AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of June 25, 2010
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson & Michele Montgomery

SPECIAL EDITION: Low Percentages of Women Invited Speakers

1. Introduction

2. Too Important to Ignore

3. A Perennial Problem!

4. The Wrong Approach

5. The Value of Lists

6. Pushing Back?

7. Aim High

8. Set Guidelines

9. How to Submit, Subscribe, or Unsubscribe to AASWOMEN

10. Access to Past Issues of AASWOMEN

1. Introduction
From: Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]

Back in April, I received a message from AASWOMEN subscribers Anna Watts and
Sera Markoff about a workshop announcement. The percentage of women invited
speakers was extremely low, even in a field with relatively large numbers of
women. Anna reminds us (see item #2 below) that [i]nvited talks are critical for
obtaining a tenure track job as well as for securing tenure, and are often an
explicit assessment criterion for acquiring major grants. The routine exclusion
of women from speaker lists is therefore a major obstacle to academic success.

It made me think seriously about what Caty Pilachowski (AAS president,
2002-2004) calls, "a perennial problem." What could CSWA or the AAS do about
this? As you will read in the contributions below, Debra Elmegreen (current AAS
president) warns that bad-listing meetings with low percentages is the wrong way
to approach this issue. Marc Postman (current CSWA member) does not believe that
"collegial disgruntlement pressure" is particularly effective at realizing rapid
change. It is, after all 2010, and we are still attending meetings with <15%
female speakers.

The AAS policy can serve as a model. In a recent issue of AASWOMEN (2010 May 7),
executive officer Kevin Marvel reported that the program committee (VPs,
president, past-president or president-elect, and Kevin himself) selects the
invited speakers. The issue of gender representation is always discussed, and
gender balance always plays a role in the final selection of speakers. 

Personally, I think that the AAS policy should serve as a model for all division
meetings, topical workshops, astronomy conferences, and international
assemblies. The problem, however, is how to enforce this policy. Meg Urry (past
CSWA chair and current AAS council member) suggests that we could remind AAS
members to ask for help from colleagues or to consult appropriate resources if
their draft speaker lists are not representative ? but honestly, what AAS member
doesn?t already know they should do this from the get go?

I asked CSWA members and alums about this issue and got several interesting and
thoughtful replies. We decided to put them together in this special edition.
AASWOMEN, some of our best ideas come from you! Does anyone have thoughts on how
we might tackle this problem, which comes up over and over again?

2. Too Important to Ignore
From: Anna Watts [A.L.Watts_at_uva.nl]

This issue had been bubbling away in the back of my mind for a long time before
I saw the particular circular that provoked me to raise this. Every day on the
way to my office I pass boards full of posters advertising conferences in
Physics and Astronomy - with speaker lists almost devoid of women. Resisting the
urge to deface the posters with a giant 'FAIL' sticker has been difficult. 

Before I proceed, it is appropriate to make a confession. I am currently
organizing a workshop where only 10% of our invited speakers our female. Sadly
this is representative of the proportion of women in this specialism, so I
understand that it is not always easy. However not all fields have this excuse,
and under-representation remains depressingly widespread. The impact of this
cannot be overstated. Invited talks are critical for obtaining a tenure track
job as well as for securing tenure, and are often an explicit assessment
criterion for acquiring major grants. The routine exclusion of women from
speaker lists is therefore a major obstacle to academic success.

Conference sponsors have a role to play in solving this problem. In applying for
our recent workshop we had to justify in some detail to our biggest sponsor the
lack of female speakers. If sponsors demand that adequate representation is a
condition of funding then this would certainly focus the minds of SOCs. Not all
sponsors may be in a position to judge this, of course. Perhaps here the AAS
could help, by providing guidelines on appropriate target levels, or by
connecting sponsors with experts in the field who might be able to suggest
additional speakers to the SOC.

Progress could also be made in terms of seminar invitations. Subjects for a
departmental colloquium are far less restricted than for specialist workshops,
so there is no good reason why these lists should not be representative. And yet
a cursory survey of many astronomy department colloquium schedules shows that
they are anything but. Colloquium invitations provide valuable networking
opportunities - including the chance to meet potential conference organizers. 

3. A Perennial Problem!
From: Caty Pilachowski [catyp_at_astro.indiana.edu]

This problem is hard to address because by the time a meeting is publically
announced, the invited speakers are lined up. Noting the problem after the fact
to organizers hasn't been effective at improving the lineup selected by the
organizers of other, future meetings.

Perhaps the CSWA could organize an "annual report" that is published on the
website and summarized in AASWomen that simply lists meetings held in the past
year and the percentage of women speakers (and minority speakers). If women
could send in "reports" from meetings they attend, perhaps those could be
compiled with relatively little effort by CSWA for an annual list. This approach
would have the effect of being public, without vigorous finger pointing, yet be
public enough to encourage future chairs to want to appear to have done a good
job of inviting women and minorities.

