show me the policy

I grew up in a large family. I’m the eldest of 4 girls, but 3 of my 5 brothers were born before me. So, from my earliest days I had to compete with much more established male players for my fair share of a limited pool of resources. You could say that this background set me up admirably for a career in academia.

According to my mum, there were only 2 instances when, as a child, I got upset to the point of tantrum (disclaimer: my mum might be a little biased). One of these was when she forbade me wearing my favourite dress to play outside: it was only to be worn on “good” occasions. The other time, I was playing with my brothers when one of them took a toy from me and held it above my head. I was about 14 months old at the time, and when mum looked up to see what all the commotion was about she found me dancing angrily around my 3 older brothers who were gleefully goading me to get that toy. Apparently, I then stomped out of the room, with red face and furrowed brow, muttering “them boys!!!” over and over again.

It’s probably fair to say that I am reasonably even-tempered (why would I disagree with that assessment?), but one thing that is guaranteed to get my goat nowadays is seeing a conference program with poor gender balance.

I’ve become an activist for speaker diversity ever since a public symposium celebrating crystallography, my field of science and one that has a rich history of women pioneers. To my dismay I found that I was the only woman scientist speaking at the symposium (there was one other woman in the program of 13 – and she was a great speaker – but she was not a crystallographer/scientist). The symposium was excellent, the speaker quality was terrific but I was very upset that this public showcase of crystallography was so unrepresentative of its community.

I was a token woman. It reminded me of this ad from the 1980s.

I don’t want tokenism to be the message we send the community about women and science. Consequently, I decided to look more carefully at conference programs and seminar series, to be more vocal about diversity and balance and to change the way I participate in conferences.

Why is conference program diversity important?

First, if we are going to encourage women into careers in science we need to provide role models. We need to show women and men that it is normal to be both a successful scientist and a woman. One way of doing that is to give women scientists a platform to present their research. If we don’t address gender balance in speaker programs we will continue to normalise a gendered stereotype of scientific leadership. Then when crunch time comes – usually 10-15 years post-PhD – women will continue to leave in far greater numbers than men in part because they see no path ahead for themselves.

Second, a speaking invitation contributes enormously to the profile of a researcher. By making more invitations to women, and other under-represented sections of the academic community, we provide a boost to their visibility and their track record. This will help them to progress by raising their national and international profile and help support their applications for grants, academic positions and fellowships.

Third, conferences and symposia are great ways of generating new collaborations, new ideas and new directions in science. If we keep inviting the same people, and the same types of people, over and over again, we limit the diversity of thought and potentially the opportunities for innovation.

How to change

There is no reason not to have gender balance on speaker programs. So why does it still remain a problem? Laziness on the part of the organisers? Unconscious bias? Whatever the reason, it needs to change. For me personally, I want change because I don’t want to be a token woman again and I don’t want this issue to be passed on to the next generation of scientists. As academics, we are experienced at analysing data, so let’s collect the data and use it.

My approach is to implement conference policies that outline what the committee is trying to achieve in putting together the program. The policy should be transparent, visible and the outcomes measurable. So how to implement this?

1. If you, male or female, are invited to speak at a conference, or to join a conference organising committee, ask for the conference policy before you accept. If they don’t have one, which is usually the case, offer to help draft one. As an example, the following text is from an email I sent recently in response to a request to co-chair a symposium at a national conference next year:

“I’m happy to support the meeting, and am available on those dates. However, before I accept I need to see the conference speaker policy. 

I’m trying to ensure that all conferences and meetings I’m associated with have a reasonable gender balance. For a number of reasons, conference speaker lists sometimes don’t reflect the diversity of the community/delegates. It’s critical for the future of science that young women and men can see real evidence that scientists can succeed regardless of gender. One way of doing this is to make sure that diversity is explicitly addressed in conference policies and programs and that these policies are made visible. It may be that this is already sorted for this meeting and you can point me to the weblink. On the other hand, if you’re not sure what a conference policy should look like, you could consider the examples here and here.”

