Pink Tasks (post 1 of 2)

In general, I’m not someone who is an activist feminist. My focus has always been on science research and education, but sometimes gender issues can’t be ignored. If you saw my talk from TAM2012, you know that for better or (more likely) for worse, the issues faced by women in science and skepticism have been a lot on my mind lately.

I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this a lot. Here at the IAU meeting, several activities have been designed around generating dialogue about women’s issues and helping to provide mentoring and networking opportunities for the women who are here.

During the “Women in Science” lunch, we all sat down with our bento boxes and found our conversation shaped by a pamphlet of statistics and questions that sat in front of us.

Let’s frame this conversation with some numbers (I’ll add tables later). Globally, the IAU membership is 15.04% women, and in the US – the largest single nation in the IAU – we are 12.48% women. IAU membership is restricted to people who have made significant contributions to the field and membership is for life. In general, it is safe to say that IAU members are more senior members of our community, and these numbers represent the number of women who made it all the way through the academic pipeline.

While we ate, Brian Gaensler fed our discussion with a series of comments about things he, as a center director, has worked hard to do to fundamentally change the situation of women at his research center. Listening, I felt awed by this insight into what a difference can be made by having a male leader who is an activist feminist.

Here are my quick notes from his rapid fire talk:

  • Too often, women are given what he called Pink Tasks, tasks that they may enjoy, may find purpose in, but that will never advance their careers. For instance, many committee assignments, and communications tasks fall into this category. Women are more often asked to advice students, rewrite class listings, be on recruitment committees, and such. These time consuming assignments take away from research, and don’t have the same positive career impact as other committees.
  • We need to restrict introductions to CV related information. Too often men are introduced by their research, awards, and other academic contributions, while women are introduced as beautiful, as mothers, as jugglers of the work-life balance (“isn’t it amazing she still accomplishes so much research” is too often said). This imbalance in what is used to introduce people is wrong, and Brian made a point of saying that at his Center, only CV appropriate information is allowed in the introductions.
  • He also pointed out that we must be consistent in how we address people. If you use last names to refer to men, do the same with women. Too often men are addressed and referred to by their last name while women are addressed by their first name (my example: I’m usually referred to as Pamela but Neil deGrasse Tyson is Tyson or NGT. … I’m not sure what this says about Phil).
  • It’s also important not to bias a system against people who may want or need to work part time for any of many reasons (many parents would appreciate part time options, and, for instance, I work part time at my university so I can also run Astrosphere and still have time to write and sometimes ride my horse). Brian’s center thus advertises every position as having a part-time option (no questions asked).
  • It’s also important not to bias the system against people with day care concerns. Meetings that run past 5pm say to folks with kids in day care “your input isn’t valuable.” Brian requires all meetings and seminars to occur between10am and 2pm.

He said a lot more, and I’m going to ask for his talk. Astronomy needs more leaders like Brian. He is both a great scientist and a thoughtful and compassionate leader.

After Brian’s inspiring talk, we were asked to discuss around our table a number of discussion questions (will be added later).

Our table had 4 graduate students, 3 post docs, 1 person so senior that I was awed, and 2 of us who are generic junior faculty (not tenure track). We were more EU based than US based, and no other nations/nation clusters were represented. Here is the a summary if our thoughts as a diverse group:

  • When people think of women’s issues, they think of child care and child related issues. That isn’t right: we deal with a lot more and need to solve a lot more.
  • After child care, people think of two-body problems, and this one is relevant. Trying to advance our careers when we aren’t single is really hard. Men earn more, so we often move where they can get work (can’t believe it’s still so universally seen that women earn less, often due to fewer and smaller pay raises). Further, men are (in many cultures) typically older than the women in couples, and following the more senior career also makes sense. In the end, this is a personal issue and there is no right solution. That said, people need to stop judging based on where people work instead of what they do. A spouse who followed their partner’s career may end up in an unexpected career location. We hurt women’s and (less often, but still true) men’s esteem when we ask things like ”why are you at a university like that.”
  • It is harder for women to fight for themselves. Men and women have different speech habits, and women need to interrupt and be loud with the same verve as men. Men are trained to negotiate and fight for stuff, and this leads to them getting better labs and better salary, and women need to fight for themselves the same way. Bottom line: we need to be loud and fight for our right to be treated as equals by learning to communicate and negotiate more like men.
  • It is hard for women to fight to be heard. In meetings, the input of women is often ignored or degraded, but when a man, a few minutes later, says the same it is considered wise. When a man is assertive, he’s a leader. When a woman is assertive, she’s a bitch.
  • When a woman gets a job / award / etc, it’s perceived that it’s because she’s a woman, not because she’s good.
  • Women are given different tasks. Less tech. Less instrumentation. One woman said, “I was given things considered more appropriate for women… More communications things.” In other words, pink tasks.
  • And of course, when a women is noticed, she becomes the lone woman asked to be the token woman on every committee. Success is punishable with committee work.

For about 30min, our multi-national group of women from the developed world talked about the BS we face.

The senior woman in the group asked, “Does this effect your self-esteem?” Amazingly, the junior women all said some form of no, with one post doc saying. “No, those guys are just being tools.” But… When asked instead, how do we fix things and be heard and be successful, the answers were harder to come by. How do you end up able to talk? A real solution is unclear. One possibility is you have to be excellent, but that’s exhausting. Maybe you can play by their rules, and cut them off and keep talking, but that’s exhausting and you’re labeled a bitch. You can try and talk to make people aware of the issues…. But to succeed you have to have a sympathetic group leader.

This lead to the question, why do women remain so often stay silent or leave instead of fighting it?

And at that will be my next blog post….

4 Comments

  1. Sunil D'Monte August 27, 2012 at 9:30 am #

    Good points, thanks for posting this. It reminded me of Mary Rowe’s work at MIT on subtle discrimination and micro-inequities. Do check it out if you haven’t already – http://web.mit.edu/ombud/publications/index.html. Today there are laws in place to punish blatant discrimination, so a lot of discrimination and bias happens behind the scenes and even unconsciously via the combined and accumulated effect of the “micro” events like the ones you’ve described here.

  2. David Taylor August 27, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    On the first day of my employment at the Lick Observatory, in 1964, I scandalized the mountain by calling the director “Albert” instead of “Dr. Whitford”. Whatever the attitudes east of the Mississippi River, in California that outrage was ridiculous; kowtowing in lieu of genuine respect certainly did not extend into lower elevation astronomy departments. And I saw no evidence that my friendliness ruffled the good director at all.

  3. flip September 8, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    I never understood why women are praised for juggling work and families, when the husbands are usually doing the same – but for some reason it’s not as hard when they do it.

  4. Michael McBain February 2, 2014 at 7:50 pm #

    The medical faculty at the institution I recently left is extremely hard-charging and research-intensive. The University’s Deputy-Vice-Chancellor (Research), from that faculty, impressed the hell out of me with what I thought was a no-nonsense but nuanced response to maternity leave [typically 12 months in Australia]. His view is that researchers are like Olympic athletes; you need to maintain your training and connectedness to your field to remain ‘in contention’. Women who take leave to have babies can do their research careers serious damage if they are away from the bench for too long, and at this level, that’s not all that long. Jim confronted that issue square-on; if at all possible, he asks the researcher on maternity leave to come in to the office at least one day a week, to participate as much as possible in the work of the lab, and [above all] to ‘stay in touch’. We’re not talking pink tasks, here, we’re talking maintaining currency with the field. He even puts it in economic terms: after investing literally millions of dollars in someone, it pays real economic and productivity dividends to keep your best people ‘tuned up’.

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