Women in Planetary Science– LPSC Reception

Back from a long hiatus!  It is good to blog again.  I had some thoughts I wanted to share in extended format and thought this was the perfect time to get back to writing.

Tonight I attended a wonderful event at the 43rd Annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC):  The 4th Annual Women in Planetary Science Symposium.  For those who are not familiar with LPSC, it is one of the best space conferences out there, a ‘must attend’.

The evening started off with a mention of three wonderful female planetary scientists who passed away this year.  One was Susan Nieber, who started the Women in Planetary events at LPSC.  Her legacy is wide, and there are many websites that showcase this, including http://toddlerplanet.wordpress.com/.  There are many blogs telling of her heroic battle with cancer and her career contributions, and I can do no justice to this, but one link is here.

This year’s Women in Planetary Science event was filled to the brim, and some had to be turned away!  There was a great energy from the start.  The room had a largely young energy to it, but more senior women as well, and a few brave men!  The main part of the event was a panel with four women who are involved with planetary missions, their biographies linked at the bottom here.  One of the panelists brought up the issue of being ‘lucky’, and how she used that term and someone once said that she was not lucky, but that she worked hard– the later of which is of course true!  But the ‘lucky’ word was used by many, and there were two interesting things that women felt grateful for:

1)  Supportive mentors, including men.  The point was emphasized that having mentors was important, be they male or female.  Also, having men support the presence of women in science is an important, useful thing.

2) The women who have charged before them.  While the women on the panel said they had not experienced the glass ceiling, they acknowledged that women before them had to, and they appreciated that.

I enjoyed the tone of all this because there was an acknowledgement that there can be obstacles, but also a joy in women succeeding, as well.  Once this conversation was going, it did go in the direction of the fact that women are succeeding more than before, but the numbers are still not great when it came to women entering planetary science career tracks after grad school.  Someone, with caveats, did say that women often chose to leave the field… and a polite fire storm started up!  There were several loud ‘WHY?!”s in response to the comment that women ‘voluntarily’ left the field, and at least one comment that I heard (sadly I had to catch the bus back to my hotel before the evening ended).  The issue of ‘voluntarily’ leaving the field was brought to a forefront, right along with air quotations of ‘voluntarily’.

What struck me was that people have had allllll sorts of experiences.  One grad student commented, with tears, that she had no women to mentor her and that an attempt to have a ‘women in science’ gathering at her department failed.

I truly believe the women in the panel had good experiences and were authentic in their descriptions of their experiences.  I appreciate that they said ‘lucky’– not, of course, because they did not earn what they have.  But rather, to recognize that they have something not everyone does.  The reason people got riled up when it was expressed that women choose to leave the field on their own is that they have seen that this is not always true.  Many, many women have experienced frustrations and more within this male dominated field, and have chosen to leave because of it.  This includes family balance issues, but extends beyond those too.

I think it is important to not have a veneer that ‘everything is all right’ and that glass ceilings no longer exist.  We have enough imposter syndrome about the XX’s in science that to dismiss one’s experiences does not help the matter.  It is possible to say, ‘hey, this exists’, and at the same time lead this to a place a supporting one another, and looking for solutions.  Burying one’s head in the sand does not help anyone– how can you move forward to where you want to go if you do not acknowledge where are you?  Again, I genuinely think the panelists were being true to their own experiences.  I also think it was important to hear that not everyone has the same ‘lucky’ experiences they do.

I left with a major case of inspiration because these women do awesome stuff and worked hard to get there.  I am glad there were so many experiences discussed during the evening, and that while there is still a lot of frustration (which I feel myself sometimes), there is also a new era being ushered in. I want to thank everyone there for their honesty and the color they brought to the room.

What do you see at the current ‘status’ of things, and how it is being recognized?

Let’s go Venusians!

P.S. (a few minutes later…) One of the panelist explained her inspiration as a mission scientist as getting to be one of the first human beings to ever see an image— oooooh, so cool!  Total inspiration 🙂  because that equals a certain kind of discovery!

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