The first time I did this, I thought it would be the last time I would get an invitation. But I’ve been doing this for a year now and so far, so good. Although there is still work to be done. 🙂

2. If you are a relatively junior researcher, male or female, count the number of male and female invited speakers at the conference or seminar series you are attending. How well does it reflect the audience?  If the invited speaker gender balance doesn’t approach the gender balance of the audience, raise this with the organisers. If you are too timid to do this by yourself, get a group together and make a submission. Establish an ECR committee and lobby for change. Let the organising committee know that you expect the program to represent you and your community. Ask to see the conference speaker policy and the gender statistics for delegates and speakers. If they don’t have a policy, or the numbers, offer to help; develop the policy with the committee, and make it visible on the website. At the very least this will have them thinking about gender balance and diversity. And it will certainly help raise your profile!

3. If you, male or female, are responsible for organising a departmental seminar series, develop a policy, and make it publicly available. Report statistics.

4. If you, male or female, are a conference organiser, ensure the program committee you establish is balanced by gender, geography, and science to reflect the community it serves.

My take is that speaker diversity should reflect the diversity of the delegates/scientific community. Too often it reflects the diversity of the conference committee and if that isn’t balanced then neither will be the program.

Resistance to change

As you might expect, I have experienced some resistance to these proposed changes, but most are easily addressed.

1. Some will say there aren’t enough senior or mid-career women in the field to get a balanced program. This is usually easily refuted, by collecting the data (eg by working with the organisers to generate a list of women speakers that could be invited). When I did this last year, surprise surprise, we collected enough names in one afternoon to fill 2-3 years of a seminar series.

2. Some will say that a policy isn’t needed because they have gender balance already. Do the analysis. What is the proportion of women in the audience/community and in the speaker list? Maybe it is OK, but sometimes invisible inequities prevail. Check the data.

3. Some will say we have a policy, but making it public may make it look as if we’ve had a problem in the past and are apologising for it. When this was brought up, a male colleague chimed in “what is the point of having a policy if no-one knows about it…put it online”. Thank you male champions of change.

4. Some will say the most important thing is having a high quality program. Ummm. Why would you think addressing gender balance would be inconsistent with a high quality program?

5. Similarly, some will say the most important thing is diversity of thought not speaker diversity. Diversity in life experience = diversity of thought. Again, how is having a gender-balanced program not addressing diversity of thought?

Change is up to us

We have the opportunity to change the way things are. My one voice alone will make very little difference overall. But there is strength in numbers. If we all take the same line on conference policy, transparency, visibility and reporting then we can change the status quo. As I was writing this post, I was contacted by Kat Holt who has come to the same conclusion as me and is establishing a website to “crowdsource and collate the gender breakdown of Australian conferences“. Brilliant. This is exactly what we need. Collect great examples of conference policy for everyone to use. Report examples where conference policy is clearly needed. Identify how we need to change. Make change happen. Kat’s website also points to the American Astronomical Society Status of Women in Science webpage that I hadn’t seen previously. Wow. A treasure trove of data and ideas on how to address gender imbalance at conferences. Check that out too.

And you can sign on to the online petition set up by Virginia Valian and Dan Sperber where “signatories commit to accepting talk invitations only from conferences that have made good-faith efforts to include women“. I would suggest asking the conference to “show me the policy”.

In an ever-increasing competition for the conference dollar, perhaps we can have an even bigger impact on improving gender balance in academia by voting with our credit card. Specifically, don’t support conferences that have speaker programs that don’t reflect their community. And when you do boycott, let the organisers know why.

mentors and dementors

When I speak at career forums, I often begin by asking the audience what they consider to be the major reason for the high attrition of women in the academic pipeline. The two most common responses are (i) childcare responsibilities and (ii) sexism. My last post focused on sexism. And I’ll address caring responsibilities in future posts. But in this post, I want to highlight why I almost left academia 10 years ago.

Greg Petsko decribed beautifully the academic career as apprentice (PhD), journeyman (postdoc) and master (academic) and pointed out the disconnect between what we are trained to do as apprentices and journeymen, and what we need to do to succeed as academics. The academic master is key to a young apprentice’s progression. She or he will set the project, direct the apprentice, provide advice and career guidance, act as a referee and do much more besides. But the academic master is trained to be a researcher, not to manage people, or to be a good mentor. What if the academic supervisor is a dementor?

