim from Fermilab & U of Chicago: fifth of five girls in her family, with one brother. She credited her parents and teachers for encouraging her studies and treating boys and girls equally.
  • Michèle Leduc from Ecole Normale Supérieure, CNRS: went to Ecole Normale Supérieure back when it was divided into girls and boys schools, and argued that more girls went into science before it became integrated. Credited her feminist mother for saying that girls should have their own careers.
  • Minka Ritsch-Marte from Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria
  • Maki Kawai from Univ. of Tokyo, Kashiwa, Japan: her mother was a physicist, so didn't see anything unusual about pursuing science. Married and had 1st child as grad student, 2nd child as postdoc, and lived apart from her husband for several years. Noted that being a human being and scientist were not necessarily compatible.

ICWIP: Seoul-searching

(You knew I had to make at least one Seoul pun, right?)

Last week, I gave talks at three universities here in Seoul: Sejong, Seoul National University (SNU), and Yonsei.  The basic schedule has been the same: arrive, get oriented, give talk, go out to dinner. There have been varying amounts of pre- and post-talk chatting with people, depending on whether or not I arrived in enough time, and whether or not the custom was to give students time to chat with the speaker.

I had a particularly interesting conversation at SNU, where my host was a woman. We poked some fun at the stereotype that all Korean parents want their kids to become medical doctors or lawyers: apparently the stereotype holds both in South Korea and the United States! Anyway, she thought that this attitude made careers in pure science unpopular in South Korea: people are more interested in practical careers, devoting more interest and resources to technology and engineering than esoteric pursuits like astronomy. It's funny, because even though professors are very highly respected in South Korea, they don't necessarily get paid much. On the other hand, lucrative professions (i.e. lawyering) aren't as well respected, but everyone wants their kids to pursue them anyway. It seems you can have either wealth or esteem, but not both at once.

My impression is that at least in astronomy, women faculty in Korea aren't necessarily doing a whole lot worse than their US counterparts. I didn't get the sense that the departments I visited had any lower representation of women faculty than the US. Then again, it's a pretty small sample size: I only saw the three departments, and each has less than 10 professors. Then again, perhaps if the field was more competitive, it might be more of an issue. Certainly there were plenty of female students in all the departments I visited. Then again, most of the students seemed to be undergrads.

I also had an interesting conversation with my mother's best friend from college, who is a retired professor herself. She noted that South Korea's population is aging rapidly, and complained that people these days just weren't interested in having babies. I noted that perhaps women would be more willing to have babies if Korean society weren't so insistent on traditional gender roles. She told me that it sounded like the sort of problem which needs a lot of social activism, so even though she worries about these kinds of issues, she's too busy to spend time doing anything about it. And really, who does? When you're busy with your day-to-day work, keeping up your house, taking care of the kids, and whatever else life chooses to throw your way, it's that much more effort to fight against cultural attitudes, which is a lot like trying to fight smoke with a sword. However, someone needs to fight that battle, and perhaps the first battle is to figure out what a better weapon might be.

It's been extremely interesting comparing and contrasting cultural attitudes in Korea versus the US, and I look forward to hearing about other countries at the ICWIP meeting this week, too.

ICWIP: Day 0

I checked in to the hotel and registered for the ICWIP today. At the reception, I met up with several members of the US delegation, many of whom had arrived just within the hour. I was impressed that they were still standing.

We decided to go out for dinner together to start to get to know each other. Now, despite having been in here in South Korea for a week and a half now, I hadn't been to this part of Seoul before and my Korean is merely passable, not great. Anyway, we ended up at a barbecue place, which wasn't so good for the vegetarians, but they made do with bibimbap. I kept not quite understanding the waitress, and finally she got fed up and demanded why the heck I had such trouble understanding, and I apologized and explained that I'm really from the US so my Korean isn't that great, and that seemed to smooth things over.

So that's my story about international relations for tonight.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Back again

Well, my regular blog at http://youngstellarobject.net is experiencing technical difficulties, again, which will be unresolvable until Monday at the earliest. Something about being in a foreign country makes solving technical difficulties stateside difficult.

Anyway! I'm here in Seoul, South Korea to attend the 3rd International Conference on Women in Physics which I'm totally psyched about! I had planned to blog about it all along, which is why I'm all grumpy about my blog server being down, but glad I have this here backup blog instead.

Stay tuned, more will follow. If I have the time, perhaps I'll even blog some about the week and a half I've already spent here.