Report from the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee (DIC)

From/de Brenda Matthews
(Cassiopeia – Summer/été 2016)

The program of the 2016 CASCA annual meeting in Winnipeg included the society’s first session on Diversity & Inclusivity. The very well-attended session was hosted by the recently formed Diversity and Inclusivity Committee (DIC).

The committee is charged with the following:

  • Taking a critical look at CASCA’s ethics statement and making suggestions.
  • Preparing a section on the CASCA web page summarizing best practices for hiring and for inclusivity in the workplace.
  • Moderating an open discussion session on inclusivity at the CASCA Annual General Meeting.
  • Compiling national statistics on women and minorities in Astrophysics and making these publicly available on the CASCA website.
  • Acting as points of contact for people in the community who feel harassed or need advice on issues related to harassment.
  • Ensuring that CASCA meetings are welcoming for all members.

The ultimate goal of improved awareness of diversity and inclusivity is to foster a respectful workplace. To that end, the committee has adopted the following mission statement:

“The Diversity and Inclusivity Committee will undertake initiatives that will encourage members of CASCA (and their organizations) to foster diversity among participants in astronomical research. Our goal is for CASCA to serve as an example of inclusiveness to the broader scientific community.”

and provided a Code of Conduct for CASCA meetings that was adopted for the in Winnipeg meeting. The DIC welcomes comments on the Code of Conduct and suggestions for its improvement and can be contacted at casca-diversity@lists.casca.ca.

Why Should we Care about Diversity?

If we exclude minorities, we exclude the bright minds that could make a significant contribution to the field. Research suggests that in general, diversity is an important tool – many of the major discoveries in science (or even the advancement of society in general) often came from the intersection of unexpected roads, where people from different backgrounds offered new ideas. In other words, diversity stimulates new ideas.

Coming to Grips with Unconscious Bias

There have been many studies both inside and outside academia that establish that “implicit” or “unconscious” bias is real and at play in hiring, job performance evaluation and other aspects of advancement. We discussed several of these in our presentation (which will be made available to the community). In particular, we highlighted the findings of Neill Reid (2014), who has analyzed the results of 11 cycles of HST time allocations and has found that in every cycle, proposals with female PIs are less successful than those with male PIs. Sometimes, the difference is a very small number of proposals, but the fact that the trend is always the same suggests the effect is real. Furthermore, it is not mitigated by a higher ratio of female to male reviewers, substantiating the fact that unconscious bias is exhibited by men and women alike. Similar studies have been done for two early cycles of ALMA allocation where a deficit of allocations to female PIs has also been identified. The ALMA/NRAO report is not yet public.

After an initial presentation about the mandate of the committee, some results of relevant surveys on diversity and why we all should embrace increasing diversity in our community, the community then engaged in an interactive discussion about how to handle certain situations that can arise relating to issues of diversity and inclusivity. The fact is that these “fictitious” scenarios in fact are representative of experiences of many of those in our community. When we are confronted with the scenarios below, it can be difficult to decide how best to intercede. Many of us may feel that it is not our business to inject ourselves into discussions or situations, challenge the behaviour of others, or know how to follow up with either party.

Each time a scenario was posed, groups took time to discuss the scenario and come up with suggestions as to how each should be handled. What follows are the questions that were asked and the suggestions that were made.

Fictitious situation #1

You are interviewing for an academic position and the person asks, “The project is at a turning point and I want to hire a committed person. Do you think you will have a child during your graduate degree/postdoc/faculty appointment? ”

Similar questions that can be asked during an interview: “Are you married? What does your partner do? Do you think you will be fully committed considering your family responsibilities?”

Make no mistake. This question is wholly inappropriate and is often expressly illegal in some jurisdictions, but commonly justified as a way of assessing someone’s “seriousness” about their career. It also has at its base an unjustified assumption that if one has or will ever procreate (or has any family commitments outside their work), they are therefore less able to do scientific research.