I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in this regard in my academic career. My early supervisors gave me great advice and help: they actively sponsored me to succeed. For example, after completing my MPharm degree in 1986, I decided it was time to see the world. My MPharm supervisor, Peter Andrews, advised me to use the opportunity to undertake a PhD overseas. He recommended working with a colleague at Oxford University who was doing some really exciting research.

Wow. I was simply planning to go on a working holiday for 6 months. I was just a girl from Dandenong (a low socio-economic outer suburb of Melbourne). I never imagined studying at Oxford. Yet here was a professor telling me it was possible. He believed in me. So maybe I was good enough. Maybe I could do it.

Thing is, without that seed of an idea, and without the encouragement from a senior academic, I would never have had the courage or conviction to proceed. Some women leave at this point because “no-one encourages them to go on“. I was encouraged, and I did proceed.

So, how to find funding? Again Peter to the rescue. He pointed me to the Grants Register. After poring over the pages at the back index, I identified dozens of possibilities. Scholarships for women. Bursaries for Australians. Awards for young people to go to the UK. I applied for everything that I was eligible to apply for, and Peter helped by providing constructive advice for specific questions and by writing strong letters of support. In the end I was awarded a total of 5 scholarships, bursaries and awards for my DPhil studies. (Mind you, that was after dozens and dozens of rejections, but that’s a story for another day).

In Oxford and later in New York, I also had outstanding mentors in my corner, supporting and sponsoring me to succeed. However, there have also been obstacles to overcome without a mentor’s support.

After 2 consecutive Fellowships at the early and mid-career level, I failed to secure a Fellowship in 2004, 10 years after establishing my independent group. This meant someone else had to cover my salary. My annual performance appraisal that year was conducted with three senior academics – all male – rather than the usual one. Presumably, (I wasn’t told explicitly) this committee had to decide whether I was worth supporting. I provided the review documents the required week in advance. When the appraisal began, the chair of the panel began by thanking me for the documents but then explained that regretfully he hadn’t had time to read them.

Hmm. I thought. This is not a good start. I must be very low on his list of priorities. Perhaps I should excuse myself and come back when he has read them? After all, the relevant appraisal policy requires that the appraiser read the documents before the meeting. But I felt my job was on the line and I didn’t want to rock the boat, so I didn’t say anything. And neither did the other two committee members.

In the next breath, the committee chair offered this, “You know, the problem with you Jenny is that you are not seen as a leader.” Ouch. That hurt. Like a kick in the guts. I responded timidly….. “But I am a leader in my field. I am president of the national society, a member of the Academy of Science National Committee, I am on the scientific advisory committee of…..” but I was cut off. These were not evidence of leadership, these were service roles. Apparently I was elected/nominated to these offices, because nobody else wanted to do them. They didn’t count. If I wanted to succeed in science, I needed to be known for something. Something scientific. I tried again “But I am known for my work on disulfide bond forming proteins, there’s my seminal Nature paper of 10 years ago, several papers in Structure, and my PNAS paper this year, and in total I have over 60 papers mostly as senior author……..”. But no, apparently this wasn’t what they meant either.

To this day, I still don’t really know what they meant, because I switched off at about that point. I sat in self-imposed silence, nodding occasionally, while the panel mansplained to me why I wasn’t good enough. My silence was a self-preservation response that – only just – prevented me from bursting into tears right then and there.

I left work early that day, almost immediately after the appraisal. Walking to my car, I did burst into tears. Round and round my head went the words, “You are not a leader”. “You should be more like X, Y, Z” (insert any stereotypical white middle-aged male scientific leader name you like). But, I thought, I’m not them, and I don’t want to be them. I want to be me. And I can’t work any harder than I am already. If what I am doing is not valued, if I am not seen as a leader, then perhaps it’s time to leave.

This performance appraisal fanned the embers of self-doubt, low self-confidence, low self-esteem that many women harbour. For weeks, I pondered whether to return to my long-lost former career as a pharmacist. I was still registered, though I had not practised for almost 20 years. I investigated what it would take, and found that I’d have to re-train, and sit practical and theoretical exams; it would take time, but I could do it.

