Women in Space Physics

Here in America, the last two weeks have seen several stories of losses and victories over sexism in society. On the dark side, there was the campus rape, with the Stanford student who does not deserve to be named, the relatively light sentence issued by the judge in the case, and the student’s father minimizing the heinous act as “20 minutes of action.” There were, however, the courageous people that stood up to this sexism, including the victim herself and her powerful courtroom speech, the two grad students that caught him in the act, and the millions on social media standing up for the victim.

There was also Hillary Clinton, clinching the delegates needed to be the first female (presumptive) nominee of a major political party. Regardless of what you think of her, this is a huge step for the United States. The presumptive nominee from the other major party, however, scoffs at her electoral success with sexist drivel, most notably saying that Clinton is playing the woman card. Yeah, this:


            Why I am writing about this on my JGR Space Physics EiC blog? Because sexism still exists in our field. As a white man in a position of authority in space physics, I feel compelled to bring this up.  I’ve written about this before here, one on Women in Science and several on Gendered Wording in correspondence, but it is time to write another post on it, not only for the stories above but for this reason…

My exceptionally intelligent grad student, Lois Sarno-Smith, is leaving academia. Her “Reason #3” deeply concerns me: blatant sexism in our field. She has noticed it among us. I have noticed it among us. You, perhaps, also, have noticed it among us.

It manifests itself in several ways. Perhaps most commonly, sexism insidiously creeps into our everyday conversations. Little things we say, idioms of our regular lives, carry connotations that promote sexism. Have you ever heard someone say “man up” or “that was ballsy” or “you throw like a girl”? Phrases like this implicitly assume men are superior to women; they should be purged from usage. We need to be more careful in how we speak because words matter, not only in the workplace but also in every aspect of our lives.

Because there are so many men in space physics, there can be a “bro culture” where it is considered acceptable to tease, taunt, swear, and make sexual innuendos. These interactions are not welcoming to a diverse assembly and they make others beyond the “in group” feel uncomfortable. Bro culture is perhaps most common among a late-night drinking crowd, but it can occur anywhere, including during “regular work meetings.” I have seen an otherwise normal research conversation suddenly veer into bro culture language. What I didn’t pay enough attention to was that others were cringing at the inappropriate tangent. We need to do better at keeping our professional lives at a professional level.

We still carry sexism in discussing how people look or dress. Actually, I am amazed we even talk about how people dress or look in the workplace. “Beauty” should only be used towards a sophisticated piece of hardware, an elegant section of code, or a scientifically significant figure, not the figure of the person who created the device, code, or plot. We need to catch ourselves before making comments about someone’s appearance and ask ourselves if the comment is really appropriate for the office. Usually, it isn’t.

Another way is the stereotype that women are bad at math, which creates a “stereotype threat“. If not addressed and dispelled, the pressure to overcome the stereotype can hurt performance on assessments of that skill. It is a very real and documented issue, but there are steps that can be taken to reduce this effect.

There are others, but I will mention just one more: inappropriate advances. While office romances occur in nearly every setting, senior men should not be hitting on junior women. It is an abuse of power and, unless it is one of the very rare instances of consensual and mutual attraction, it creates a hostile work environment for the woman. Every workplace has a power hierarchy, and those above others in this structure have the extra responsibility to ensure that the workplace is safe rather than threatening and uncomfortable. I don’t understand the desire to spoil a good working relationship with the weirdness of romance and the potential of a breakup. Many times, such relationships work out just fine, but the initial advance is often inappropriate.

A special note for space physics: your “workplace,” a word I have used repeatedly above, extends well beyond the physical walls of the building that houses your desk. We collaborate with people at other institutions and, at conferences, regularly discuss our findings with people from across the world. Our “workplace” is the entire space physics research community, or at least that part with which we regularly interact.

I am guilty of sexism in my interactions with space physicists. I hope that my transgressions are behind me now, though, as I am more aware of the problem and am now actively working to address it. When you see sexism, even in its seemingly benign forms, call it out. Like the Stanford rape case, it should not fall on the victim to notice that something is wrong. Those witnessing the words or deeds should also feel empowered to address the perpetrator. Furthermore, we should be comfortable discussing this issue. There is a stigma that those who are harassed should just “toughen up” and “deal with it.” No. Sexism hurts, and our field will be better off if we openly address it and decrease it. Raising awareness of the problem and allowing victims to safely tell their stories is a necessary step towards identifying and correcting the root causes of the problem.

As two other women in my research group are leaving soon to start Assistant Professor jobs at other universities, I am hopeful that we can overcome sexism in space physics. I would like to think that space physics is more gender-neutral and minority-welcoming than in the past, but, clearly, we still have a long way to go. Please be part of the solution.

21 thoughts on “Women in Space Physics

  1. Mike – thank you for speaking up and writing this article. I’ve been very fortunate to work with really supportive colleagues. But I recognize not everyone is so lucky. I wish we could use our professional organizations – e.g. AGU – to run training and discussion webinars to help with careers. Fran

  2. Great piece Mike, thank you for using your position and platform to raise awareness on such an important topic.

  3. Hear, hear, Mike. It’s not overt forms of discrimination that are the problem in our “enlightened” 21st century society, rather the more insidious aspects that you highlight. Very well said.

  4. Thanks for this post. This is a problem that needs to be fixed and the onus is on Space Science to fix it.

    One fix is for more women to push their way into the field. Every woman who does this deserves our thanks. And the rest of us probably deserve her derision.

    At the moment, it seem that women are doing most of the work to fix Space Science. This should not be an acceptable situation. It is the job of the Space Science community to fix Space Science. Giving this job to the least powerful among us is what we do when we don’t want to actually change anything.

    Another fix is to actually value diversity. Valuing diversity is a set of positive actions that are different from being
    gender neutral (“My policy is gender neutral” and “I am not a crook” are practically the same statement). Like “love”, “value diversity” is a verb. It doesn’t mean anything unless you do something.

    Things we can do to value diversity:

    – Ask the quiet people in the meeting to voice their opinions. We want to hear from everyone.

    – Err on the side of giving too much credit to others. We need to value all contributions. Call people out when they fail to do this.

    – If you are the head of a research group, don’t shout down people that contradict your pet “big science idea.” No one should be punished for being a scientist.

    – If you are on a panel making funding decisions, do an “old boy network” check on the results. We all have friends with stature. Bias in favor of those friends is natural, but not helpful.

    I wish I had better ideas, but I don’t. Perhaps the AGU should seek outside help.

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