Supporting Other Women in Science

One of my main motivations for writing here on Tenure She Wrote is to be an active part of the community of women in science, and because of that, I have been thinking a lot lately about how we can support other women in our scientific communities. There is a lot of discussion about that sort of vertical support, via mentoring, hiring, and outreach, but what about more lateral support for our colleagues in our department, our institution, and our broader fields?

There are, of course, the big things that we talk about including paying attention to the diversity of seminar and conference speaker lists; checking (and rechecking) for unconcsious bias in reviewing job candidates and in promotion decisions. But today I want to focus on those seemingly smaller things that can really make a difference to how connected and supported people feel.

I don’t have all the answers to this, so the goal of this post is to begin a discussion on things we can do – many with low time and effort commitment. It is worth noting that none of these – none – are specific for women or need to be done by women.

Please add to the list, expand, describe things that have helped along the way.

Invite colleagues out for coffee or for lunch. This is high on my list of things that really helped me feel like a part of my new department and institution. People reaching out to me, together with the social contact and finding out those little bits and pieces of information on departmental and institution functioning were (are) extremely helpful. This extends beyond the department – the Happy Hour group I discovered in another department, friends elsewhere in the university that I meet for coffee. These small informal meetings are particularly important in departments where women are in the minority (others have called it The Lunch Problem) where there is some concern about how inviting a male colleague to lunch or even coffee could be perceived.

Support (talk to) new parents. One thing that has come up from many sources is how important both social contact and discussions of science (not to mention sharing information on childcare) are for new parents -particularly those at home with a newborn. Many people -at all levels of academia – mentioned how informal discussion with friends and colleagues from the lab, the department, and their larger scientific community about science (and parenting) helped reduce not just the feeling of social isolation but also the feeling of distance from science and from academia.
More formally, this could extend to pushing for and writing grants to support childcare options* and dedicated lactation rooms at conferences.

Access to professional development resources. Professional development groups (e.g., AWIS, ADVANCE) and institutions often run workshops for professional development. But individuals are useful here too. Friends in several departments (and on twitter) have suggested books, blogs, other resources – and in one case a specific chapter that have a new or useful take on concerns I’m having (time management. Always time management). I plan to pay that forward.

That Women’s Lunch/Reception/Event at conferences. Go to it. Seriously. You might need to register in advance, as some fill soon after registration opens. You will meet people, that won’t always be useful to you, but your story might be useful to them. A quick google search gives web pages for Celebrating Women in Neuroscience (at Society for Neuroscience conference); Women in Planetary Science (at DPS); Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation Women’s Lunch; the Women in Learning lunch (at Pavlovian Society) and my favorite acronym WORMS (women in Operations and Management science). Again – these are often not limited to women and more aimed at supporting women.

Organize your own women’s – or feminist- event. Alternatively, you can organize your own Women’s event – whether it’s a meal or a larger reception. Women in Learning was founded and organized by graduate students and post-docs (and check out their supporters list). Or call it something different* – Social neuroendocrinologist and sex researcher Dr. Sari van Anders prefers the term “feminist” event, to move away from identity and more towards a shared goal or project for a more inclusive concept.

Introducing friends/colleagues/conference buddies to one another. This sounds simple, and somewhat silly, but you know what? It’s surprisingly powerful. This isn’t just about introducing women scientists to other women scientists, it’s helping everyone build their professional networks. I am a terrible matchmaker, but I try to connect my friends with one another at conferences, whether or not I’m there. Everyone wins. This past conference I met the friend of my first ever conference-buddy (yes we are still friends), and introduced another friend to someone I’d met at a conference over the summer.

Nominate other women scientists for awards. The saddest thing about this one is that I didn’t think about it at all, and it came up in none of my conversations. But then, as I was searching for links to Women in [X] websites and lunches, I saw this bolded on the DPS Women in Planetary Sciences website (which is great – they have summaries of some discussions from their luncheon too).
This is something I should definitely be more aware of doing – there are always nominations for awards for various organizations (that I routinely delete from my inbox).