In the end, I didn’t leave, for reasons I’ll explain in a future post. Over the next 2 years, I applied for but failed to secure a Fellowship, though I was awarded several national prizes and my salary continued to be paid (so the panel must have believed in me to some extent!). Then, in 2007 I was awarded not one but two highly competitive Fellowships. My promotion to Professor was also approved that year. And in 2009, I was awarded the most prestigious Fellowship in the Australian Research Council scheme, the Australian Laureate Fellowship (a follow-up to the former Federation Fellowship but which now emphasised mentorship as well as research leadership). I became the first woman in the biological/biochemical sciences to be awarded either a Federation or a Laureate Fellowship. This just five years after being told I was not a scientific leader.

So, I think back to that performance appraisal. Was I being prepared for being booted out? Was I being given a kick up the butt to try harder? Either way, the approach used didn’t work with me. I lost motivation. I did not feel valued. I did not feel supported. I did not feel included. Yet, I succeeded anyway. Some may argue that my later success was because of, rather than despite, the dementoring. I don’t know. What I do know is that it was after this episode that I came closest to leaving academia. I wonder how many other women and men of merit would have left in the same situation. It takes extreme determination and self-will to continue on, when your superiors express a lack of faith in you, and your own self-confidence is at an all-time low.

So that was my dementor “soul-sucking” experience. Perhaps not as bad as some others I’ve heard about. But enough to make me seriously contemplate leaving academia. I’ve asked colleagues if they would share their mentor and dementor experiences. Here are some of them.

•”The contract offered a lectureship at Level B. I was so excited I signed it immediately. A senior male academic was horrified. “Don’t sign the contract, always negotiate.” He advised me what to do. I pulled the contract out and tore it up. I asked the Executive Dean for a meeting. I was nervous, but I put to him that based on my CV I should be appointed at the top of Level B and that I wanted his support for promotion to Level C the following year. Without blinking he agreed. Not only was I promoted the following year, the ED had seen my CV, I was on the radar.”

•”I was awarded a highly competitive Fellowship, and was placed with someone in the department who was meant to support me and my research. He never helped at all, but insisted on being listed on all my papers, and on using funds that I should have received to pay himself a top-up for mentoring me.”

•”My husband and I are academics at the same department. I am currently on my second national Fellowship. We have two children and we share the caring responsibilities. He has recently been offered a lectureship. I have been advised not to continue in science, that it’s too difficult for women.”

•”I arranged a meeting with my HoS to discuss the increasingly difficult situation of working with this person. When I arrived, the HoS was sitting together with this person, they were sharing a beer. It was clear they were mates.”

•”When she was overseas, she always delegated someone to fill in, to sign the forms and to take responsibility. She rotated that task across 5 people in turn. It meant everyone got an opportunity to lead.”

•”Lab meetings often included alcohol. My supervisor – a recently divorced 50-ish man – would regale us with stories of the young chicks he had picked up on the weekend.”

•”When he came in he changed the structure so that everyone reported directly to him. He didn’t inform anyone in positions of responsibility below him. They all found out together in public, in a presentation he made to 150 people showing the new organisational chart on a slide. They had been moved off to the side, without a title or a line of command. It became pretty clear very soon that he wanted total control and that there was no pathway for anyone except him. It was about domination not collaboration.”

•”She was grounded and had lots of life experience and perspective. She made the place positive, you felt like you were part of a team, that your contribution was valued.”

One colleague noted “When I was going through my dementor battle, three of my friends were battling their own dementors. We were all 30-something females – and had hit a wall with some insecure 50-something male dementors. It’s interesting to see 10 years later that although one of my friends did leave academia, the rest of us are now doing better than our dementors.”

Perhaps the life lesson here is that everyone has dementors to tackle, and that it’s part of the process of growing up as an academic. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as my mum would say. Not very helpful, but there it is. The best advice I can give is to find your own mentor, or better yet a circle of peers that you can meet with regularly to discuss challenges and obstacles to your career.

And when it comes to dementors, how can you avoid having your soul sucked out? Well you can do what I’ve learned to do from my own circle of peers: be proactive and practice your own patronus charm.

So when you hear me muttering “Expecto patronum!” under my breath, you’ll know why…..