Science is typically a male dominated profession, mostly dudes, not a lot of ladies. From researchers to professors, to law makers, woman have a tough time gaining traction in such a heavily gendered field. Today we’re going to talk about what it takes to make it as a woman in science, what additional hurdles you’ll have to navigate, and what resources are available if you’re being harassed or discriminated against.
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This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online. The world’s longest-running online astronomy degree program. Visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.
Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast Episode 399, Women in Science. Welcome to Astronomy Cast your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos. We hope we understand only what we know but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey Pamela, how are you doing?
Pamela Gay: I’m doing okay, how are you doing?
Fraser Cain: I’m good. I know you’ve had a pretty crazy week which we’re going to get into a little bit on this week’s episode. So we’re going to be handling a fairly difficult topic this week so I think we want to give everyone an appropriate trigger warning. We’re gonna be talking about abuse. We’re gonna be talking about harassment. Perhaps sex a little bit. So just if you’re gonna be, now if you normally listen to Astronomy Cast with kids in the room this is something –
Pamela Gay: Don’t.
Fraser Cain: – you might want to listen to first and decide if it’s sort of at the appropriate level for your for, for your family. The second thing though is that next episode, next week is going to be our 400th episode and that is gonna be, we’re gonna call it the state of the universe and we’re going to update you on all of the stories that have been sort of changing since we started doing Astronomy Cast. So if this week’s episode sounds a little heavy to you and, and then go straight to 400. And it’s gonna be a lot of fun but as I said this is a very serious topic and we’re gonna take it on. You ready to go Pam?
Pamela Gay: Yes.
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Fraser Cain: So science is typically a male-dominated profession. Mostly dudes not a lot of ladies. From researchers to professors to lawmakers women have a tough time gaining traction in such a heavily gendered field. Today we’re gonna talk about what it takes to make it as a woman in science, what additional hurdles you have to overcome and what resources are available if you are being harassed or discriminated against. So I know less about being a woman in science than I know about astronomy. So I think this is perfect for me to, to ask you a bunch of questions, Pamela. And so I guess if anyone’s been living under a rock over the last year or so
there have been a bunch of sort of discrimination and harassment, sexual harassment, things that have been going on a long time that have been finally been brought to light and there’s a lot of allegations and a lot of potential court cases and, and disciplinary actions that are being taken and a lot of stories are, are coming out. And the, and the thing that we as the people who have no personal you know I have no personal experience with this whatsoever. Apart from the conversations that you and I have had you know we’re starting to learn the scale and the scope of, of kinda what women go through being a scientist. And so I think with, with this
episode Pamela I’d love to kind of get, just get an understanding of your experiences of, of what it’s been like to be a woman in a very male-dominated field and then maybe you know help women who want to go into this field especially astronomy, and how they can navigate and deal with sort of what, what’s potentially out there. So where do you want to start?
Pamela Gay: It’s really hard to find a starting point but I think perhaps the, the best starting point is just overview some of the big cases that have hit the news so that people know this isn’t just me. This isn’t just the two of us talking about our experiences. That there is this broader long-term history that we’re trying to reflect on. Sadly it goes back as, as far and as high as Nobel laureates. It was revealed this year that Richard Feynman had a long-term history of being a predator, of going after his grad students. Girlfriends of, claiming to be a coed and going after undergraduates. And yet he’s still revered and when people try and add that asterisk of there was this misbehavior they get abused. In more, more recent times building on this foundation of Feynman and, and there was also issues with Noble laureate James Watson and with the man who the Hubble space telescope is named after, James Webb. But, but those are people of the past and fortunately we can’t claim that this is gone today. We’ve had just in the past year or so, Waterman Award and Warner Prize winner Shrinivas R. Kulkarni of Caltech discussed how astronomy is a field of boys with toys. Also at Caltech we had it revealed this week that Christopher Ott had
emotional longings is I guess the best way to put it with one of his graduate students and when she didn’t live up to his expectations he fired her.
Fraser Cain: And there’s of course the Geoff Marcy scandal that broke earlier in the year and we, we covered that as well quite a bit in the Weekly Space Hangout, but you know again sort of same, same situation.
Pamela Gay: But, but it’s not just men that are putting this hey it’s just sex between adults, pressure out there. There, there are women who are also saying be silent, just figure out how to deal with it. Lily Award and Evans Award winner Alice S. Kong published an advice column recommending that a female postdoc whose advisor kept looking down her shirt should just tough it out. Well science did retract the article with an apology. There were still a whole lot of people that jumped up to defend what this researcher wrote and there are many people who do think that it’s, it’s not a big deal, boys look, girls look. If your advisor’s looking down your shirt, hey, leverage that.
