WPSE 2018 - The First Conference for Women in Planetary Science and Exploration Feels Like a Big First Step / by Adeene Denton

What does it mean to be a woman in planetary science? Despite being a woman in planetary science, it's a question I don't think too much about, and I can freely admit that I know why. Like many other people who are members of underrepresented groups I've always wanted to be seen for my intellectual contributions, for the quality of my science and its impact on the field rather than as a female scientist. Even now, in an era of unprecedented inclusivity, diversity itself can feel like a dirty word: institutions and members of privileged groups don't want to admit that they have a lot to learn about inclusivity - and that there are groups within planetary science who are being underserved - while members of underprivileged groups would rather talk about their science than talk about their experiences, because so often "diversity work" is seen as a deterrent or a distraction to a scientist's career. Want a job in planetary science? Then, I'm often told, you'd better make your science speak for you - and hope no one notices the person behind the curtain.

While this state of affairs does not, of course, affect everyone in our field, it affects many of us. I have had too many conversations where people have wished for this awkward adjustment period to inclusivity to be over, for us to just fast-forward to a world in which no one in planetary science has any problems that affect how we do science. A world where the gender and racial gaps in our field are magically closed, but the culture of the field somehow stays exactly as it is.

The problem is that we can't fast forward through change. I am one of many people that have internalized that idea - that if I keep my head down, do my work, and don't draw attention to the things about me that are different, that my career will succeed much faster. As someone who believes in uplifting underrepresented groups in STEM, I often feel like a hypocrite. I am a director of multiple organizations at Brown whose purpose is to do just that, and I love providing a space at Brown for people to build networks of collaboration and support, but when it comes to me and my career... I falter.  

XKCD knows the pressure I'm talking about here.

XKCD knows the pressure I'm talking about here.

Enter WPSE 2018 - the first annual Women in Planetary Science and Exploration conference. I was lucky enough to attend WPSE on February 17-18 in Toronto, Canada. It's the first conference of its kind for our field - a conference aimed at uplifting women and nonbinary folks in planetary science and exploration. I was determined to attend this conference, for reasons that I struggled to articulate to those around me. The prevailing attitude of many in the field is that "special interests" conferences, those whose titles and programs tout diversity as a focus, are lesser activities unworthy of a busy scientist's time. They fall under the umbrella of "distracting diversity work," because "real science" won't get done. A conference for women in Toronto? Is it really worth the travel money?

It was difficult to convince people that WPSE was, indeed, worth the money - so I shelled out the money for the ticket to Toronto myself. As I prepared my talk the night before, I was terrified that people were right - that my work to get here wouldn't pay off. Because in the end, I'd internalized the very same logic that I knew I shouldn't believe in - that a conference for women in planetary science was almost hilariously niche and completely unnecessary, since women in planetary science have it so good. And yet, I got on the plane, because I was (and still am) convinced that this is something we need. I wanted to meet other women in planetary science. I wanted to hear their science. I wanted to see what kind of a space the conference organizers had made for us.

WPSE was effectively split into three parts - keynote speeches, science sessions, and panels addressing various aspects of attendees' lives that affect how they do and talk about science. Each of these were interspersed throughout the two days of the conference, with four keynotes, five panels, and six sessions of oral presentations. Oral presentations ran the gamut, from the search for Planet 9 (it's not looking good) to the intricacies of sedimentary processes on Mars to the feminist geopolitics of space exploration. Keynote presentations discussed the best ways to do science outreach, the legal context for space exploration, and how planetary science and space exploration have intersected with these women's lives in powerful ways. WPSE was two days jam-packed with an incredible amount of content, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Well, I enjoyed every minute except for the few minutes right before my talk, in which I managed to temporarily break my flash drive, drop my water bottle, and question my entire scientific career, all of which are completely normal things to do before one gives a talk.

There was a letter from the Prime Minister in our program! HOW COOL IS THAT.

There was a letter from the Prime Minister in our program! HOW COOL IS THAT.

I was lucky enough to be on one of these panels regarding how our identities outside of science interact, and was amazed by my experience. First, I was amazed by the fact the such panels existed at all - the coordinators strived to cover the breadth of attendees' experience, from the unique experiences of LGBTQ+ people and women of color to a serious, yet hopeful discussion of sexual harassment in our field. Second, I was pleasantly surprised by the real dialogue that grew as part of these panels - panelists came to share their thoughts and experiences, which were accepted by a thoughtful audience full of people who are actively looking for ways to make planetary science a better place. Many institutions have struggled to have conversations like the ones we had through these panels at WPSE, and WPSE succeeded where many have failed by taking an approach that is so deceptively simple as to be obvious - center the voices of those who need to be heard, pull from a range of perspectives, and then let conversation follow. The women and nonbinary people that attended this conference were all intelligent, supportive, and open-minded individuals, and it gave the sometimes difficult conversations the air of a discussion between friends. We entered this space willing to engage, and were not disappointed.

In the end, while I truly enjoyed giving my talk about my thesis research and talking to people afterwards about that research, spreading my science and making research connections ended up being only a small part of what WPSE truly offered me. At WPSE we had a chance to be seen as full people, as women and nonbinary people from a variety of backgrounds, united in our love and pursuit of planetary science in our careers. We were celebrated as scientists in oral presentations and poster sessions, but confronted the other aspects of our lives in keynote speeches and panels. The sheer enthusiasm with which people talked about their science was breathtaking. The intelligence and humor on display in all aspects of the conference created an environment in which we could all relax incrementally, content in the knowledge that all of us, women, nonbinary people, and the number of men that attended, wanted the same thing - to do great science and create an environment in which everyone feels comfortable enough to do the same.

So, what does it mean to be a woman in planetary science? Many of us reject being called "female scientists" or "female engineers" because it feels like a qualification - like we're a different kind of scientist than the regular scientists, and thus are set apart. When we're called "female scientists" we become conscious of our deviation from the norm, even as our numbers in the field continue to grow. However, at WPSE we weren't female scientists and engineers; rather, almost everyone there was. Instead, we were women who do science and engineering. This might seem like a subtle distinction, but it's a profound one. In showcasing important research in planetary science while also honoring the human difficulties some of us in the field face, WPSE let us have both our accomplishments and our struggles without hiding either.

Women in planetary science are just that - women, each living their own complex, busy lives, who have chosen to dedicate themselves to planetary science. In a time in which institutions and the people who run them both appreciate and resist diversity, to do this, and to be proud of doing it, is profound and sometimes difficult. WPSE knows this. Its attendees know this. Together, we celebrate it.

WPSE was truly a wonderful experience, and was an amazingly successful first run for a conference that I hope persists for many years to come. It offered a space that so many of us didn't know we needed, and did so with heart, thoughtfulness, and joy. I'll be headed to Arizona next year for the next one, funding or no funding!

(Though I sure would like funding.)