What has helped you? Beyond mentoring, what do you do actively support women colleagues in your scientific community? What has failed spectacularly? What would you like to happen in your community?

*Many thanks to the many conversations I’ve had about this topic. Special thanks to Dr. Sari van Anders who in addition to sharing her thoughts and discussing her activities with me, also recently started the new online feminist science community Gap Junction Science.


24 thoughts on “Supporting Other Women in Science

  1. Awesome, awesome list. Thanks so much for this post! It’s so overwhelming to see all “why aren’t there more women in STEM!?” articles, and it’s really refreshing to see examples of things we can DO.

  2. Thanks for this post. Having often worked with ‘mostly’ men, particularly at the higher levels, I appreciate this insight: “I don’t have all the answers to this, so the goal of this post is to begin a discussion on things we can do – many with low time and effort commitment. It is worth noting that none of these – none – are specific for women or need to be done by women.” Many of my mentors and those with helpful comments along the way have indeed been men.

    However, it has also been a revelation at a time when i was working with several women in the group, how we could discuss all sorts of issues similar to those above in a completely different light and how some of my experiences (that I thought were due to my own deficiencies) were quite common among others (things like being ignored in meetings and not being taken seriously if you suggest modifications to a procedure) and this indicates a cultural bias of some sort, even if it doesn’t result in serious consequences at the time. (I think all of us in that group had ignored those who ignored us and proceeded testing our ideas anyway, assuming everyone – including men – were treated the same way). (Maybe junior men are treated the same way – maybe we should ask them too).

    So, yes, let’s open the discussion and let’s keep talking to each other ‘laterally’ and asking each other sensible questions about our experiences and attitudes. Otherwise we don’t know.

  3. … one more comment on ‘lunches/coffee’. Think of breakfast too. I know several cases where this has worked well. Some women with families can sometimes get their partner to organise breakfast and the school run and make themselves free for breakfast; and those with busy lab/teaching schedules can sometimes wriggle an extra hour or two early in the morning whereas other times of the day are awkward.

  4. As a new parent, please, please, please chat with us, even if we seem a bit frazzled/disorganized or are only around part-time. Before having my child, I had no idea how isolating parenthood can be and how amazingly restorative it would be to grab coffee with a colleague and talk the science (or just shoot the breeze). It is so easy to lose your identity as a scientist temporarily while building your identity as a parent. Plus many new parents are dealing with some postpartum mood issues. Knowing my friends and colleagues care about me, are at least a little interested in my new life as a parent, and still respect me as a scientist has helped me transition into this very new and different lifestyle!

  5. … and even one more comment, this time on nominating others for awards …yes, good idea – doesn’t take much effort to sling the email to someone else before you delete it from your own files. But more importantly, why not offer to review the application before it is submitted, an extra pair of eyes can make all the difference to something that may make the awarding panel sit up and take notice. After all, we offer to review science manuscripts prior to submission! Or, if it is something that several people are applying for, use one of the lunches/breakfasts to discuss the requirements of the application so all can benefit. (Again, I have personally benefitted from others’ encouragement in the past as well as helping other women by sharing info about awards, and in some cases writing nomination letters for them).

  6. These are great suggestions. I especially love the points about networking, and about professional development. I think it’s also valuable to make sure that we cite, talk about, and lecture about successful scientists. Mentioning female colleagues/scholars when lecturing, or presenting at conferences (Dr. Laura Smith’s work on XXX has really influenced my thinking about this topic) to make sure that scholars get the recognition they deserve.

  7. Pingback: Are you a fighter? A women in science post. | Small Pond Science

  8. I think supporting new mothers is crucial. Women work hard to have successful careers in science but also want the ensure their children are properly cared for. Access to childcare and helping women create balance in their lives is essential. Trying to “do it all” can get overwhelming on your own. Knowing other women faced these challenged and handled them is reassuring, especially when they share resources and tips.