Fraser Cain: Right. And so when, I mean you’ve always been a scientist you know. You were a super space nerd as a kid. You went to space camp. You, you know watched your science fiction and knew that you were gonna be a scientist from a pretty early age. When did you realize that your gender was, was sort of a, was a factor in you being a scientist?
Pamela Gay: When I was 15. I don’t think I’ve ever told this story. I, I as everyone knows who’s followed me or talked with me for any amount of time, I was a foreign exchange student on a science exchange to the Soviet Union. But that grew out of a people exchange where I along with 20 some odd other students, ages 15 to 18 was invited to go and compete in the International Science Olympics as representatives of the US. And we were all put it in dormitories in this small village in the mountains of what is now Russia. And at one point I was in the bathroom with the door open to my roommate, shaving my legs dressed up with my leg in the sink and her chaperone, a Harvard affiliated researcher, came in and talked to me and stared at me in the bathroom while I was shaving my legs. And all of us on a trip realized we were kind of on our own and things happened that shouldn’t have happened and we were children, we were children.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, 15 years old, in a foreign country, with caretakers who are supposed to be there to you know protect you and watch over you.
Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: So I mean that’s you know personal. And I’m assuming, I, you know we could take hours and you could regale me and you’ve already told me numerous events about you know people oogling you and making really snide comments and, and, and that, and, and I know that, that you’ve had these conversations with tons of your coworkers and some of the stories are pretty harrowing, but, but sort of when did you get a sense that there was more of a systematic problem above and beyond one that was directed maybe at you as a female? When did you realize that systematically there is a problem for females in science?
Pamela Gay: I’d have to say that it was in the mid-2000s. I started to realize in talking to women that there were women out there strong, brave courageous women, often graduate students, who had found the courage to not just put up with it, who had been better people than to just leverage and use it. They’d instead done the right thing and they’ve gone to their universities and said I need help, I’m being abused, I’m being harassed, I’m being told there are these things that I have to do or put up with, and this is wrong. And every single case that I heard about until Geoff Marcy, the man involved was given a written slap on the wrist, maybe was asked to attend
sexual harassment training, and the woman was silenced and told she was not allowed to say anything because her complaint was confidential, and she had to stay in the same department and there was always this threat. If you talk about the complaint, if you tell anyone about the complaint even though I was found guilty I can sue you. And so the women just, they just leak away.
Fraser Cain: Now when you say I mean you say leak away do you say that that women quit the field? That they look for different jobs? That they you know, what kinds of, what’s the outcome of this?
Pamela Gay: With, with students they often just walk away and go find something else to do with their lives. I know of one woman who went from being a graduate student in astronomy, something that is very, very difficult to get into. And the cost of being a female graduate student for her in this situation she was in, was too high. And so she found a way to creep out of astronomy and into a different nonphysical science and got a PhD and went on to be a professor, utterly outside of astronomy. In and other cases women do try and find other jobs. But on any given day if it’s a good day, there might be five jobs in the entire world in an individual’s
subfield. How the hell do you get one of those jobs when it’s the person abusing you who’s the most qualified in theory to write that rec letter?
Fraser Cain: And yet you just did a post on your website StarStrider, you called it Abuse. And I think it’s a fantastic post, some of the best of you’ve ever written. And you mentioned that one of the problems with astronomy specifically is just how small the industry is. You know in my field of computer science if somebody, if I have a problem with somebody I can work in a different company, I can work in a different city, I can change my specialty. But as the field narrows like astronomy you’re stuck interacting with these people for your entire professional career.
Pamela Gay: When I lived in Boston I was having a conversation with my soon-to-be husband whose a computer scientist and I was trying to get him to understand how small the field of astronomy is, because he was just baffled that they were people in our field that have known me since I was 14, and that I still run into them on a regular basis. And I remember pointing out to him there were more computer scientists in the city of Boston than astronomers in the world. And with a field that tiny you could never escape somebody. I, like so many people who got a degree in astronomy, I dated other students at different points in my career. And the crazy thing is I find
myself in business meetings going, oh shit, that’s the guy I dated when I was 22. How do I hide behind my coffee cup for the next three days? And it’s not that it was a terrible relationship. It’s just I was stupid and young and sometimes you just wanna forget the things you did when you were stupid and young. But when you look across the room and the person you see is that person who grabbed you, that person who insisted on sex, that person who verbally abused you until you cried every single time you were in their office. When it’s an abuser and a bully and a harasser that you see across the room, it kills you inside and you realize I have to figure out how to professionally interact with this person when all I want to do is run to the other corner of the planet, and you’re legally required to not say anything.
