#WPSE2018: …wow

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A few months ago I was invited to be a keynote speaker at the first inaugaral Women in Planetary Science and Exploration conference, which was an honour and pleasure. I just left the conference centre, and immediately decided I had to write about the experience. I knew it would be great, but I didn’t think it’d be profound. This weekend was very special.

If I am going to be honest, I have spent the past few years struggling with the whole “women in STEM”…dialogue? discussion? I don’t want to use the word problem, because women being in STEM is obviously not the problem. However, I spent most of my early adulthood avoiding the discussion all together. I had experiences with female focused initiatives that came off as negative to me when I was younger, and a few years ago when I did dip my toes back into such initiatives, I once again left feeling like the message being delivered wasn’t one I wanted to be a part of. Often, I’d leave feeling like I had to overcome some sort of handicap because I was a woman, that I had to always fear male superiors and colleagues, that I had to choose a side in some sort of divide, and that sort of thing. And I didn’t like it. My experiences never made me feel like being a woman was particularly challenging (the barriers in my life didn’t feel like they were related to my gender), and some of the most significant academic and career support in my life came from men. So, I dismissed it all maybe as a non-issue. Or at least an issue I didn’t feel like I needed to concern myself with. I was very passive (and dismissive) about it all.

I also really disliked involuntarily being given the title of “female engineer” — because it would always be followed by “oh, getting a job will be so much easier for you”, suggesting that inclusive/diversity hiring practices will be what makes me successful. So that’s frustrating, it made me feel discredited, and just added further distance between my ability to understand this whole thing, and my desire to be involved.

However, probably in the past year and a half specifically, I’ve developed a more balanced and mature approach and perspective. I think it started when a female role model that I really looked up was very candid with me and shared her experiences and perspectives. And that sort of shook me up a bit — someone that I seriously respected and who I saw as maybe a template of my future self just told me the exact opposite of what I believed. I would eventually realize I’ve just had an insane lack of empathy about the challenges women in general face in STEM, had a really narrow and myopic perspective, and that I’ve chosen to willfully ignore a lot of the experiences other women have had. Acknowledging those experiences doesn’t discredit mine, but being supportive can really make a difference for someone else. And being passive probably isn’t the solution to reaching true equality for everyone. Equality for all is what I’ve always wanted and believed in, I just didn’t get that my approach was probably a poor one.

Attending WPSE was really the capstone of this journey of trying to figure out where I stood, and I’m really glad that I was there for the experience.

“Women in Planetary Science and Exploration” may be a bit of a misnomer — the conference was incredibly inclusive and addressed more than just female challenges in space academia and industry. And it was the perfect balance of showcasing serious and important research, while also touching on the human side of it.

The program was single track, covering everything from education and outreach, to scientific research focusing beyond our solar system. To open the conference, a message was shared that was sent from Governor General of Canada, Julie Payette.

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Later on we would find out that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also sent a letter of support.

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In beween sessions were panels, the first being LGBQT+ in STEM. I think what I truly appreciated most about this panel was just how sincere and open the panelists were in their experiences — and maybe even heartbreaking too when I realized that there is a lot of isolation and alienation in their lives while they are out there trying to live their life, be successful scientists, and make meaningful contributions to their fields and to their communities. I could never do the stories shared justice by repeating them, but hearing that basic activities like attending meetings or trying to reach out to children through science could still somehow turn into negative experiences if you are perceived as being different is something I can’t get over as still being true in 2018.

The Women of Colour in STEM panel was relatable, because I’ve been subjected to unintentional and casual racism many times — and I’m a Canadian born in Canada. In particular, the question “What are you/where are you from” is something I’ve heard many times and responding “Canadian/Canada” (or in the case of the panelist sharing their story, answering “Toronto”) is not usually a good enough answer and leads to weird probing. Each panelist had a very unique perspective to share.

The Harassment in STEM panel generated a lot of dialogue. I think it identified that harassment isn’t just sexual, that sexual harassment comes in many forms, and harassment sometimes isn’t even intentionally meant to be harmful. It was also mentioned that generational differences can also cause misunderstandings in what is appropriate/not appropriate or what might make someone feel uncomfortable or degraded.

The final panel focused on non-academic career paths — I’m not an academic so the idea that people fear leaving academia for industry or that there is a stigma about it for scientists/academics was definitely new to me. Lots of good advice was given by panelists.

We also had a guest speaker! Eight year old Arushi Nath, winner of Canadian SpaceApps 2017, came to share her projects and experiences. She was a surprise speaker, and I wish I could have been as cool and accomplished when I was her age.

Attendees were diverse in age and demographic, including a handful of men who were active and interested contributors to discussions. Everyone was open-minded, supportive, incredibly intelligent, and interesting. While I never got a chance to talk to everyone, the shared experience of this conference definitely made it feel like I was in a room full of friends. This latter fact helped immensely when I went up to give my keynote presentation, only to realize I didn’t save my presentation properly. I had a lot of people take time to talk to me after, to tell me they enjoyed my talk, and ask me questions. I was completely mortified about what had happened, but I’m glad I was still able to deliver something interesting and engaging.

For its first year, WPSE was an incredible and wonderful experience. Next year it will be held at Arizona State University, and I definitely encourage anyone interested to keep an eye out for it. I always like to use the phrase that my goal is to be “a more informed contributor to the space industry”, and absolutely the WPSE informed me in a way I didn’t even realize I needed.

Thank you so much for this opportunity to learn, hear, and see.

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