In this guest post, Anna Cupani, who is the Stakeholder Engagement Manager at Imperial’s Data Science Institute, writes about her experience of the Springboard Women’s Development Programme
I first heard about Springboard from a friend who had taken the course back in 2015. She was coming to the end of her post-doc and figuring out what to do afterwards. In our chats she mentioned how the course helped her to reconsider her career and to look at her values and strengths in a new light. So, when another colleague forwarded a reminder about the course last September, encouraging me to apply, I did not need much convincing.
Then, a week or so before the first training day, an article appeared in the Times Higher which contained some serious criticism of the course. It reported how some academics had dropped out of the training, put off by inappropriate the advice that women had to smarten up to boost their careers.
The last thing I needed was to be told that the way to a fulfilling career was paved with expensive shoes to make me look more authoritative, or a chic handbag so my manager knows that I mean business. It sounded bizarre that a development course would encourage women to conform to the most hackneyed of stereotypes. With this article at the back of my mind, I approached the first day of training with a critical mind. But I was also very curious and I hadn’t forgotten what my friend had told me. I am a scientist after all: so let’s look at the evidence!
And the evidence is that there was no significant discussion of shoes or handbags. Instead I am glad to report that the course is well worth attending! But you need to know why you’re there to make the most of it.
You will spend four days over four months in group activities with women from departments all around College – women of different ages, backgrounds and education. You will also be encouraged to undertake some activities on your own in between the training sessions, either to prepare for them or to mull over what’s been discussed during the training. How much time you dedicate to this ‘homework’ is up to you. You may set aside a few hours every week for self-reflection or just rush through the chapters of the training book the evening before because you forgot it under a pile of documents when you moved to your new flat (true story!).
If you expect Springboard to tell you how to get a tenure track job, or how to increase your success in grant applications, or how to get a pay rise, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. It’s not there to give you a precise set of instructions to complete your next project.
What the course does deliver (if you do the work) is an opportunity for reflection on your career and on your life through discussion with others in a structured way. You’ll be guided to look at your past choices, how they shaped your present situation, how they reflect your values and goals, and how to make the changes you feel you’re ready to make. You’ll practice giving and receiving advice and feedback, and you’ll get the opportunity to be a mentor and a mentee. Enacting simple real-life situations like a difficult conversation with your manager can be much more challenging than you imagine, and it’s incredible how helpful such a rehearsal can be. Half way through the course you may realise that you do not want to become an academic after all; or you may understand how to make your grant applications more impactful; or you may just go and ask for that pay rise because you can now talk more confidently about your achievements.
You will not learn the secret recipe to tackle gender inequality in the workplace, but you might come out of Springboard with a stronger determination to do something about it and a good network to help you. Which is a great starting point.