    • yes, and/or anyone at all who has been away due to illness or other factors. I once asked if anyone had heard how XYZ was after an illness, to be told “we haven’t phoned her because we don’t know what to say”. I was horrified, so I used to take my lunch and go and visit her approximately once a week, and she really liked it that I affirmed she was still XYZ underneath even though she was going through a rough time on the outside.

    • Thanks for bringing up this point. Our non-response was unintentional. We are a new blog, and still working out the kinks with regard to comment moderation and guest posts. I apologize that this resulted in the impression that we endorsed the comments, and for any damage they might have done.

      I invite you to write a guest post for us on a topic of your choosing. You may also have seen that we’re looking to expand our author team. If you’re interested, I invite you to throw your hat into the ring.

      • I think it is great that different people write different opinions on this blog, and I absolutely love reading the back-and-forth conversations that sometimes happen. I think the TSW team is being very appreciative of these widely varying viewpoints. However, I do not think that the TSW team has anything to apologise for. it is their blog, they can write what they like and respond in any way they like – it is not for guest ‘posters’ like us to ask them or expect them to comment on our comments if they want or don’t want to.

        While those of us who comment obviously like to air our opinions, otherwise we wouldn’t write in this little box, I don’t think it is at all reasonable for us to expect the TSW team to answer us, unless they want to or they have time to, however reasonable or important our own opinion seems to us (and given the exchanges that sometimes occur, obviously our own points are disputed by others with equally strong opinions. This is OK too, and does not necessarily require any comment from the owners of the blog, unless they feel moderation is required).

        If any of us has a barrow to push, then we can always set up our own blog (it isn’t hard, it only takes a few minutes) or – as Acclimatrix has very kindly said, we can ask the TSW team if we can write a guest blog.

      • I agree that the TSW team has nothing to apologize for. If you guys are going to have to comment on every potentially offensive comment in order not to give the impression that you endorse it, I predict that TSW won’t be around for very long, as I don’t think that this is anyone’s full-time job. And that would be a shame…. Also not sure that deleting Daddio’s comments was the way to go, but it *is* your blog, so I’m cool with it.

        • We have a comment policy which we try to enforce, because we don’t want this to be a hostile environment and we want to keep dialog productive. Sometimes comments make it through for teaching purposes, though, or a commenter gets approved and then starts going off the wrong track.

          • I know it is a fine line, but there somewhere must be a line, between actually stopping a set of opinions and not accepting rudeness. It is most peculiar/confusing when the responses to an opinion are there, but the original comments that initiated the responses have been deleted. Sometimes the imagined comments in the deleted posts are worse than what was actually said.

            wrt Daddio – although I found some of his comments ‘of the not-so-standard variety’, he was expressing opinions and not using offensive language. And the discussion continued when his opinions were addressed by other commenters. This, in my mind, is what discussion is all about. Yes, it is up to those who manage this post and you can delete what you like if you don’t want the discussion to go in that direction (in which case maybe you should delete the responses too so the whole thing dies). But from my perspective (of both distance and age), I would like this to be carefully considered: “when do we stop something because we don’t agree with it – as opposed to stopping it because it uses bad language of some type.”. Now you may decide to have the line drawn in a different place from where others draw it, and as mentioned, that is fine…. it is your blog ….but I think it should be thought about carefully. (“not agreeing, but maintaining someone’s rights to say it…”.. etc…everyone knows the quote).

            Now I will duck and let the ammo fly over the top. Lucky I’m little.

          • I never wrote anything about an apology. That this is how my comments were read is instructive, and reminiscent of the frustrations of WOC which led to #solidarityisforwhitewomen this past summer.

            I was specific to comment on the concepts of *solidarity* and *community*, to ask how these terms are being defined and *practiced*. How one conceptualizes solidarity and community determines how both will actually be practiced, who will and won’t be excluded and supported, enabled to speak or silenced. Nowhere did I say anything about TSW apologizing to me.

