Women’s Faculty Group rises from the dust…

A few months ago, in a fit of frustration over something un-bloggable that was going on at work, I cornered the Dean of my institution in the hallway and asked if he/she might support the formation of a Women’s Faculty Group.  I posted about this briefly at the time I made the original request- and as some of you may remember- the Dean was quite enthusiastic about the whole concept, he/she threw money and administrative support at me for the effort- and further promised to support anything and everything I might wish for in this regard. I also had the blessing of my chair in this effort- which, I didn’t really ask for until after all the plans had been laid.

I thought I would use a post to update you on how this little exploratory effort has been progressing. I made the original request to the Dean to do this back in the spring.  I had a summer and spring that were rather full with grant and paper writing, and people are generally out of town during the summer anyway- so I waited until the fall to put the first meeting together. Now- this little adventure takes very little of my effort to organize, because the Dean’s Assistant takes care of all the arrangements- and I mean ALL the arrangements… all I do is show up and lead the meeting. I’m pleased to report that we are meeting once per month, and have good attendance ( about 2/3 of the female faculty at each meeting, <20 people)- so far we have had three meetings.  All the attendees seem pleased about the chance to meet, mentor, discuss issues etc.  We decided that for the first several meetings we would have volunteers from the group talk a little about their research programs- and more generally about how they arrived at the stage in their career where they now are.  We have women faculty at all career stages- and there are a couple of them in my institution that had multiple children prior to getting tenure.  Because I usually feel very isolated as a younger academic career woman with 2 kids … pre-tenure… I’ve been pretty excited about being connected to these women.

At one of our recent meetings, one of these two women- I’ll call her Accomplished Science Professor (ASP), who as it happens is one of the most senior women career-wise in the group, spoke about her experiences from her arrival here to the present. It struck me how many of the experiences she described from her early career mirror the experiences that I am having right now. First, she described a welcoming department of all male colleagues, most of them mid-career. Now, you might think that this was a hostile environment for her to start her career in- but that’s not how she described it at all. Her description was of a group of highly successful and supportive senior colleagues who wanted nothing more than her success, and in fact they were personally invested in her success- encouraging her to submit on every deadline, reading her proposals, actively teaching her the ropes.

Second, ASP described the extreme highs and lows that you can experience in this line of work.  Early in her career she went  from worrying about how she was going to keep the lab going,  laying off laboratory staff, and sitting in her office feeling the despair that funding might never come through to having two grants get funded simultaneously. Literally overnight things changed from a situation where ASP had one foot out the door of academic science and into flipping burgers…. to her lab being awesomely funded and thriving. However, it wasn’t some freak of nature that this happened- the $$ didn’t just fall from the sky, ASP was submitting every single grant she was eligible to apply for. This point resonated so much with me- you probably do not realize how down I was earlier this year about my own prospects for independent funding- but I am going to tell you now that I was very, very depressed about this earlier this year.  And this in the face of the high of my over-the-top enthusiasm about my projects, piles of data, the graduation of a master’s student and imminent graduation of my first Ph.D. student, and my awesome collaborators. This year I’ve had the very lowest of the career lows and the very highest of the highs.  These extremes can be dizzying.

Finally, I realized during ASP’s presentation that I so often (naively) think of this career as a straight line in terms of career progression and research interests- but this is not always so.  ASPs path has had a fair number of detours and unexpected developments- and instead of fighting them to stay on a pre-determined path, she embraced each new opportunity and took some chances that have paid off well for her. In addition to her academic endeavors, she is now interfacing with scientists from other disciplines all over campus and is well on the way to starting a small company of her own. It seems like many times the most interesting people I have met in this career have had a twisting and turning career path, and during their academic careers they take little detours into developing a company on the side, or writing patents- or whatever- that can sometimes turn out to be fascinating, fulfilling and successful.

Anyway- it feels great to know this accomplished person, and to have her around as a mentor. I’m looking forward to future meetings for which we have the following tentative plans:

1.  Develop a list of suggestions to the NIH working group for women in biomedical careers (run out of the ORWH and the office of the director of the NIH)- as it turns out one of the members of our group is a newly inducted member of this task force which meets twice yearly.  I am collecting suggestions from the blogosphere too- so send me all your ideas and I’ll do my best to advocate for them.

2.  Invite female graduate students and postdocs to several of our meetings per year. This is important, I think, to show female students in my (and any) institution that are getting graduate degrees in basic science what it is really like to be in academia from the inside.


10 thoughts on “Women’s Faculty Group rises from the dust…

  1. Must be nice. I hope your Dean is as supportive of the younger academic career men with 2 kids … pre-tenure.

  2. This was a great post, drdrA! You’re so right that it’s easy to think, “Things aren’t going well right now so I’m pretty much toast,” and harder to remember that many outstanding scientists have gone through such stretches themselves. One’s own problems just seem so…acute.