4. The Wrong Approach
Debra Elmegreen [elmegreen_at_vassar.edu]

I think bad-listing meetings with low percentages is the wrong way to approach
this issue. I've seen some organizers try very hard to bring in women, sometimes
without success, so it's not necessarily the organizers' fault. I do think that
sometimes organizers for some reason don't have enough information to know whom
to tag for particular topics. And some fields just don't have as many female
astronomers as others. Years ago, CSWA tried to put together a list where women
could sign on and announce their specialties. I would have hoped this wouldn't
be necessary now, but clearly we haven't achieved equity yet. Perhaps we might
consider it again, as a posting under CSWA where women could list themselves if
they want to, and to which we could direct the AAS members when they next plan

It seems one proactive approach is that, when the AAS or IAU newsletters publish
a list of upcoming meetings for the year, someone in the field could contact the
SOC and possibly suggest relevant names for speakers as an aid.

5. The Value of Lists
From: Amy Simon-Miller [amy.a.simon-miller_at_nasa.gov]

I think AAS could post a reminder that all organizing/program committees should
be sure to include a diversity of speakers (and committee members). As Debra
says, there are other factors that are sometimes beyond the committee?s control,
while sometimes it is just an oversight.

The CSWA list still exists, though I don?t know how many have added themselves
in recent years. Last I managed it, it was quite large. Lists are OK, but they
have to be at someone?s fingertips at the time they are looking for speakers. We
tried this once with the DPS ? we gathered a list of women who were willing to
serve on committees, give talks, be considered for jobs, etc. With their
permission, everyone who asked was given the list to keep near their
phone/computer. I don?t know if it changed anything, but I know I used it on
more than one occasion. I also know that the program committee for every DPS
meeting reports on committee balance and diversity, as well as looking at the
invited speakers list.

6. Pushing Back?
From: Urry, Meg [meg.urry_at_yale.edu]

Although it is much better to address this issue at the beginning of organizing
a conference, we often don't have access to those discussions until too late
(e.g., after the program has come out). We could try alerting AAS members to ask
for help from colleagues or to consult appropriate resources if their draft
speaker lists are not representative - but honestly, what AAS member doesn't
already know they should do this from the get go? We must have some reaction,
therefore, to meetings at which majority men are over-represented. 

Those of us knowledgeable in a particular field should react to problematic
meetings by sending (individually) a list of 20-100 suitable women and minority
speakers to every one of the organizing committee, with a cover note saying,
"Thank you for organizing this very interesting meeting on but I noticed there
were few women and minority speakers. I realize that you may have tried and
failed to attract diverse speakers but just in case you need additional
suggestions - in case you ever organize a meeting on a similar topic in the
future - I would like to bring to your attention the following list of prominent
researchers in this area. Many thanks for your help." As private comments, this
kind of email would not imply anything about the CSWA or AAS.

The consequences of failing to include women are serious. Every promotion, every
review, every consideration of an astronomer for any station or honor, considers
how many invited talks the person has given. It is taken as an important sign of
impact. So, we must figure out some positive steps to take. Even if the
situation is improving year by year, the careers of young people are still being
affected, and thus speaker lists still bear close scrutiny.

7. Aim High
From: Marc Postman [postman_at_stsci.edu]

As one who has organized a couple of large symposia in the past 2 years (where
we achieved a female speaker percentage of 35%), it is essential that the SOC
begin by asserting that a representative demographic distribution in their
speaker list is a wholly legitimate objective for the final program of the
meeting and recognize that doing so in no way compromises the scientific quality
of the program. It's often hard (if not impossible) to fix a wildly imbalanced
speaker gender distribution after the fact. It begins with having a clear
picture of the current female/male ratio in astronomy (e.g., use the AAS
population) so folks on the SOC of the meeting don't have to guess. It's then
essential to aim higher than the average (by at least 5 - 10%) since the
minority is often overbooked more severely. It is also important to have a fair
demographic split on the SOC itself. If you can start with these two premises,
the odds of achieving a program that is representative and scienti
fically strong are substantially improved. 

As for things CSWA or AAS could do:
1) Make current demographics easy to find on AAS website 
2) Regularly review all AAS and AAS Division meetings to identify poor track records and address these 
3) Publish a set of guidelines for SOCs, akin to what U.Mich did for faculty search committees.
4) Make funding for meetings contingent on some minimum compliance with demographic balance (however, we also don't want to stagnate fractions at current levels - we want to ultimately, I think, achieve a mix representative of the national undergraduate population).

8. Set Guidelines
From: Kevin Marvel [kevin.marvel_at_aas.org]

I'd suggest CSWA approach this in a way similar to how the AAS set a guideline
for the offering date of prestigious postdoc positions...propose a
guideline/goal for astronomy meetings that the AAS can endorse as a statement,
sort of a best-practice that everyone in the field should strive for.

I'd suggest a flexible guideline that can change as the demographics of the
field changes, something along the lines of "invited speakers at astronomy
meetings should at least match the demographic representation of the various
groups in the American Astronomical Society's overall membership". 

Unfortunately, that doesn't address the bigger issue of wanting to match the
overall demographics of the population generally (e.g. proper representation of
native Americans for example), but it is a good first step to match the
demographics of the appropriate professional organization (though, let's be sure
to use AAS numbers, not APS's numbers). I suspect Council would be less willing
to consider something specific to women, when we have problems for many
demographic groups being under-represented. That would suggest a partnership
with the CSMA.

I doubt seriously that Council would consider 'bad listing' or approving
meetings. The AAS must set the professional standards for our discipline and let
the pressure from collegial disgruntlement serve as the enforcing motivation. If
a meeting isn't hitting the mark, it shows.

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10. Access to Past Issues of AASWOMEN

Past issues of AASWOMEN are available at


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