APS News

Can a Culture Change? The CfPA and the "Chilly Climate"

by Rose Sergeant

Can a Culture Change?" was the question explored during a two-hour presentation given by the Center for Particle Astrophysics (CfPA) during the 1995 APS March Meeting in San Jose, CA, sponsored by the APS Committee on Education. The invited panel, all CfPA members, spoke about their efforts to develop an environment that is responsive to the cultural issues of isolation, sexism, low self-esteem, unhealthy competition, and the struggle to balance career and family. These and other issues are recognized as major contributing factors to the "chilly climate" in physics.

The presentation focused on the first three years of CfPA's "In Balance" program, intended to develop a culture that is more open to a diversity of experiences, more supportive of its personnel and more involved in society. In its initial phase, the program addressed the "chilly climate" by using communication as a primary tool, teaching communication skills, team building, conflict resolution and leadership, in afternoon workshops, at week-end retreats, in informal discussions and through seminars, to raise cultural awareness and open a dialogue across hierarchical boundaries. The meetings, with the exception of the retreats, were held on campus during working hours and were developed with the aid of outside consultants. Participants included staff as well as scientists.

Director Bernard Sadoulet presented a summary of the CfPA community's response to attempts to improve the culture. According to a poll of 100 Center members, of the half who responded, most were in agreement on the importance of addressing the "chilly climate" and on the need to develop a sharper focus and definition of both the issues and program goals. Among the community's primary concerns were the overly competitive atmosphere or the "rat race, "the difficulty of balancing career and family, and a prevailing attitude of arrogance. The poll also showed that there was extreme anxiety about the future, particularly among the post-docs, and that the program did not directly address this issue. Others felt that the evaluation of the culture was too negative and that the program, though teaching important skills, could not deliver on the promise of a changed environment. This viewpoint maintained that competition and a strong focus were necessary in order to achieve excellence.

Rachel Winheld, who represented the administrative staff, spoke about the difference the program has produced by making a point of recognizing the importance of the role that staff play. The result has been a more inclusive attitude among the scientists which has somewhat softened the classism that has traditionally been a barrier between scientists and non-scientists.

Sadoulet went on to say that comments regarding the treatment of women at the Center were mixed. Generally, the Center was characterized as a friendly place to most women, better than some other scientific institutions. However, there were also clear statements that showed the CfPA was not problem-free, despite the overall positive impression. One criticism was that at the more senior levels, women were not treated as equals. Sadoulet spoke of the need to be vigilant, to be alert to situations where women need help in escaping the "oppressor-victim" dynamic where they often end up being branded as "difficult." He also said that it is important for those in leadership positions to model the cultural shifts they hope to achieve.

Post-doc Sharon Vadas spoke about how cultural differences between men and women may negatively influence a woman scientist's career. In particular, as graduate students, both men and women judge the quality of their work from the feedback they receive, and may misconstrue a thesis advisor's lack of substantial feedback to mean that their work is mediocre or poor. However, a female student is much more likely to lose her self-confidence when this occurs, because she may have been accustomed to receiving more praise and encouragement prior to this point than a typical man. This loss of self-confidence continues until she becomes aware of this difference and learns to rely on her own judgment. Vadas suggested that a male professor should take special care in advising female graduate students. For instance, he should discuss the ramifications of different communication styles (i.e., lack of praise in science may not imply non-quality work), and try to be more communicative himself, with emphasis on praise for good work. However, in order to prepare her for the independent post-graduate environment, he should also foster the student's independence and self-confidence by letting her know that he will be gradually less forthcoming with comments.

Sadoulet remarked that it is difficult to judge the impact of a program like "In Balance," since change itself is an evolutionary process, and the results of the trainings and discussions are specific to each individual. Many of the Center's graduate students were appreciative of the program. For others, the focus on self-examination evoked strong criticism and a call for less "touchy-feely" and more concrete action.

Though there were many divergent views, most Center members agreed that working to improve cultural issues is important and should be continued. Sadoulet said that the comments and criticisms of the community have been incorporated into the development of the next phase of the program. He noted that while the responses regarding the "In Balance" program represent a large cross-section of the CfPA community, the small number of people of color in this discipline makes it difficult to reflect a culturally diverse perspective. The program participants were primarily white and male though there is racial diversity among the staff.

There was support for the CfPA's efforts from some of those attending the APS meeting who described similar efforts at other institutions. However, one highly critical audience member questioned the motives and legitimacy of the CfPA's activities.

Currently, Center members are applying some of the skills learned in their workshops to build relationships with teachers and students at a culturally diverse middle school where they have developed a partnership to build a first class science program. The "In Balance" skills trainings, workshops and retreats will continue with the added goal of preparing graduate students and post-docs to manage successful research col- laborations in either academe or industry.

An important point to remember regarding "In Balance" is that it is an experimental program. The Center is consciously engaged in an evolutionary process intended to improve the working environment and help build a more diverse and productive community. The APS meeting provided a valuable opportunity to share experiences and to learn from one another's efforts.

Rose Sergeant is the Director of Education and Outreach at the Center for Particle Astrophysics at U.C. Berkeley. (email: sergeant@physics.berkeley.edu).


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

The End of Generalists in APS?

Discussion of the demise of the General Meetings of the Society in APS News, October, 1995, APS/AAPT Joint Spring Meeting to Rotate Sites, is long overdue. For early recognition of the facts and a plausible analysis of the cause we should thank a former executive officer of AAPT, Jack M. Wilson. His editorial in the Announcer, 19 (1). 20 (1989), The Balkanization of Physics, described with telling accuracy the transformation of APS from a Society united by a devotion to physics to a federation of specialists. Today our disunity is plaintively recognized by sessions on the Unity of Physics.

The change began with the constitutional changes of 1966 which gave specialists the upper hand in the Council of the Society.

The question of the day is whether those effects of constitutional change can be undone by merely rotating the sites of our General Meetings. It is a remedy which has been tried and has failed before. To this observer it is like applying a band-aid to a cancer lesion. It seems reasonable first to diagnose a malady before prescribing a cure, and if my diagnosis is correct, what is called for is major constitutional changes back to where we were 30 years ago, when the General Meetings of the Society were thronged with enthusiastic physicists. Perhaps that is a forlorn hope, but at least is has a sound historical justification, and how we react will tell us much about our courage or lack of it in facing past mistakes.

Restoring the influence of generalists in physics will do much more than merely enhance the interest of our General Meetings. It will boost pride in membership in APS and in physics as a career, and should enlarge much-needed opportunities for employment. The alternative is the continued decline of the tradition of generalism in physics in America.

Lawrence Cranberg