    For that matter, blogs like yours help me as a postdoc understand more about junior faculty life, and I would say have helped me gain some sense of confidence/calm about my own career. Of course, I say that now with everything going fairly smoothly 🙂

  3. Do the women in your group come from all over the institution or are in you all the same department/discipline? I’ve noticed that these kinds of groups have variable success, and I wonder if it is related to how much the members have in common, work-wise. Like, do people who do really different types of research face such different problems that the support group is so watered down that it doesn’t help much? Or does that not really matter? Neither of the women STEM groups at my institutions are all that helpful to me and I feel that is partly because they are trying to appeal to broad an audience, but I might be wrong.

  4. I’m glad that #2 on your list is to invite female grad students & postdocs to some of the meetings–as I was reading your post I was thinking that it would be so beneficial for grad students & postdocs to attend the meetings and was going to suggest it if you hadn’t listed it.

  5. Indeed, a fabulous post – I’m back from a few days off and am only just catching up on the great writing you’ve put up in my absence.

    I was just reading Candid Engineer’s post about anxiety and depressive disorders. She reminded me that this is an extremely tough business period, but especially so for people biochemically predisposed to feeling like hell about oneself and or experiencing chronic debilitating anxiety.

    When funding is this tough, and often arbitrary around grant payline cutoffs, it is very easy to feel like a failure for extended periods. Unless you are a routine single %iler, getting repeated 20-25 %ile scores can feel just as bad as being triaged. With this fine line between “success” and “failure” it really helps to have a senior colleague or two like ASP to mentor you and give perspective across a career.

    One issue I have grown to learn is that opportunities can often arise that allow a new and satisfying direction one may not have appreciated previously.

    I am so happy that you gained traction on this initiative – your students and postdocs have a great mentor in you as well.

  6. Abel- Nice to have you back! I hope the days off were relaxing. I really enjoyed reading CEs post about anxiety/depression as well- and you are right, this is a tough business, and positive reinforcement is freaking rare!! It is easy to get caught up in that.

    NeuroPostdoc- I think this is an important part of putting a finger in the leaky pipeline- as I’ve said many times before young women in graduate school need a live demo of what is possible, a realistic demonstration of how great a career this can be, and that other aspects of your life can be accommodated.

    ecogeofemme- All same institution, in fact, from within a single college in the institution- but our research interests are very different. Although the powers that be wished that I would include a much broader range of women from within the institution (which is huge, BTW), it was very important to me to keep this group small and basic science academic faculty oriented. I think it will be most useful that way- and I think you are right, that this matters A LOT.

    Dr. J.&Mrs. H.- Yes, by the time we had this meeting I had pretty much worked my way out of the dumpster- but it was very, very good for me to hear that this roller-coaster wasn’t unique to me, and it is survivable.

    Whimple- We are quickly establishing a love-hate relationship. This is something I’ve been conflicted about…so you are touching a nerve with me. I’m always led back to the fact that a much greater proportion of the STEM faculty are men and many of them have children… so WHY does the majority need a support group- they’ve already got one by virtue of the fact that they are not isolated from each other.

    But… Actually, the formation of this women’s faculty group prompted a female junior faculty member to start a group for junior faculty of both genders….. also supported by the Dean… which I think is a great thing as the landscape for junior faculty has changed quite a bit, and active mentoring to keep your junior faculty is a very, very important thing.

  7. WHY does the majority need a support group

    That’s a good question. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t feel like a “majority”; I feel like a struggling individual, and I wouldn’t mind getting some constructive advice and support. The majority turns out to actually be a pretty lonely place, at least from where I’m standing.

    The concept of “women’s faculty group”, although well-intentioned, is inherently sexist and divisive. You don’t disallow men from reading and commenting in your blog right… why not?

    Actually, the formation of this women’s faculty group prompted a female junior faculty member to start a group for junior faculty of both genders

    How do I sign up?

  8. Whimple- Now we are tilting more toward the love side and less toward the hate side. Do I know you in real life?

    I feel like a struggling individual- and I wouldn’t mind getting some constructive advice and support.

    But why do you keep this in??? Why does this not drive you to seek out that advice and support? Because for myself, that’s what having a group of like individuals is all about. It is not to be purposefully exclusionary- it is to not feel alone.

    The majority turns out to actually be a pretty lonely place, at least from where I’m standing.

    Academic science is a strange place isn’t it?- in the lab things don’t work at all if we don’t get the team to function effectively- but then at the PI level we are all in our own little silo in many cases- and there is this emphasis on individualism. I think it would be great if that would change- if departments would be seen as teams working to build a strong group- and that includes mentoring each other.

    In the meantime- talk to me.

  9. Great idea to include female post docs and grad students several times per year. This is something that I would wish for at my own institution. No better way of setting an example than by showing (actively) the younger ones how it’s done.

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