1 March 2018

In Celebration of Women’s History Month: The Door is Open

Posted by Robin Bell

By Robin Bell: President-elect American Geophysical Union and Palisades Geophysical Institute (PGI) Lamont Research Professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

This year, I decided to watch my carbon footprint so instead of driving to our off-the grid cabin for a long weekend, I took a bus. Bus connections are not perfect. So, the next thing I knew, I was standing in a museum looking at portraits of suffragettes and anti-suffragettes. The white dressed suffragettes stared straight at me holding their umbrellas with messages like “Come March with Us” and “Rain or Shine.” These determined, forward-looking faces starkly contrasted the averted eyes of those opposing them.

Today, we are at a similar place in our national history. While many are still averting their eyes to the social and political injustices that women and underrepresented groups regularly experience, people have been marching and taking action again. Scientists (both women and men) have worked to increase the number of women in science and engineering through programs like the NSF ADVANCE program. Focused upon changing hiring and mentoring practices, these efforts are making huge strides in the number of women in the sciences. The issue of harassment of women and minorities, however, still looms large. We have averted our eyes to this problem for far too long and unethical behavior in science, in media, in entertainment and in broader society has persisted. At long last, the national dialogue is changing and we are openly talking about it. The #metoo movement has been hard to ignore. It is becoming evident that harassment has consequences.

Research suggests that harassment is an indication of unhealthy work environment. These environments are likely to thrive when the community is male dominated and harassment is tolerated without consequence. Yet, both these toxic work environments and the culture of toleration is being challenged like never before. Universities are enforcing Title IX. The AGU ethics policy is making ethics integral to the nominations for awards and the path to AGU leadership. We now have the opportunity to pivot from the past and work on shaping our scientific workplaces to be more equitable, safe, and encouraging.

The Earth and space scientific community is becoming more diverse and harassment is no longer something women and underrepresented communities will tolerate. The next generation of scientific leaders is both more diverse and more likely to report and intervene when harassment occurs. At the New Orleans Fall meeting, I was impressed by several early career male scientists who approached me near the giant Lego Man at Mardi Gras world to comment that – whereas in the past they would have remained silent – they would now intervene in uncomfortable situations. I thought I heard the giant Lego man behind them say “everything is awesome” because that is how I felt. Ok, there were no the Lego women scientists there but still there is a sense of change in the air.

We still have much work to do create truly ethical and ethical inclusive work environments. Institutions should make it their goal to produce not only the intellectual leaders but of tomorrow but the ethical leaders as well. Our science will be better when more different diverse viewpoints test our ideas. My vision is to move from identifying bad behavior to recognizing and rewarding exemplary behavior. Teams thrive and make discoveries small and large when there is an open respectful environment.

Now, scrolling back through the photos on my phone, I see several other images of women I photographed who are looking straight ahead – much like the portraits of the suffragettes that I encountered at the museum. However, these images were taken at this year’s Fall Meeting in New Orleans. In a pair of these photos, two young female scientists have just recounted their experiences of leading expeditions atop the world’s largest ice sheets and motherhood. In another photo, a young female graduate student wears a HoloLens exploring radar device which was developed another young female scientist. They are all looking directly into the camera, ready to lead AGU into the future. The door is open for them and they are walking through. Soon enough, I am sure there will be a new, awesome LEGO movie featuring their explorations of our planet and beyond.

Editor’s Note: On February 27, AGU Executive Director and CEO Chris McEntee testified on Capitol Hill in front of the House Science Subcommittee on Research and Technology for their hearing: “A Review of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in Science.”

  • You can read Chris’ written testimony or view the video from the hearing here.
  • Eos’ article on the hearing is here.