Fraser Cain: And so you’re really having to choose between your career which in the case of science, you’ve always felt called to science, called to astronomy specifically. And a lot of these other women as well. My experience with I mean really fortunate with all the people we interact with on with CosmoQuest and with the Weekly Space Hangout is a lot of you know professional working astronomers. Women who are really passionate and know their stuff and are as nerdy about the science as anybody. And just imagine that if on top of your love of the science you had to deal with this additional stuff. I can’t even imagine what goes through your head and the
level of just anxiety and stress that’s just piled on top of an already really difficult field to be in.
Pamela Gay: We try and take care of each other. I remember being at a meeting with a bunch of other women who work in the NASA community and science communications and education. And at one point I was like, I really hope I don’t have to work with one of the male people who was at the meeting because this was somebody who, when he was drunk, grabbed my boob at one point, as you do at a conference at a bar. And at another –
Fraser Cain: You say that so flippantly right? But it’s, anyway.
Pamela Gay: It, that’s not serious. I have to be flippant. I have to respect that my story is so minor compared to some of the women out there. And it became a, oh, yeah that happened to me. And it was every woman in the room had experienced something from this guy who’s high up in our field and controls funding. And we all know and you just, you just learn to take it on the cuff, and hope that it’s not the worse than that.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. So, I’d like to switch a little bit to sort of some of your advice and sort of give a sense of you know like, if you’re an undergrad, if you’re going into astronomy or one of the other sciences, and you know there are these secret networks of women who, who sort of warned people coming into these fields isn’t there?
Pamela Gay: Yes. In in fact when I applied for graduate school I had two different job offers to be a research assistantship for two different professors. And I had multiple women pull me aside and say, do not work for Professor A. Professor A has since been actually been removed from the field of astronomy very quietly. And kudos to the University of Texas for finally getting rid of him. And I will gladly work at Texas again because they did that. But they hadn’t got rid of him yet when I got to Texas and I had a administrative assistant and multiple research scientists pull me aside and say, don’t even be in an elevator with him if you can avoid it, and I have to admit to hitting the Door Close button on this man because it was easier. So yeah, we try to protect each other but the problem is there’s always going to be mistakes made.
I did work for a researcher at one point where a friendly senior scientist had said, look, he’s a bit of a misogynist, you might have problems. And I was young and I was stupid and I was like no, I can get along with anyone. I was an idealistic. I figured if you work hard enough, if you are good enough, if you can do your job, your gender does not matter, that’s what I thought, that’s what I wanted to believe. But it’s not true. And so the whisper network tried to keep me safe and my youth and my idealism, yeah I walked right into that. It’s like the same; Hitler never played risk as a child. Well I was a bit Pollyanna and decided that invading Asia in the winter was a fine idea.
Fraser Cain: Right. Now these are, you said the word misogyny and I think that you know we’ve got this sort of like a really direct abuse, the discrimination, the harassment things like that. But there’s this lower grade misogyny that also runs through these, the science field as well. The one that is, that is in putting men in positions of women. The one that is setting salary levels differently. The one that is, that is kind of enforcing the ratios that we see. So can you talk a little bit about that?
Pamela Gay: So when selecting a job a woman often has to make the decision would I rather work someplace where I am objectified, seen as a sexual object and have to deal with sexual harassment? Do I want to select a workplace where I will face gender discrimination? Where there’s nothing blatant, but clearly the women just can’t make it? Or do I want to choose a place where in fact it goes so far as women are dealing with the outright, well, women can’t succeed in this field, and hearing men talk about, oh, she’s married she must not be serious. Well they say, oh, that male colleague. He got married. Now there’s someone to free him up to do research.
Fraser Cain: And so how much of that is the case going across the field?
Pamela Gay: I know of three senior women who have said, oh, I never dealt with anything like that. Three.
Fraser Cain: Three, total. Right. So you know three senior women who have reached the top of their field and never experienced either the harassment, discrimination, or just general misogyny for their career?
Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: Wow. Yeah. I mean it’s the opposite right? Like can you find, how many men can you find who have experienced that, right? You’d have a hard time putting together some names.
