Supporting Women in Academia through the Women’s Neuronetwork (WNN)

Most academics have at some point in their lives been asked by a well-meaning friend or relative when they will get a “real job”. While the natural response is to defensively explain that completing a PhD or a postdoc is in fact a real job, the question itself is not completely out of line. While for many career paths, people enter the job market directly after an undergraduate degree or an apprenticeship, research training takes many more years – up to ten years from the start of a PhD program to landing a permanent position (with no guarantees!).

There was a time when a PhD was the level of training expected from applicants to professorships, but it is now the norm to have two or more postdoctoral tenures under your belt to even be considered competitive. While this amount of additional training may be necessary to meet the demands of a research culture that is continuously evolving with new methodologies and technologies, it can be a grueling process, particularly for those faced with additional challenges beyond their control. Ten years is a long time to test anyone’s resilience while they strive to land a permanent position, but navigating roadblocks on the academic career path is not an equal challenge for all when the environment was not initially designed to welcome people from diverse groups and backgrounds.

As STEMM fields are increasingly adding a spotlight to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), we also have to be mindful that there is no one size fits all. To embrace EDI, we have to acknowledge that individuals come with backgrounds that may make it challenging to navigate the current academic culture. For example, we want to welcome mothers, but how do we account for the inevitably gendered time commitment for caretaking? Academic mothers’ productivity has been most impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic – a timely example of the structural impediments academia imposes on women.

The leaky pipeline refers to the process by which many women fail to (or choose not to) advance from one stage of their academic career to the next (e.g., from postdoctoral researcher to a professor). There are several structural impediments that prevent women from transitioning into the next role. While change in interest may be a quick and plausible explanation, it is also possible that academia may not be structured in a way that is welcoming to certain groups of people.

It’s definitely no secret that women face a lot of issues in academia and you’ve probably already heard a lot about them. Some of these challenges include unconscious biases of decision-makers, intimidation and harassment, and challenges navigating male-dominated networks. Many of these issues result in greater numbers of women leaving academia at earlier stages in their careers, which is harmful for science. On top of this, the women who do obtain professorships or other high-level positions are often overworked because they are asked to be on every committee and team that is trying to diversify itself.

To have more women in leadership positions, the environment must be welcoming to everyone. Support at all levels is essential to seeing more women in professor roles. Integrating family planning, rethinking ideas around academic relocation needed for successful growth as a scientist, and having a strong support network are examples of the many things that must be carefully considered and integrated in the academic infrastructure to make it a more welcoming environment.

The leaky pipeline is a very difficult problem to overcome, and we certainly don’t have the answers, but one thing we can do is support initiatives that try to address specific problems to make a difference. Founded by neuroscientists Ann-Marie de Lange and Claudia Barth, the Women’s Neuronetwork aims to create a supportive and inclusive culture for women scientists around the world to work together and provide that support. This forum will provide a platform for scientists worldwide to seek collaborations, mentorship, and resource-sharing. Importantly, this platform aims to support trainees through resource sharing and mentorship that also take into account the vast number of possibilities that exist outside of academia, providing the much-needed reassurance that there are several successful outcomes of a PhD in addition to an academic professorship.

The Women’s Neuronetwork’s first kick-off event exploring Gender bias in Academia will take place January 27th 2022 at 10 am EST – register for the event here!

Sivaniya Subramaniapillai completed her PhD in Experimental Psychology at McGill University in 2021. Her research aims to characterize brain-aging trajectories of women and men and understanding the lifestyle factors that contribute to healthy aging. Sivaniya is excited about fostering scientific dialogue between the research community and the public in a way that promotes greater inclusivity and public engagement.

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