The fast track, the express elevator, and the two-body problem

Lively session looks at progress, strategies, and challenges for women scientists at NCAR

February 21, 2013 | Over 100 people filled Center Green's south auditorium on January 25 to hear the perspectives of 10 NCAR women scientists and to share their own strategies and experiences. “Where NCAR Was and Where We Are Going: A Conversation with Female Scientists,” was moderated by Maura Hagan, who takes the reins as NCAR interim director on February 25.

women's panel
Maura Hagan (NCAR Directorate) led off the session with some metrics on gender equity from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, NCAR, and NSF, among other sources. (©UCAR. Photo by Zhenya Gallon, Communications.)

The session inspired lively discussion and varying views on a range of topics of ongoing concern, from the importance of mentors to the status of women in scientific leadership and the perennial struggle for work/life balance. The event was sponsored by the Asian Circle and WORLS (Women Organizing Research and Leading Science).

In her opening remarks, Maura reviewed current data on women in science around the country and outlined some activities at NCAR and UCAR that have contributed to positive change (see sidebar). Each of the 10 panelists then shared brief statements, including general observations and personal anecdotes.

Which elevator up?

Several speakers highlighted the need to actively seek out mentors—and to have more than one. The leadership and support of a strong supervisor are critical, yet panelists noted that even the best manager may not be able to intuit your career goals. "Let people know what your aspirations are," advised Bette Otto-Bliesner (NESL/CGD). "You have to be proactive about that."

Questions on the status of the glass ceiling inspired the group to examine metaphors and definitions surrounding leadership and success, and several people focused on prevailing assumptions about how quickly one needs to climb the scientific ladder. Instead of everyone being on the "fast track," one speaker suggested the metaphor of an elevator, with varying speeds from express to local, to better recognize and accommodate shifting demands on time throughout a scientist's career.

Several participants noted that the strength or weakness of the glass ceiling varied across the organization, to which Peggy added, "Maura, you're standing there, so it must be at least cracked."

Work/life and the two-body problem

The panel and audience members offered a variety of modes for coping with the “two-body problem”: the challenge professional couples face of finding two jobs within reasonable proximity and/or juggling competing work/life demands.

women's panel
The view from here: These scientists shared their perspectives with an engaged audience at Center Green on January 25. Left to right, standing: Yuhong Fan (HAO), Marcia Politovich (RAL), Maura Hagan (NCAR Directorate, moderator), Clara Deser (NESL/CGD), Sue Ellen Haupt (RAL), Chin-Hoh Moeng (NESL/MMM). Seated: Peggy LeMone (NESL/MMM), Sarah Gibson (HAO), Linda Mearns (CISL/IMAGe), Gang Lu (HAO), Bette Otto-Bliesner (NESL/CGD). (©UCAR. Photo by Helen Moshak, NCAR Directorate.)

Some couples have taken turns every few years, alternating which career, and hence location, took precedence. Others decided which partner would pursue part-time opportunities while young children were at home. Everyone agreed that the kinds of structural support available at NCAR—from flexible work schedules to telecommuting to the ability to stop and restart the tenure clock—remains crucial. Despite those supports, as Sue Haupt (RAL) noted, variations in elevator speed aren’t always considered in proposal reviews and other evaluations. Typically, scientists are still judged in terms of total number of publications since Ph.D.

No matter how you juggle schedules, it’s important to stay visible, advised Peggy LeMone: "Go to as many meetings as before, so people don't forget about you."

Where to from here?

Gang Lu (HAO) is encouraged to see that half of this year's incoming postdocs at the High Altitude Observatory are women. She and other speakers emphasized the importance of strengthening and maintaining critical mass in the scientist ranks to keep the organization moving forward on gender equity. There was also agreement that the growing presence of women can be leveraged in important ways: for example, to strengthen peer-to-peer coaching, raise the visibility and availability of inspiring role models, and share information through organizations such as WORLS and the Earth Science Women's Network.

 The archived webcast is available on the NCAR website (use your UCAS password to watch it here).


NCAR & UCAR Diversity Committee

Earth Science Women's Network

Project Implicit (a multi-university collaboration)

Signs of progress

Since the early 1970s, at least three waves of organizing have led to progress for women at NCAR, as covered in Maura Hagan’s introduction to the panel. The first wave saw Peggy LeMone and others launching the Council for NCAR Women in response to specific workplace policies and practices. A second wave emerged in the early 1990s with leadership from Linda Mearns (CISL/IMAGe) and others. It produced a group called Women in Atmospheric Science that reached out to colleagues at other atmospheric science organizations in the Boulder area as well.

With the numbers of women scientists still relatively modest in 2000, a third grassroots push prompted the NCAR directorate to invite the American Physical Society's Committee on the Status of Women to examine the climate at NCAR and UCAR and report back to us. Among the outcomes inspired by the APS findings:

A follow-up survey in 2009 revisited many of the questions asked in 2000 to help gauge progress.

Among the more encouraging data in Maura's presentation were the numbers revealing a shift in NCAR leadership. In 2002, all 25 scientific section heads were men; last year, 6 out of 32 were women. During that decade, the percentage of women in all manager or director positions increased from 31% to 41%.

Hagan also listed some ongoing problems and tensions within the scientific community, as identified in a 2011 MIT report on its own science and engineering faculty. Those included the difficulty in identifying and dealing with implicit or unconscious bias in search processes, the false assumption that work/life balance issues are not important to men, and the misperception that standards have been lowered to hire and promote women.