Supporting women in research – peer mentoring

This guest blog post was written by Irene Jacobsen, a PhD student at the MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, King’s College London.

More than 80% of people occupying the highest academic positions in the EU are men. Whilst the proportion is decreasing, only slightly more women are deciding to stay in academia, reaching for senior positions (Innovation Union Competitiveness report 2011). What then, does it take to get there? As a female PhD student who has only recently learned how the academic career ladder works – with fewer and fewer positions available the higher you climb – I started wondering what support was out there to help women bridge the 80-20% gap.

Enter King’s College London and the ‘’Peer group mentoring for women researchers’ taster day. Not quite knowing what to expect, I arrived to meet a refreshing group of people – crossing disciplines and age brackets – some wondering whether to stay in academic research after a PhD, some looking for support after decades in academia. All were women and all in research. Discussions started regarding the support that is out there or may be missing, with one particular contribution raising immediate interest: the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation in Germany. Professor Nüsslein-Volhard, a Nobel Prize recipient in 1995, initiated a foundation that awards monthly sums of money to women in the early stages of a scientific career, who also have the extra responsibility of taking care of young children. The money can go towards childcare or help with household tasks, helping these women to continue to produce high quality work as well as raise a family.

Whilst we may have to wait for a similar initiative to come to the UK, an alternative way of organising more basic support – which is available to everyone regardless of nationality, discipline or age – was introduced towards the end of the day: Action Learning. First described by Reg Revans, the idea is for people to present any issues they may have to the other members of a small group. The group can then ask questions to clarify the problem and provide alternative viewpoints free of preconceptions, as they usually only see each other in this peer mentoring setting. This allows the person raising the issue to leave the session with new perspectives, explanations and possibly even more questions, which may (or may not) help them to reach a solution.

As a member of such a group at the taster day, I was surprised to see how well it worked. Because it is not focused on providing advice, presenting an issue does not mean you will walk away with a sense of what you ‘ought to do’, but instead gives you an outsider’s view of your situation which may help you reach your own decision. The process is challenging, however, both for the ‘issue owner’ and the other members. The former may struggle to see the situation from a different standpoint and the latter to find the right balance between constructive questioning and careful listening.

Overall, the barriers for women in research in particular may be many, but the introduction to action learning does at least provide an opportunity for women in research to discuss in confidence the problems we face, and meet others who may present issues that you yourself could come across one day. Although I would first need to get used to the idea of disclosing personal problems to a group of people I know little about, I do see the undoubted value of having an objective, small and supportive peer group as one possible means of helping break through the barriers and increase the 20%.

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