            I also did not call for censorship, or insist that TSW moderators respond to every comment. I simply asked that the moderators pay attention to comments/practices that are abusive and intended to silence in racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. ways, which encourage and are motivated by disrespect and unquestioned privilege that encourages dismissing the legitimate opinions and experiences of marginalized groups/individuals. I pointed out that it is important for the TSW moderators to push back against such silencing/disrespect/dismissal if they want to be consistent with their own posts on community and intersectionality, and I validly pointed out that for WOC ‘everyday sexism’ is usually also everyday racism.

            I find the ‘go start your own blog’ response tired and dismissive. (How many times have I heard this now, after making an intersectional critique to point out the normative racial assumptions of some post calling for ‘inclusive’ academic ‘community’? Why always this response? This is not the way to be inclusive, so far as I can tell. But, alas… )

            I am glad that the take away from my comments was that I was asking for an apology that I never actually requested, totally skipping my pained and honest comments I the wearying affects (and affects) of constantly having one’s opinions and experiences dismissed and ridiculed because of one’s race/gender/color, and the deep pain of being fundamentally regarded as less human/less-than-human and being seen as capable of suffering less (again, actual scholarship on implicy bias, not simply my opinion).

            Acclimatrix, as I said in the preceding post, thank you for showing actual solidarity in responding to Daddio’s abusive comments about women, and especially Black women, in general, and his personal attacks. And thank you for pointing out the importance of power differentials (which is one of the problems if the ‘go start your own blog’ retorts; as if a blog by a Black woman is received in the same way as a blog by a White man or woman–even if writing the same kind of content, from the number of trolls and abusive comments one will get to the extent to which one will be viewed as ‘mainstream’ or as ‘whining’ about racism/sexism; we don’t all get to talk about power differentials and be treated with respect, as Daddio’s (now-deleted) responses make clear).

            So if this response is considered ‘letting the bullets fly, then so be it’. The idea of guest posting is nice, but honestly, right now I just don’t have the energy for it. Because given the realities of my subject position, I’m not just tired of/from online attacks but from daily attacks in the real world too.

    • Given that there is a longstanding history of women being bullied and abused online, we’re very careful to make sure this is a space for productive dialog. Disagreement is fine, but name-calling and ad hominem attacks are not, and daddio crossed a line, absolutely. You may not have seen all of the comments, but he did — and so I revoked his commenting privilege. We don’t always do that, as you’ve seen on other posts, but I made a call based on the comments that were offensive and inappropriate.

  9. Since the comments on this post and the previous one have overlapped, I had the thought that one way we can support other women is to *somehow* (i don’t know how, it will vary according to personalities and situations) make sure that others know the lines are open for discussing any inappropriate behaviour they have experienced. This is tricky. We don’t want to be seen as indulging in hate sessions or gossip sessions or keeping little black books – but maybe these things are necessary, albeit disguised as something else. Or maybe it doesn’t matter if we ARE seen to be doing these things.

    That way, behaviour by Postdoc A in the previous post would become much more of common knowledge, and either young women can be warned, or action can be taken against him, or some more positive outcome. Not only bad behaviour by men, but again in the example of the previous post, the (female) Postdoc B who pooh-poohed the case can be discussed and perhaps some action taken there too – even if just a discussion among women friends.

    Also, as touched on in the previous post and dismissed in the comments, different cultures do play a part in all our interactions. Dating practices vary, even among western cultures, and even if there has been no bad behaviour, if we are aware that a single woman colleague has recently arrived, we can perhaps discuss experiences in dating and things to do/not do/be aware of in our own culture.

    Also, as pointed out in an even older post, sometimes professors are not aware of whom to consult if a student (or colleague I guess) comes to them in distress. Perhaps we can be aware of making this knowledge available to new staff, so if they don’t want to talk to us, they know where they can go to make an appointment if something unsavoury does happen.

    As i said, I don’t know how to do this, but a start would be to just sit and have coffee and talk about our own lives in our own place and the door may open to some questions or stories.

  10. Pingback: When a series of entirely reasonable decisions leads to biased outcomes: thoughts on the Waterman Award | Dynamic Ecology

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