Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stereotype Threat and the Math Gender Gap

Negative stereotypes about women’s and girls’ abilities in STEM persist despite considerable gains in the last few decades. Stereotype threat is related to the anxiety women face in a situation where they have the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about women as a group. Two common stereotypes are prevalent in society and form the foundation for the threat condition: (1) girls are not as good as boys in STEM; and (2) scientific work is better suited to men than to women. As early as elementary school, kids are aware of these stereotypes and can express stereotypical beliefs about which STEM courses are suitable for girls and boys (Farenga & Joyce 1999; Ambady et al. 2001).
Girls and young women are aware of, and negatively affected by, the stereotypical image of a scientist as a man. Although largely unspoken, negative stereotypes about women and girls in STEM are very much alive (Buck et al. 2008). A large body of experimental research has found that negative stereotypes affect women’s and girls’ performance and aspirations in STEM. Even girls who strongly identify with math - who think that they are good at math and being good in math is important to them - are susceptible to the effects (Nguyen & Ryan 2008).
Stereotype threat may help explain this discrepancy: girls get higher grades in STEM classes but lower scores on high-stakes tests like the math SAT and AP calculus exam. Stereotype threat may also help explain why fewer girls express interest in careers in mathematically demanding fields. Girls may be trying to reduce the likelihood that they will be judged through the lens of negative stereotypes by avoiding these fields all together.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Respect Isn't Enough

My colleague John Johnson recently recommended the book Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race and asked that I read it so that we could have a more informed discussion as we work together over the coming years. I confessed to him at that time that I hadn't read a book in a long time (and I am now confessing the same to you, dear Reader), but that I would try. Well, I am happy to report that I am now halfway through. The last chapter I read described different frameworks in which to understand discussions of race and privilege, and I was particularly struck by the discussion of one such framework, namely that of Multiculturalism.

In the book's definition of Multiculturalism, a multiculturalist would express understanding for different groups, celebrate an appreciation of these differences, seek to ensure diversity in their community, and advocate respect for individuals in these different groups.

Perhaps many of you might be thinking: That certainly sounds pretty good! Respect, understanding, and diversity are all very progressive words. I might even go further and argue that many members of our astronomy community strive to achieve these goals.

So, what's missing from this picture?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Make the Breast Pump Not Suck

 Since our first encounters with the breast pump, we wondered how women had been duped into settling for such bad design. The pump is a symbol of the modern work-life conundrum. In theory, women have the freedom to honor the wisdom that “breast is best,” while still pursuing their own careers. And yet, to do so, they’re forced to attach themselves, multiple times a day, to a loud, sometimes painful machine that makes one feel anything but powerful. - Courtney Martin, Times Motherlode Blog

Monday, October 20, 2014

Confronting Race and Racism to Move Away From One-Dimensional Diversity

When I joined the CSWA last year, I had dinner in Cambridge with a number of fellow CSWA members who were in the area at the time. At one point we went around the table giving our reasons for serving on the committee. I stated that my motivation was the help people of color, particularly women of color. I found the success of the CSWA and the advances of (white) women in astronomy extremely inspiring and I wanted to learn better how they had moved from being minorities to having a more equal representation in astronomy.

The CSWA Chair recently told me that if I wanted to take on the subject of race and the issues facing women of color, that rather than expecting the committee's full support for this "specialized" issue, I should go ahead and lead the way. With this post, and my previous post, I endeavor to bring the issues facing of women of color in our community into better focus, with the hope that the rest of the committee might see this as a problem worth addressing. After all, if white women made up < 5% of the astronomy community, I think there would be widespread calls for action. To focus on a specific population, Black women make up about 1% of the astro community, and 0% of faculty hires over the past 10 years. The situation for Latina and Native women isn't much better (See Donna Nelson's statistics for top-40 astro depts as of 2007). In fact, the situation is even dire for Asian American women, broadly speaking.

On my personal blog I have given understanding of racism in America, and how I teach the concept to my children. The reading list posted therein informs much of what follows, so if you’d like references please see the end of that article. See also my introduction on the subject of race in (US) astronomy. For people wishing to comment on this, please do me, yourself and the community a favor and first read this excellent reader’s guide on discussing racism. You’ll be surprised how often the first thing that comes to your mind has been previously voiced and repeated ad nauseam elsewhere in similar forums, if not on the floor of the US Senate back in 1964 during debates over the Civil Rights Act. When in doubt, please frame your comment as a question, and remember that as an educated individual you are not entitled to your opinion.

The 1927 AAS meeting. In one key respect it is the same now as it was then.
The first concept I'll address is that of race. This subject is covered extensively in the easy-to-read textbook Seeing White (see my Twitter challenges #BloggingWhite and #TweetingWhite), as well as in numerous other books, research papers, blog posts, etc. Thus, I cannot do proper justice in the space here, but I can highlight some important aspects of race that should pique your interest as a scientists and citizen:
  1. Race has little to no biological basis. Many lines of genetic research have shown that when humans are divided into various "classical" racial categories (a process that is, itself, fraught with difficulty and ambiguity), that 85% of genetic variation occurs within racial groups, while < 7% of the variability is across racial divisions. At a genetic level, we are an order of magnitude more human than we are any specific race.
  2. While race is not a biological reality, it is very much real because we humans believe in race and act according to racial divisions. This started with the US Census, which needed to identify Black slaves in the South so they could be counted as 3/5 of a human each for congressional representation. It continued as a justification for slavery (slaves are happier when taken care of by white owners!) with the oppressive Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, as well as federal appropriation of funds, employment and military service. It also formed the primary basis of the problematic eugenics movement, and eugenics researchers produced most of the junk "science" that informs even modern conceptions of race. Race divisions continue today in the wealth gap, imprisonment disparities, school segregation, etc.
The key takeaway is: race, while not a biological reality, is a social reality with numerous and far-reaching consequences for how we live and interact in American society. Race is real, but only because we have created it, defined it, nurtured it and most importantly: used it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Resource Guide for Websites for Women in STEM (with an emphasis on Astronomy)

As someone who has spoken up for women within our field, people tend to come to me for advice from time to time.  One question that I have repeatedly received is “do you know of one great STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) resource for women in our field or young women looking to enter this profession?”  And every time I say "no, I know of way more than one, " then Google every website I can think of that I have found useful previously.  The person usually leaves with their head swimming full of websites, and likely forgets most of what I said within minutes (but now knows I have a strange relationship with my iPhone and Google).  So I’m going to use my blog time this month to include the many sites that I have found useful, add some others that have been suggested to me along the way, and hopefully readers will take the opportunity to chime in on the comments section of this blog to add their own useful sites.  I’ll focus on websites targeting issues for women already in the STEM field, but will highlight one site that points out several resources for younger women/girls looking to enter in to the field. So the next time someone asks this question, this blog can be easily pointed to as a starting point.