We are all made of stars: report on women in astronomy workshop

I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s Women in Astronomy workshop (WiA2014) held in Canberra at the ANU and themed ‘We are all made of stars’. Professor Brian Schmidt, Nobel prize winner, and one of Australia’s most distinguished astronomers, set the scene with the aim of the conference to ‘ensure astronomy is a vibrant field in Australia’ which he described as engaging a diverse range of the population in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). Senator Michaela Cash, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, was enthused about astronomy following a Queen concert where guitarist Brian May presented astronomy, as well as ‘We will Rock You’. Cash launched the conference committing to an educational focus on STEM subjects. There were 100 of the leading male and female astronomers working in Australia at the workshop. Concern about the declining percentage of students, and specifically girls, who take ‘hard science’ subjects at school is why this conference/workshop is particularly relevant. The full program is available online. Many of the presentations were inspiring, in this blog I have recounted just a few.

The Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA) is pro-active in pursuing diversity and gender equality in astronomy and in 2011 the Women in Astronomy Chapter instigated what has now become an annual workshop to examine the root cause of the problem and devise ways of dealing with it. Professor of Astrophysics at Swinburne University, Sarah Maddison, demonstrated current statistics which show that in Australia 74% of ASA members (predominantly astronomers) are men. The most senior levels of astronomy in Australia are dominated by males. Some actions have already been instigated to provide more role models to inspire young women to not only begin, but to pursue physics and astronomy. At the conference Dr Renu Sharma of announced one of these actions, the ICRAAR Visiting fellowship for Senior Women in Astronomy, which has been awarded to astrophysicist Dr Andreea Font.

Dr. Andreea Font
Dr. Andreea Font, recently awarded the ICRAR Visiting Fellowship for senior women in astronomy.

Many of Australia’s leading astronomers, male and female, were at this conference and they are all in agreement that change is required to make astronomy more gender inclusive. They see 74% of the solutions as coming from men. Breaking down the culture of difference was the essence of the moving and very pertinent inspirational personal story presented by Dr. Minh Huynh. Huynh described how Australia’s demographics had changed over the past century, and  the recent greatest increase in immigrants is from India and China. Huynh described the micro-inequities she had experienced since arriving in Australia in 1978 at the age of 8 with her parents as a refugee after travelling by boat from Vietnam to Indonesia. Growing up in Western Australia, Huynh completed her doctorate and then worked in the US at Caltech’s Planck Observatory and is now the Deputy International Square Kilometre Array Project Scientist at UWA. Huynh quoted American children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see” and her presentation encouraged discussion about representation of women and different cultures, at all levels and in many forms.

Dr. Minh Huyh
Dr. Minh Huyh, ICRAR, University of Western Australia.

Later Malcolm Fiahlo, Equity and Diversity Officer for UWA, described race bias as the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ and that in Australia accent and skin colour were key determinates which create cultural distance, which we must recognise and combat. His ‘Citizens of the Globe’ construct has had impact on UWA culture at all levels of the organization. He advocated ‘Courageous Conversations’ to create cultural competence citing Chinese proverb: A fish is the last one to know what water is. You can download his powerpoint.

Dr Cordelia Fine  described how neurosexism (the determined effort to find evidence for undermining the intellectual powers and abilities of women) has influenced what we perceive women are good at and why.  Fine quoted George Romanes, who in 1887 submitted a paper about the differences between male and female brains.  She critiqued and disproved his arguments, and very recent studies since, as fundamentally flawed. The only achievements of these unscientific studies, according to Fine, were to further encourage stereotyping. Fine’s position was that so far there are remarkably few proven differences between the male and female brain and that environmental forces such as the influence of role models, and stereotyping, have far greater impact.

The issues discussed extended beyond the male female divide and race discrimination to include LGBTIE.  An inspirational story was presented by Dr. Lisa Harvey-Smith, Project Scientist for the SKA pathfinder telescope and research astronomer at CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science Division in Sydney. Harvey-Smith’s presentation titled ‘Prop open that closet door’, chartered her childhood where she felt ‘one of the pack’ through to teenage years and adulthood, when prejudices took many forms, were hurtful and isolated her.  She described many ‘horrible’ comments made by adults and the impact of news-media, mainly tabloid, language. Jokes and other popular culture forms had proliferated stereotypes and prejudices.  One of the points Harvey-Smith highlighted was the importance of allies, people who did not tolerate homophobic behaviour, and how important it was to have someone to look up to, or follow and who you can relate to. Role models emerged as very important.

Photo: Philip Gostelow.
Dr. Lisa Harvey-Smith at CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

There were many workshops on the second day to explore how we can think differently to encompass differences as the norm and encourage flexibility.  Dr. Natalie McDonagh, presented activities, which were focused on mindfulness and cultural change, and really opened up discussion about how to instigate change through creating new narratives.   Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner,  told compelling and atrocious stories of discrimination. Her message was that change must come from the top.  The close of the proceedings by Professor Matthew Colless, Director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at ANU, encouraged the participants to come up with real solutions which could be implemented or at least further explored.  Ideas included greater flexibility in terms of the number of papers expected per year during child-rearing periods and targets for employers to get rewards or penalties.

One of the ideas now realised from a previous WiA workshop is the Pleiades Awards for organisations which take steps to further the participation of women and women’s career advancement in organisations. Dr Harvey-Smith launched this program at the close of the WiA2014 workshop.

Vanessa Moss
PhD candidate and Sydney Observatory Guide Vanessa Moss gives ‘thumbs up’ to the 2014 WiA conference.




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