How can we close the gender gap in STEM? Dr Ilaria Belluomo explores how a new network at Imperial aims to provide a safe space for women to discuss and plan their careers in leadership roles – in and outside academia.
We are all aware of the disparity between the number of men and women in senior academic positions, as well as the limited number of female mentors available to support and inspire young girls interested in pursuing a career in science. This small percentage of female representation can give the impression that a career in science and academia, in the current climate, can be difficult and hard for women to pursue. Things are slowly improving, but we are only at the beginning of initiating this change. We continue to have conversations and work on initiatives to ensure that the academic gender gap can be improved.
Last year, myself and a number of other women from the Department of Surgery and Cancer had the idea of creating a network of academic women to give young female scientists the opportunity to hear and learn from female senior academics that have successful academic careers. Our main goal was to create a safe space in which all experiences and questions can be shared. We wanted to form a link between women at every career level and inspire young females at the beginning of their careers to think, ‘yes, a successful academic career is possible, and many women have actually made it’. This led to the formation of the Academic Women Association (AWA).
The first AWA event
We held the very first AWA event on the 5th of July 2022. Going against the unwritten rules of this time, we decided against having the event live streamed or recorded. No Zoom or Teams, just us live in that moment. And indeed, it went brilliantly.
The Q&A style event featured a diverse panel of amazing senior academic women sharing their experiences. The feeling of ‘what I feel now as a student, PhD or postdoc are how these brilliant senior women felt before’. It was clear that we all share the same problems and worries.
There were many questions from the audience, directly asked or submitted anonymously. Although we were unable to answer them all because there were so many, they were all valid and interesting. As the chair of the event, I would have loved to hear the answers to all of them. The women in the panel were so involved that I could see the passion in their eyes and all they went through to achieve what they have now. We spoke about a broad range of topics including academic hard work, maternity, career breaks, caring responsibilities, fellowship applications, sexual harassment, unfairness in career progression, and mental health. It was a discussion among friends, where everyone felt comfortable sharing their feelings.
A network built for and with women
The work of the AWA is just beginning. We would like to organise other events and hear from our members about the different types of events they would like us to host in the future. This is important to us as the AWA is not only built for women but with women. We would like to establish a mentoring programme, promote events about career progression and discuss alternative career choices.
Our next event, Inspiration Beyond the Bench – Women in Non-academic Careers, supported by the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Centre and the Department of Surgery and Cancer, will follow a similar format to the first but feature a panel of female Imperial alumni who are now working in industries such as pharmaceuticals and publishing. Coinciding with International Women’s Day, we hope this event will inspire and help those who want to pursue a career in industry or want to use the skills and experience they have garnered over the years in a non-academic role.
Ultimately the aim of the AWA is to promote the careers of excellent female scientists and inspire more women into senior positions in the future. Although this is not a challenge unique to Imperial, but it is something affecting academic institutions across the globe, we believe that as a leading university, we have the responsibility to initiate change.
Dr Ilaria Belluomo is a Research Associate at the Department of Surgery and Cancer and co-founder of the Academic Women’s Association. Find out more about AWA, and register to attend the next AWA event, Inspiration Beyond the Bench – Women in Non-academic Careers, on Wednesday 8 March 2023, 16:00-19:00.