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Anonymous Letter to the Department Faculty March 16, 2000

 

June 2001

To the Faculty:

THE PURPOSE OF THIS LETTER IS TO HIGHLIGHT SEVERAL CONCERNS, held by some of the graduate students, regarding the status and future of women in the department. Our comments are divided into two main categories: 1) the lack of women on faculty search short lists (which leads to a lack of women
in faculty positions), and 2) the high attrition rate among female graduate students.

Having observed eight faculty hires over the last seven years, we, the undersigned graduate students, have noticed what appears to be a bias in the make-up of the short list candidates. With the exception of the hire where the university mandated that the department must hire a woman, there has never been more than one
woman on the short list. Three of the short lists have not had any women on them at all.

We want the best candidates to be hired to our department, and we do not mean to imply that
there has been an intentional bias in the hiring practices. However, it is hard to believe that over
so many hires that there were so few qualified women who could have been considered.
It is equally difficult to believe that only one of those women was qualified enough to receive a
job offer.

To observe that women do not get considered for faculty positions is demoralizing, and we believe it contributes to the difficulty this department has in retaining women graduate students. Female students in our department are choosing to leave research at a much higher rate than the male students. Of the classes entering between 1989 and 1998, 59% of the women and only 28% of the men have left the program so far
without a Ph.D. These numbers are especially worrisome when we consider that very few women are admitted and accept graduate positions here in the first place. There are no easy answers to why so many more women than men leave the program before earning a Ph.D., but we believe a more supportive and positive environment could help.

We would like to suggest that, if in the future the committee feels that none of the women who
have applied should be on the short list, that an effort be made to see if anyone [else] should be
invited. Two possible ways of doing this are:

  1. Check the CSWA database at http:// www.stsci.edu/stsci/service/cswa/women/. This is a searchable database where women are listed by their fields of expertise. This database only contains women who have submitted their information to the list, but it provides a good place to start.
  2. Check recent AAS abstracts within the fields being considered for the job for women working within the field, but who have not applied already.

Greater equity in hiring will not completely solve the problem of the atmosphere in the department for the students, but it will help.

Another way in which the department could be more supportive of its female graduate students is
to make it clearer that the department supports the university’s channels for dealing with sexual
harassment. Ways to do this would be to give stronger encouragement to attend the sexual
harassment training, and to make sure all students, not just teaching assistants, know what the university procedures and policies are. While there have been no overt cases of sexual harassment in the collective memory of the current graduate students, there have been several minor incidents. Therefore, it is important for the department to make a clear statement that sexual harassment is not and will not be tolerated.

The transition from undergraduate to graduate student can be challenging. Students must learn
to work more independently and learn how to balance classes, teaching and research. This can
be an overwhelming experience for both the male and female students. We feel having a mentoring
program where each of the incoming students is paired with a senior student could ease this
transition and help prevent losing the students who leave out of frustration with the system. The senior graduate students can relate to the problems of a first year student in a way the faculty advisor can not, simply because the graduate student is so much closer to the experience.

We wish to emphasize that we recognize and appreciate the individual efforts regularly made
by many of the faculty to encourage female graduate students. Such efforts send a strong message to current (and prospective) female students that our department is committed to equality in the workplace. We hope that the suggestions presented in this letter will help to further those efforts and to improve the atmosphere
in the department in general.


Signed,
(Names Withheld)

Ed. Note: This letter was signed by 9 women and 3 men. In the time since this letter was presented to the faculty, work has begun on trying to implement the proposed mentoring program, a female was on the short list for a recent faculty hiring and there has been an increase in the number of females admitted to the graduate program (nearing 50%).

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