Pamela Gay: Well, and one of the hardest parts about this is while women can talk to one another hidden in secrecy knowing that we’re breaking the confidentiality rules, but needing to talk so that we don’t fall apart. The thing is, in order to talk to one another we do have to break confidentiality rules. When you file a complaint in most academic organizations you have to say your complaint will be kept confidential. You’ll not tell anyone you complained and the university will not tell anyone you complained. And the results of the complaint will also be kept secret. This means if you try and get institutional help, every single time you say to another woman,
you need to be careful I had some problems with that guy, you’re breaking the rules.
Fraser Cain: Right. So I’d like to share in the last ten minutes of this, of this episode to advice and strategies for what women can do and then I’d love to hear your recommendations of what we as men and as allies to this problem, can help with as well. So let’s start with what the women can do. So if you’re going into a science field what sort of actions should you take that maybe your male colleagues wouldn’t even be something that they would have to do?
Pamela Gay: One thing I think we’ve all made the mistake of at some point or another is, you delete emails, you delete correspondence. It’s just because seeing hateful things hurts. Keep everything. Use something like Google Inbox where you can just swipe it away so you never have to see it again, but it’s still stored there forever. This way if you ever do need the evidence you have it. This is what really helped those graduate students at Caltech, is that they had the chat histories from inappropriate conversations. Protect yourself through documentation. It sucks. You shouldn’t have to go through your email and occasionally see that filename that is their name where you’ve kept that documentation. But it’s really the only way to protect yourself. And find that senior woman or senior man who is an advocate, who can be your mentor, who can plug you into those whisper networks, and who can be there when you just don’t know how to deal with something because your in completely over your head. Over my career, women I’ve turned to have included Lynn Cominsky at Sonoma State. She’s on the [inaudible][25:08] Space Telescope Science Institute, Angela Speck, who’s at the University of Missouri. At various times I’ve
gone to each of them and said, I just don’t know how to deal with this. And they’ve helped me. Find those people who are just a little bit or a lot ahead of you and who care and let them help you. Asking for help’s hard but it’s how we survived.
Fraser Cain: And I think we’re not at the place yet where the resources where the, the infrastructure is there to just to really protect people who are having these problems. We’re getting closer and you can definitely see with all of the allegations that have come out and all the action that is being taken this year. That we’re definitely getting closer but it’s a safer space than it was. And you know that advice to just like, tough it too, when people are staring at your boobs, just tough it out –
Pamela Gay: Now.
Fraser Cain: Where you know where do you kind of sit on that spectrum? Is there genuine landmines right now or can you find your way to support and navigate it and still have your career and also have these people taken care?
Pamela Gay: I think I’ll know more about if there’s career-killing landmines in a few weeks.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, well there you, yeah.
Pamela Gay: The issue you run into is when you come forward and you say look I’m having a problem. The person you’re having a problem with can make up whatever the hell they want, and it’s your word against theirs. And in a lot of cases people don’t want to believe and it’s unfortunately easier to believe that you’re lying than to believe that someone they know and maybe respect is capable of abuse. The problem the Catholic Church had that allowed them to swap priests and bishops between different churches, well the pedophilia went on and on. It’s not that different in academia where our profs get shuffled from institution to institution and the abuse goes on. The military saw it. They got better. We can do better, but we’re at that point that the military was at five or so years ago where it was starting to be talked about, that women were being abused, they were being raped, they were being harassed. We’re at that point in astronomy now and I can only hope that we find our own way to improve things. But the landmines are unlabeled and they’re still being found.
Fraser Cain: And so what can we do then you know as, I think we start with the men who are who are in the institutions, the ones who are the allies, the ones who are the, who wanna help this problem go away but they’re not sure where to, where to start. What would you recommend that they do?
