I was recently invited to teach at a summer school in my area of expertise. My field has several of these summer schools running all across the world, with top researchers offering classes to local students at low costs. It is one of the things I love most about my field, and I was very happy to accept the invitation. This will be a new summer school, organized by a team of women whose goal is to assemble an all-female teaching staff. Initially I wasn’t sure about this concept, but a few events over the past several weeks have made me realize the importance of female leadership.
In the summer, I presented work at a major conference that was organized by a group of women at all career stages, from professors and postdocs, who were doing most of the heavy lifting, to graduate students and undergrads who were manning* the registration desk and chairing the sessions. The conference had seven invited speakers, of which six were female. The overall percent of women participants was about 50%. The session chairs were in charge of moderating the discussion periods, instead of the presenters themselves, and as a result many women were getting called on to ask questions. Women were also vocal during the breaks, and just generally much more active than usual.
Another curious thing that happened was that I presented joint work with a male co-author by myself, since he couldn’t make it, and had an overwhelmingly positive experience. Later reflecting on why, I realized that it was because the questions and the compliments were all directed at me instead of him. It had taken some time to train him to notice these things, but now he is very good at deferring to me on things that are in my area of expertise and including me in every answer.** But what a difference it makes to be truly acknowledged for the work, instead of being an afterthought.
Later in the fall, I was invited to visit two research groups at two different universities that turned out to have a particular property in common: they are both headed by a prominent female researcher, and the group is made up exclusively of female postdocs and a majority of female graduate students. At one of these universities, I gave my first talk in front of an all-female audience.*** I was asked tough questions just like always, but the tone was friendly and the discussion aimed toward building on and improving my ideas. It was a refreshing change from the usual question period, which inevitably contains at least one question whose goal is to show that the questioner is smart and I am not.
These are of course all anecdotes, but I still think they mean something: female leaders empower others around them. The women in these groups had an overwhelming sense that they would be successful. The men I talked to were very happy and had the sense that their situation was completely normal: of course there are great women researchers out there, and of course they are successful.
Going back to the summer school I mentioned at the top of this post, this makes me hopeful that joining a team of women role-models could be a new way to address the representation problem in my field. Nothing needs to be said, we just need to be seen. If students see enough female instructors organizing and teaching great courses, what other conclusion could they be led to other than that this is the normal course of events?
What do you think? Are these all-female opportunities important? Have you ever participated in such an event, and if so, what did you think about it?
* The irony of this verb choice is not lost on me.
** Also every email. Curiously, people are much more likely to email just him and not me, and also to hit “reply” instead of “reply-all,” if the result is that I am not cc-ed on the email. He is almost never excluded. He and I are peers, and he is not my senior, in case you are wondering. But I digress.
*** To be clear, this was not by design. Several male professors and students were around, but happened not to be able to attend my talk.