A little bit over one year after the last 2018 Ingenious Women Scotland (IWS) weekend, Conni (one of the ingenious women) organised a reunion in Edinburgh. Although we had stayed in touch all this time through weekly emails, a slack channel and various smaller meet-ups, when she suggested a 2018 cohort reunion my email inbox got flooded by a lot of very excited emails wanting to contribute to the day. Although not everyone managed to attend, 13 ingenious women based in Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh made it to the reunion. We split the costs for the booking of the space and lunch, and everyone added some extra warmth to the day with various sweets and warm drinks.
The obligatory group picture at the end of the day.
The focus of the day was to catch-up and discuss what this community meant for us and how we would like to carry it forward.
We started the morning with a catch-up round, during which everyone had 10 minutes to explain what they had done since the last IWS weekend. We shared our successes, failures and the challenges we had faced or were facing. Change seemed to be a common denominator for the more significant events affecting our lives, in different contexts such as family, jobs, and places. To share further insights in what I mean with this, I want to summarise the main messages that I took from everyone’s stories. To everyone’s surprise: science is frustrating, and it is so almost by definition. This makes having a good work-life balance particularly important and perhaps necessary, to stay sound when the science is not going as expected. Due to the lack of permanent positions in academia, job and location changes are common and even required. However, rooting in new places requires time and that is not always possible when contracts are often no longer than 2 years. This leads to a vicious cycle that creates application professionals that are continuously challenged to balance their private lives. It seems like there is just one academic route with clear steps to follow from being a PhD to a professor, but other job options exist within science and in the academic context. Career progression might look different for different people, but the existing separation between academic and professional services does not fairly represent the value of all career paths. Within the academic and scientific environment, only excellence of individuals is celebrated, however, it is commonly a group effort that makes things possible, and single individuals do not get anywhere on their own. For example, the role of technicians or lab managers seems to be stigmatised and not valued as it should be for the importance their contributions, knowledge and experience have to the scientific outcomes. This is also true for other career choices such as editorial or outreach centred roles. Against this background, the role of mentors that can help individuals in their choices for career progression and the existence of a support network were identified as some very relevant tools to support individuals in laying out a career path that they feel comfortable with. However, as long as other career paths are not valued and celebrated in equal measure as individual excellence, individuals choosing these paths might not feel valued or comfortable with their choices. At the same time feeling valued by your peers and managers is key to stay motivated in your job. Despite the perks of the academic life, there were also a lot of achievements to celebrate: growing families, new jobs, successful publications and grant applications, and the taking on of new adventures.
After a lunch break to process all the news, we continued with an active listening workshop led by Katie. We went through some exercises that made me realise that we all unconsciously make assumptions and judgements when listening to others to some extent, and how difficult it is to keep your thoughts in order when someone is not listening to you. We then learned about the listening model and put it into practice. This showed me how challenging it is to listen to someone, asking open questions to fully understand what is the source of their problems or worries without trying to guide the conversation or advise on the topic. However, this was a useful exercise and a thought to keep in mind for conversations in and outside of work.
We then discussed the most significant change that IWS caused for us, where having a supportive network seemed to be the basis for most things that were discussed. The creation of a supportive network of colleagues in similar situations, helped raise an awareness and understanding of the struggles that these colleagues may be experiencing, making each of us put our own stories into perspective. This encouraged many to value their time and themselves more and follow new opportunities.
Finally, we discussed how to sustain the network, since it was clear that we all value the result of this programme and want it to keep having a positive impact on us, but also on other women in STEM. This involves keeping our weekly emails, informal and yearly meet-ups, but also trying to expand the network by connecting with past and future cohorts and uploading online profiles offering mentoring roles.
The day was over. I walked home exhausted from the day, but with a lot of new thoughts to process and with a warm feeling in my body, realising how lucky I am to be part of such a great community of ingenious women.
by Anna Garcia-Teruel