Pamela Gay: The most powerful thing they can do at a certain level is be the person whose there going, not cool dude, when someone makes a sexist or gendered or racist or any of the other issues-based comment. We’re talking about the issues women face today. It’s easy to talk about that because we at least have roughly 10 percent women at the highest levels in astronomy. But there’s almost no people of color and what they face is worse in many instances. There are issues with, of against, people of religion. There are issues against people who don’t have cisnormative hetero relationships. When you see inappropriate conduct, don’t be the
person who just pretends to laugh because it’s easier to fit in. Be the person who says, not cool, what you’re saying hurts. Don’t force the women to be the one saying it. When you see policies that as a dad you know, wow, that’s gonna make it hard for people with kids say something. When you see situations that are going to put women into awkward and potentially unsafe environments, pull them aside and say, are you okay with this? Can I help? Do we need to change something? Be the person who works to protect, protect the ability of a woman to focus on science instead of focusing on safety. I hate that I have to quite literally worry
about, is there a wall behind my butt occasionally, and cross my arms when I’m at the bar and someone might be able to sidle up and grab something I don’t want them to grab. Be the person, John Huchra, who sadly passed away and a fabulous person in astronomy. He was that guy you need to be. There was one night at a AAS meeting, I’ve had a drunk graduate student who really wanted to get into new media and was a creeper stalker scary dude. Well drunk, lunge at me. Someone else, a male, large colleague got in between and basically said, hey, you wanna dance in a way that’s scared off the grad student. But I was creeped out. He tried to grab me. And I went and hid at the bar and John Huchra was like, hey, what’s up? He didn’t say it that way; he’s only older and friendly but not like that. And I basically explained that I was hiding from a creeper. And he was like, you know I haven’t always been an astronomer I used to be a Teamster. Do you want me to go do something? And that was sort of like, wow thank you. You’re awesome. And then he was like look I know this guys’ department chair. Give him a call, he’ll help. Be the person who gives the woman the, this person is safe to talk to and he will help you, advice.
Fraser Cain: And what kinds of changes at a systematic level do you think would make sense to sort of help out?
Pamela Gay: Most important thing that I think could happen is when someone is found to be guilty of sexual harassment, of creating a discriminatory work environment or of retaliatory behavior, just like we forced sex crimes people to register, let’s put those abusive public. Let’s make our academic community aware of who are the people in our field who have done things. So that maybe they don’t so easily rise to power. When, one of the things that I wrote about in my blog post is this problem that you here Professor A he was a this one campus and while he was there some things happened. He left. It’s all kind of confusing. There’s suspicions.
And you worry. And when he does something to you its like, well, nothing happened that the prior university, can I, can I talk? When you hear, hey, he was at University 2 and all of these horrible things happened but no one did anything, you hold your tongue until you’re forced to scream because you can’t be silent about your abuse any longer. When it’s University No. 3 and you find out that he’s been reminding his victims, you’re under a confidentiality agreement. If you say anything, I’ll sue. You just don’t even speak, you just die inside. You kill that part of you that has to die that you might somehow figure out how to stay in this field that you spent your entire life struggling to be a success in.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Yeah it’s like take this stuff seriously and take the action. Don’t try to hide it under the rug right? That’s, and that’s what happened with the Catholic scandal and that’s what happens with the harassers. They get moved, they get, it gets covered up as opposed to getting brought into the light of day. And people getting properly disciplined at the right time.
Pamela Gay: And everyone talks about how we can’t harm his career, he’s a good researcher. But one abuser can harm dozens of women, who are no longer making intellectual contributions to our field or who are crippled in their ability to make contributions to our field. Because our field values one man so much higher than all of those women, all of those women learn they don’t matter. If we could just say, if we adequately punish this man and protect the victims and allow them the ability to have space, safe spaces where they don’t have to fear, how much more will we discover about our universe, because all of those women realize I am valued. My
contribution does matter, and my safety and my ability to succeed matters more than his ability to succeed and potentially keep victimizing people.
Fraser Cain: Wow. Well thank you, Pamela. We ran a little long but it was really great and I really appreciate you talking about this. I know it was a really difficult topic and I really hope that if we can help any of the, any women in science, going into science, undergrads furthering their career, aware of issues that are going on. And then all of the men and allies who say that they want to decrease the discrimination and to catch it and call it for what it is when they see it and to step forward. And to institutions that really need to take this stuff seriously and make the universities and research organizations a safe place for women to do great work, would be really great. Well thank you very much Pamela.
Pamela Gay: Thank you.
Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast. A nonprofit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet us at Astronomy Cast. Like us on Facebook or circle us on Google +. We record our show live on Google + every Monday at 12:00 PM Pacific, 3:00 PM Eastern or 2000 Greenwich Mean Time. If you miss the live event you can always catch up over @CosmoQuest.org. If you enjoy Astronomy Cast why not give us a donation? It helps us pay for bandwidth, transcripts and show notes. Just click the donate link on the website. All donations are tax deductible for US residents. You can support the show for free too. Write a review or recommend us to your friends. Every little bit helps. Click Support The Show on our website and see some suggestions. To subscribe to this show, point your pod-catching software @astronomy?cast.com/podcast.XML. Or subscribe directly from iTunes. Our music is provided by Travis Earl and the show is edited by Preston Gibson.