Several respondents recommended a “vague” approach and either saying something like “not in the immediate future” or just ignoring the personal aspect of the question and talking up one’s sense of commitment. Another suggestion was to turn the question around, for example by asking “Is this question legal?” or “Do you ask this of all your candidates?” or by asking your own questions regarding the root of the questioner’s intent. Still another suggestion was not to answer at all, but to just sit and shuffle your papers until they move onto the next question. A final suggestion was to state that you would be willing to discuss this issue once an offer has been made.

The recommendation for those questioning job applicants is to have questions reviewed by HR before interviewing anyone. The job applicant is also interviewing YOU and these questions can very negatively impact the applicant’s perception of the interviewer/department.

Did you know?

NSERC now funds parental leave grants! NSERC offers family and medical leave grants for students that have scholarships AND students who are paid with an NSERC grant (i.e., not their own!) valid for up to 6 months. Check out the following link for more information.

http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/NSERC-CRSNG/policies-politiques/Wleave-Fconges_eng.asp

Fictitious Question #2

You are at a conference poster session. You notice that someone is behaving in a way toward a colleague that you think he/she might later regret.

or

One of your friends exhibits inappropriate behaviour during the welcome reception at an international conference.

Many respondents emphasized the need to both immediately diffuse the situation for the benefit of the object of the potentially unwanted attention and also the need to deal with the person behaving in an inappropriate way. The best thing to do if you suspect someone is uneasy but aren’t sure is just to inject yourself into the situation. By adding a third party in the dynamic (and a potential witness), you may give the person on the receiving end of the attention a chance to leave or bolster their confidence. If you’ve misread the situation, there is no harm done. It was noted that afterward, you can offer yourself as a witness to both parties, noting what you saw and, depending on your degree of comfort with the “aggressor”, you can confront them about their behaviour. At the AAS, they now identify “Allies” who can be sought out if assistance is needed (for example if a junior person doesn’t feel able to insert themselves into a situation where they feel assistance is needed). At CASCA meetings, you should now report such incidents to the LOC or members of the CDI.

Fictitious Situation #3

A co-worker puts a calendar of provocative women/men on the wall of your common office. What do you do?

or

You notice that one of your colleagues has posted a cartoon of questionable taste on the door of your common office. What do you do?

Several people noted that provincial human rights guidelines are likely violated in the first case of this example, so the university (or a local departmental representative) should step in to remove such material. Several other people said that all departments should take care to inform ALL employees (including students) of the policies that are in place. In the US, harassment/sensitivity training is common for all faculty and staff; Ontario universities will likely have something similar soon. In the case of the calendar at one Canadian institution, female grad students made paper clothes and covered up the calendar until it was taken down.

Fictitious Situation #4

You have just been offered your dream job. Your colleague, who also applied for the position, says that you were probably offered the job simply because you are part of an underrepresented minority group. How do you respond?

One suggestion was to insult the person right back, or take an assertive position and state that “I got the job because I’m better”. It was also pointed out, however, it is not often possible to just throw back an insult since the person(s) involved may be junior and such language is most easily thrown around by those who are well established (for whom blowback will be minimal/non-existent). It was also suggested that you state the more reasonable version of “people get jobs for all kinds of reasons.” If this person is a friend, you could note that such statements make you uncomfortable, acknowledging that you realize they may be upset at the news that they did not get the offer.

Fictitious Situation #5

You are explaining at a social event that you are a physicist and that you study the Universe. The person next to you looks surprised and says “you don’t look like a physicist”. How do you respond?

Similar questions: “You are smart for an African-American. Aren’t all Asians good at math and physics?”

We ran out of time in the session, so this scenario is left for your own consideration.

We thank all the members of CASCA who attended the session and participated with such enthusiasm. The committee welcomes input from the community and will be undertaking a Climate Survey in the near future.

The DIC members are:
Pauline Barmby
Bryan Gaensler
Lauren Hetherington
Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo
Brenda Matthews (chair)

casca-diversity@lists.casca.ca

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