Thursday, February 11, 2016

It Gets Better

[Update (August 15): This paper by Rachel Ivie, Susan White and Raymond Chu provides some excellent context. From the conclusion: "Our results showed that the process of understanding attrition from astronomy and astrophysics must include multiple factors and cannot be reduced to a simple model in which respondents’ sex alone is the causal factor. The respondents’ sex had no direct effect on working outside the field." There were important indirect effects, it should be noted, which were statistically significant. I'm not entirely sure, however, that the effects as such are big enough to warrant concern. For example, the respondents seemed generally very happy with their advisors, even if women rated them significantly (again, statistically) lower on average. The most striking result, to my mind, was that women don't seem more likely even to think about leaving astronomy than men. This makes the likelihood of finding a strong effect from gender-based harassment very low. Things really do seem to be getting better. Sexual harassment is, of course, wrong. (Period.) But it does not seem to be the general problem some are making it out to be, at least not in astronomy.]

When Christina Richey presented the results of her workplace climate survey at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January, she got a lot of favorable press coverage. As far as I can tell, until @ticobas, myself and few others began to study it, no one—no astronomer, no sociologist, no journalist—had looked at her results critically since they were first presented at the DPS meeting in November. (It should be noted that, when she was told she was being given the Masursky Award, she asked to be allowed to present these findings instead of holding the customary short acceptance speech.) Sarah Scoles' coverage of the AAS presentation for the Atlantic is representative:

The committee that Richey chairs did a survey, whose results will be published this spring, to investigate the extent of harassment in astronomy and the extent of the harm done. Of 426 participants (about six percent of the total society membership), 285 of whom identified as female, 82 percent had heard sexist remarks from peers in a workplace environment during the past five years, and 44 percent had heard such remarks from a supervisor. Fifty-seven percent said that they had been verbally harassed because of their gender, while nine percent said they had been physically harassed. “This is an alarming trend,” said Richey. “This is not an issue we’re seeing with one or two people.”

It's important to keep in mind that the survey was not longitudinal and therefore didn't actually track a "trend". It's much more accurate to say, as Miriam Kramer did at Mashable, that the "survey paints a troubling picture," i.e., it offers a single still frame of what is an evolving situation. Now, we already know that the picture as reported by Scoles isn't quite accurate—it's 32% not 57% that reported being verbally harassed—but the more important question is precisely what the trend we're witnessing is.

First, any measure of gender-based harassment must be understood against the backdrop of ever increasing numbers of women entering the sciences. Astronomy is no exception, with AAS membership going from 8% representation in the early 1970s to what must be approaching 20% today. If astronomy was once a particularly hostile environment for women to work in, it thankfully didn't discourage women from signing up entirely, and that positive trend seems to be continuing.

This has an important consequence for understanding any possible increase in the incidence of gender-based harassment. Obviously, in a field with few women, there will be limited opportunities for gender-based harassment. There simply aren't very many people of the opposite sex for men to harass. As the amount of women increases, therefore, so too does the probability that harassment will be experienced. But while the amount of harassment cases (in absolute terms) may well increase, the rate of harassment [among women] might nonetheless steadily decrease. After all, the amount of possible victims is increasing, while the proportion of harassers is getting smaller. (This assumes what I think is the consensus view: that men are more likely than women to engage in gender-based harassment.)

I don't just bring this up because I see the world through rosier glasses than Christina Richey and Kathryn Clancy. I'm genuinely worried about the message that they are sending to young aspiring female astronomers. They are, in effect, warning them away from the field. But they are not asking the important question: will pursuing a career in astronomy increase or decrease their overall chances of experiencing sexual harassment?

There are two ways to look at this. The first is to compare astronomy to other professions. If a young, smart woman is trying to decide between using her formidable mathematical intelligence in astronomy, physics, philosophy or even, say, finance, and she wants to factor the risk of sexual harassment into her decision, what does she need to know? Not merely that 82% sometimes hear sexist remarks from their peers (indeed, many only rarely, and only 6% hear them often). She wants to know how this compares to the linguistic tone in her alternative disciplines, right? And this is not something Richey is able to tell her anything about.

The second way to look at it is to compare the undergraduate's current chances of being sexually harassed with her future chances of it, should she choose a career in astronomy. This possibility occurred to me when I noticed that some of the respondents in Richey's survey were, indeed, students. (They turn up explicitly in the slide about those who felt sufficiently unsafe to skip events like conferences or, in the case of students, presumably classes.)

Now, when I was 20 I was certainly more likely to make sexist remarks in public. I'd even say I was more "sexist", i.e., much more committed to the idea that "girls are different". I was also much more likely to proposition my "peers", since romance among students is (or at least was) considered a normal thing to pursue. Many of my sexual advances (actually, most of them), I can tell you, were demonstrably "unwelcome". Like most of my peers, I was turned down regularly. It was normal. No doubt some of these romances, when unrequited, border on harassment, which is a sad but true fact about how love works. It's desperate stuff some times. Fortunately, growing up is all about learning how to deal with it. We get better at it. We come to understand our boundaries and those of others.

A few years ago, Dan Savage rightly won many accolades for coming up with the "It Gets Better" campaign, which got gay and lesbian celebrities to explain to young people that an LGBT lifestyle gets easier as you get older. High school can be an especially cruel environment to be different in, but that's mainly because young people are, well, less mature than middle-aged adults.

As the individual harassment cases show, not everyone grows up, but, for undergraduate astronomy students, it's important to realize that almost all one's peers still have a lot of growing up to do by definition. They're young. I don't think the "troubling picture" that Richey is painting of the astronomy community actually indicates an "alarming trend". What the current publicity actually indicates is that women are increasingly gaining the power and stature they need to talk about and do something about the harassment that remains. (This is the one thing that Ethan Siegel gets right. This story isn't [and shouldn't be] about how bad things are in astronomy.)

Given the alternatives, and the natural increase in the maturity and civility of your peers, there's probably no safer environment in which to pursue your interest in the cosmos than the academy. And it's getting safer every day. The message to young women who are interested in astronomy, however harassed they may feel at the moment (in part because of the #astroSH campaign itself, I would argue), should be, simply: It gets better!

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