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Implementing Change and Finding Balance at NASA's GSFC

by Amy Simon-Miller

Amy Simon-Miller is an Astrophysicist at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center in the Planetary Systems Laboratory of the Solar System Division of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate where she is busy analyzing data on Saturn from the Cassini Composite Infrared Spectrometer.

January 2006

The Pasadena Recommendations make a variety of suggestions to institutions for helping employees achieve balance in their lives, while also leveling the playing field for women in science. At the same time, external site reviews have provided a reality check to many people on how well their institution is (or isn’t) doing when it comes to equity and employee happiness. As various departments begin to look inward and see how their policies do or do not meet equity goals, we present an example of how Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) is meeting some of those same challenges and is working towards the future. We also are hopeful that GSFC administrators will endorse the Pasadena Recommendations when the nationwide call for endorsement is released.

History and Statistics

The primary groups enacting change at GSFC are the Goddard Employee Welfare Association (GEWA) and the Women’s Advisory Committee (WAC). GEWA formed to “stimulate and strengthen the esprit de corps and morale of the GSFC employees … through social, athletic, educational, and cultural activities.” GEWA is responsible for a wide range of activities and property: maintenance of the campus Recreation Center, picnic facilities and sports fields, oversight for over 50 employee clubs and sports (from aerobics to Zymurnauts, and everything in between), and management of the employee exchange store, Visitor Center gift shop, cafeterias and vending machines. Thus, they are directly responsible for many aspects of employee well-being and offer a range of opportunities for activities outside of work; employees are encouraged to join these groups and to participate in their many center-wide events.

The mission of the WAC, which formed in 1995 under the Federal Women’s Program, is to “promote a creative, flexible environment where the continuing contributions of women in the workforce are endorsed, enhanced and valued.” The WAC members have been the facilitators for many in-reach efforts and community-building activities, and have tracked the hiring, retention, development and promotions of women at GSFC. They have been a major force in implementing new facilities at GSFC and pushing for workplace change. As part of a recent expansion of activities designed to reach individual women, the WAC has sponsored a number of work-life surveys, networking events and opportunities for women scientists and engineers to meet and share their experiences. The WAC was recently recognized by GSFC with the 2005 Annual Center Director’s Award for their hard work and center-wide impact.

Figure 1

To understand the demographics of GSFC, the civil service workforce break-down over the past five years can be seen in Figure 1, noting that only about one third of GSFC employees are civil servants. From 2001-2005, the composition of the science, technical and engineering staff held steady at roughly 18-19% women. The overall staff was constant at about 36% female, dominated by those in the clerical and professional administration staff pool, which is nearly level at 70%-75% women. Slight improvement was seen in the overall number of women in supervisory positions, increasing from 24% to 29% (in science and engineering, about 19% of the supervisors are women). To put these numbers in perspective, in 1995 women comprised approximately 19% of the science and engineering positions, and 32% of the overall GSFC workforce, similar to what is seen today. By contrast, however, in 1995 women held only 17% of overall supervisory positions and ~11% of the science and engineering supervisory positions, showing improvement in the numbers of women trained and promoted over the past decade. Of course, one must be cautious of over-interpreting these numbers, due to the small number statistics involved.

Facilities, Programs and Activities

GSFC has many facilities designed to make balancing work and life easier, and most are open to all employees. For family balance, examples include the Child Development Center (GCDC) and specialized Lactation Facilities in ten buildings. For those with small children, the GCDC serves as a daycare and education center for children ages 2 through kindergarten and has been in operation since the 1970s. Studies are currently underway to determine the feasibility of expanding to include infant and sick-child care. The GCDC is run as a “club” by GEWA with employee memberships to help finance the center and to provide volunteer hours for clean-up, etc., but it also employs a professional full-time staff dedicated to the education and development of the children. For nursing mothers there are Lactation Facilities, set up largely through the efforts of the WAC, and designed as a private place for pumping that offers refrigerators and hospital-grade pumps. As demand increases, more rooms are added in buildings around the center.

For overall needs, GSFC has signed up with WorkLife4You, a web resource that can help answer employees’ questions on child care, health issues, retirement and investments, legal matters and more. There is also an Employee Assistance Program designed to assist with personal issues. For health-related issues, there is a medical Health Unit for medical emergencies, allergy and flu shots and physicals, and an on-site fitness facility, though some of these services are limited to civil servant employees only.

Many more important programs are still in progress. A number of dialogs on diversity, work culture and other topics have been underway for quite some time. These seek to understand the culture at GSFC and to implement changes to make a better working environment for everyone. As a result, new programs include a New Employee Welcoming Board, which offers seminars and quarterly fairs for all interested employees to learn about facilities and procedures at GSFC, and a formal mentoring program.

In addition, the Sciences and Exploration Directorate (formerly the Space Sciences and Earth Sciences directorates) has been engaged in a number of activities focused on the women scientists and engineers at GSFC. In 2002, Director Dr. Jonathan Ormes began a series of meetings with women scientists in the directorate to discuss their concerns and issues. This included calling for an American Physical Society review of the climate for women and minorities at GSFC, in addition to the normal visiting committee reviews. Those reviews and meetings culminated in a WAC-sponsored facilitated dialogue in 2004, run by an external group that specializes in such meetings. This highly structured meeting of women scientists and their supervisors made many people aware of the wide range of working conditions around the center and highlighted some specific areas where improvements could be made. Continued dialogues and actions are being discussed by many groups, including the WAC. As part of this effort, the WAC is getting more women involved by sponsoring Women’s Equality Day events, Knowledge Sharing Workshops and bi-monthly networking lunches. They also publish a monthly newsletter, and are compiling a book of short biographies as part of a push towards creating an informal women’s networking and mentoring program.

In summary, change takes time and effort, but is worthwhile for all employees. Obviously, the WAC has been a driving force for improving GSFC over the past decade. However, the increased participation by women across the center is of equal importance, because without their input, problems are not as easily identified or addressed. Finally, we are pleased to announce that the newly appointed Director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate is Dr. Laurie Leshin, replacing Dr. Jonathan Ormes, whose efforts were greatly appreciated by the women scientists at GSFC. We look forward to watching GSFC as it continues to evolve into a wonderful work place for all employees.

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