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Jul 15 2012

Why I Love Pamela Gay

A few years ago, there were two Pamelas for me. One was a friend of friends, known by reputation through the physics education community. She was the person who made a trip to SIUE or an AAPT conference more complete by hanging out for an evening. She was both relaxing and inspiring to talk to, one of this world’s incredibly pleasant people, despite being put through a lot in her professional situation.

The other Pamela was this kick-ass astronomer and skeptic who did…well, everything. She was constantly traveling, talking, recording podcasts, getting people involved in citizen science, starting new programs, working for grants–everything. She was a little bit intimidating, though admirable, in her iron will and the energy she spent getting things done.

Then I discovered these two Pamelas were the same person.

I got to meet Pamela a couple of years ago at SkepchickCon/CONvergence, where she came to talk about citizen science and women in science and to run a series of programs that resulted in a comic book for science outreach. I got to have lunch with her at TAM shortly thereafter, where I heard more about what she goes through to accomplish what she does. I got to see for myself that she really is both Pamelas at once.

That’s why I’m not remotely surprised that she gave the talk she gave yesterday at TAM. It’s pure Pamela, from the inspiration:

Dreaming is hard. It requires risks. It requires you to own the fact that you are capable of something great.

A few years ago, I came across a powerful quote that was attributed to anonymous.

“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? ” (link to old blog post on this quote)

I’d challenge you to let your feet fly off the ground and I’d challenge you to dream big and let your light push away the darkness of dispair in the world.

I challenge you to change the world.

To the unflinching look at the world as it is:

It’s often hard for women and minorities to rise to positions of power – to break through that glass ceiling. This is in someways a self-efficacy issue, where the constant down pouring of belittling comments and jokes plays a destructive role in self confidence. At my university, I’ve heard tenured faculty laugh that there is a policy not to hire women into tenure track physics positions. They do this in front of the junior faculty.  I’ve heard people joke that the reason I’m in a research center rather than in Physics is because I have boobs. It’s all said with a laugh. So far, its been nothing actionable or against the law. But it hurts, because I know the women who work for me, strong awesome powerful women like the Noisy Astronomer Nicole Gugiliucci and like Georgia Bracey are going to be hearing this, and it is going to effect their self esteem as they look to build their own carreers. I know it hurts my self esteem. And I know there is nothing I can do to change the reality I am in.  I could move to another university – I could change which reality I’m in – but that would leave behind a university devoid of women role models who are capable in physics and computer science, the two fields that my students come from. I stay, and I try to be the example of a woman doing things that matter. I try to say Brains, Body, Both – it is possible even in computational astrophysics.

Here in the skeptics community, we, like every other segment of society, have our share of individuals who, given the right combination of alcohol and proximity will grab tits and ass. I’ve had both body parts randomly and unexpectedly grabbed at in public places by people who attend this conference – not at this conference, but by people at this conference. Just like in astronomy, it’s a combination of the inebriated guys going too far – guys I can handle -  and of men in power being asses.

To the path forward:

The skeptics community is filled with strong people who are advocates of education, of building a more equitable society, and of protecting the uneducated from the charlatans and the quacks. There are times and places to fight. James Randi’s work has often exemplified the best ways to use evidence to fight the leaders of woo. The Dover case was an example of the right place to fight – taking on the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement in the courts. We do need to fight to build a better world.

Say that creating a more educated future is something you’ll fight for, and find something to help educate people about.

Use your social media to advocate for those who are doing good. When you see a problem that pisses you off, find out who is already fighting the fight, and support them. Highlight the issues, and then support the solution. And when something pisses you off, and you don’t see that fighter to support, do like Elyse did and start your own grass roots movement that fights to fix the problems and ignorances that plague our society.

To already having started work on the problem:

Shirts for sale at TAM.

The “Stopping Harassment Starts Here” T-shirts at TAM (image of graphic above) are shirts I had printed with my own money to sell to raise money for the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund, which pays for legal aid for women facing gender discrimination in education and the workplace. These shirts are in purple, which is the color of domestic violence awareness, animal cruelty prevention, and LGBTQ Awareness. These are all issues I care about. If you’re at TAM and you’d consider raising your own voice against harassment in all its forms through the purchase of a shirt, I’d be vary grateful. Shirt’s not sold at TAM I’ll sell to people in the US for $25 (including shipping). [See the post for her contact information.]

All of that is so very, very Pamela, and it’s why I love her.

Because I love her, I’m going to ask those of you who go to scientific conferences to start taking the push for anti-harassment policies for these conferences too. I can’t. I’m not part of the profession. But Pamela is hardly the first person I’ve heard say they’re needed there. (Though she didn’t say that directly, her experiences recounted in the post did.) She is one of the first, however, to speak openly about what she’s had to deal with.

Those stories are powerful. They illustrate the need better than any general discussion of harassment can. They tell people, “Yes, it does happen here too.” They make the “unbelievable” more believable.

Of course, that means that these stories tend to be attacked, both by people who don’t want to believe their world can be like that and by people who have a vested interest in keeping victims of harassment from being believed. There isn’t safety in numbers, not on this, but there is strength, and there is support.

If you don’t have stories of your own or don’t feel safe sharing your stories, you can still help the people who decide to go public. You can thank them. You can stand up when someone tries to cast doubt in those insidious ways so many people do, and you can say you believe when you do. You can make a simple statement to the trolls that what they’re doing is unacceptable. Most of all, you can tell conference organizers that you want anti-harassment policies so that what happened to Pamela happens less and so that people have a recourse when it does.

Don’t just buy the t-shirt. Make it true.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    ↑ This is why I love Stephanie Zvan and Pamela Gay.

  2. 2
    Martha

    Thank you, too, Stephanie, for the clear-headed, incisive and unbelievably calm way you’ve fought this battle. I hope the reception Pamela got at TAM signals an end– or at least the beginning of an end– to the insults, misrepresentations, and stalking you’ve endured. You, Rebecca, and many of your FtB co-bloggers paved the way for this. As a woman in science who has occasionally doubted that the fight is worth it, I am particularly grateful to you all.

  3. 3
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    After reading these snippets, I’ve resolved to not read the whole thing; I will be waiting for audio and/or video. I need to hear this talk for myself.

  4. 4
    Strider

    Pamela Gay’s skepticism ends where her religious beliefs begin.

  5. 5
    Attila

    @ Strider

    To be honest I have felt that way in a sense. I was at TAM and was hoping I might ask her how she reconciles her Christianity with science especially astronomy. I would like to know what the answer is to Neil Degrasse Tyson’s question. In that it is not interesting to know that 90% of the members of National Academy of Sciences are atheists. The interesting question is why are 105 believers, and Pamela is in a very good position to give insight on that question.

    However, Pamela gave a very moving and important speech. I happened to run into her in the hallway after the speech. I think all that was appropriate to say at that time is that I always thought she was impressive when just listening to the Astronomycast podcast, but until her speech just how much of an amazing woman she really is. So while there is room to question some of her other beliefs in this case she was spot on in her speech and this is what she needs to be recognized for.

  6. 6
    Strider

    @Attila I should’ve added that that point in no way diminishes the importance of her speech and thanks for pointing that out.

  7. 7
    Gary H.

    By the way, Pamela already addressed her belief with science on the ‘About Me’ section of her blog.

    http://www.starstryder.com/about-me/this-i-believe/

  8. 8
    Gary H.

    ::sigh:: already addressed HOW SHE RECONCILES her belief with science….

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