Two Simple Recipes for Women in Science Events

Naomi Havron is a postdoc at the Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique at Ecole Normale Supérieure.

She was recently interviewed for the departmental newsletter on her experiences as a woman and mother in science, and here’s a statement we found particularly on point:

Being a woman in science became difficult once I was a mom. Before, I believed that any inequality could be surmounted by working my ass off. But once I was a mom, I had to leave work early for my children. And I was judged differently from men. If it was me that was leaving early, that was judged as non-professional and proof I wasn’t invested enough in research. If it was a male colleague that was leaving for his children, he was complimented as being a devoted parent. (paraphrased and translated, see original French version here).

Naomi has been involved in organizing two amazing women-in-science events at our department recently, and we’re very excited she’s sharing her experiences and materials here with us.

Recently I organized two events about women in science. One was in our lab retreat (about 20 participants), and one was a panel discussion for the department (about 70 participants).

I’m going to tell you about what we did in both. Think of this as a recipe you found online: You can get an overall idea of how one could go about making a cupcake, but you can play with the ingredients and quantities as you’d like (including making broccoli cupcakes – yummy!).


Awareness workshop at lab retreat

Exercise 1: Professor brings baby to lab

The retreat was a fun event, and so was my little workshop. We started with a short vignette, inspired by this tweet. Participants were given a piece of paper which described how a professor had to bring their baby to class one day. The vignette identified the young professor as either a he or a she. I asked participants to describe in a word or two what they thought about this event, without telling us what was written on their paper. Participants were overall very supportive of the professor, mostly using the word ‘normal’ or ‘ok’. Only one participant added that the professor was ‘cute’. His piece of paper had the professor recognized as a dad, not a mom. Of course, this is a workshop about women in science, I was not expecting anyone to say anything bad about the mom-professor (e.g. “unprofessional”) – however, I am not so surprised to have heard positive things only about the dad-professor. I have the same experience myself. As a mom, if I go home early to be with my kids, it’s ok (at best). If my partner does it he is “such a great dad!”.

Exercise 2: Committee to select applicants for grant

In the second exercise participants were asked to serve on a committee to select one of two applicants for a grant. Of course one was a woman and one was a man. I was less interested in who will get it, and more in the reasons that the committee supplied. This is because for half of the discussion groups the man had a better CV, but a medium project, and for the other it was the woman who had the better CV, and the man that had the better project. The idea was that when both applicants are equal, with no way to choose, people tend to prioritize different qualities, saying things like “well, obviously with such a CV she won’t be able to pull off this project, so a CV is more important” or “well, his CV might not be so good, but it’s a great project and we should fund it”. I didn’t get this obvious bias (but then again there were only four groups and the goal of the exercise was pretty clear to everyone), what I did get was one star-pupil – one student who was fiercely defending the woman applicant, saying: “well, her CV might look like that because she had a baby during her PhD or chose a difficult subject to study, thus having less publications [this doesn’t have to do with the applicant being a women – just with giving candidates a benefit of the doubt]– we don’t know what circumstances she has had.” A fast learner…

Exercise 3: Multitasking during academic work

Our last exercise was the most fun one. I gave the participants an old (rejected) abstract of mine, and asked them to give me comments. As everyone was getting ready with their pens, I said: “the men, though, have to go make us fruit salad as they are reviewing the abstract.” I got good comments for my abstract, and a delicious fruit salad. The women got to enjoy the sun and the men learned a bit more about what it feels like to be expected to do more things at the same time as your peers are doing less. I was asked where I got the idea for this exercise, and said “from my own life”. This might be more true for women who are moms, but while our colleagues can catch up on work during the weekend, we have our second job, and our weekends and evenings are filled with it[1].

All the materials I prepared for this workshop (except for my rejected abstract, but I am sure we all have one lying around) are available here.

Panel discussion at my department

Our panel discussion on Women in Science (we is Nura Sidarus, Si Berrebi and myself) was meant to be a more serious discussion, backed up by statistics and personal experience.

The speakers

We had three speakers: Anne Christophe, the director of our lab, a successful researcher who has a lot of experience working in academia, including in decision making roles such as grant committees, and supervising students of all genders. Aude Nyadanu, a PhD student in chemistry at the École Normale Supérieure and the École Polytechnique, two of the most selective institutions in France, she is a laureate of the prestigious L’Oreal-UNESCO prize for women, and an entrepreneur. Lucie Charles has completed her PhD in France, at NeuroSpin, and is doing her post-doc at the University College London. She was active in women organizations in both countries and came to tell us a bit about the differences. Our intro slides, with some statistics of the situation of women is science (with a focus on the EU and France), and some directions for evidence-based solutions are available here. Presentations from two speakers (the ones who had slides) – here. We plan to also release a video of the event soon, on the same page, so I’ll just tell you a little bit about what it was like instead of describing the whole event.

The content

It was important for us to make the discussion about facts and not personal stories, but still, the personal stories where what connected the facts to actual histories, and people to each other. Aude told us about her early dream to become a scientist, but also about how she felt when she couldn’t find one scientist that looked like her. She showed us that just last night she googled “black woman scientist” (in French) and found photos of black women – yes, of white women scientists – yes, but only one black woman scientist – and she was American, not French. To become as successful as she is, she had to overcome these and other obstacles. Anne told us about her experience as an early career researcher. Like me, she “discovered” discrimination quite late. In her post doc she had an activist for an office mate, who told her how bad the state of women in academia was. Anne was proud. She thought: “well, maybe in the US, but France is not like that.” Until she actually saw the statistics and realized that things were just as bad in France. Lucie shared with us her experience of moving to England, and the fact that while things in France are “just as bad”, there are differences between France and its northern neighbor in how these issues are treated. France is generally more quiet about inequalities. It believes in liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity), which means that as long as people are equal in the eyes of the law, there should be no cause to intervene. Affirmative action tends to be perceived as discrimination, and, like Anne as a young researcher, people tend to think that there is no discrimination (though it seems that things are slowly changing, e.g., in French here). In the UK, however, universities actively attempt to combat gender issues, for example using the Athena SWAN Charter. After our three speakers, we had time for questions. Some students shared their own feelings, some asked about their future. Will activity for women endanger my professional career? How do I convince men around me that there is a problem? How do you feel about being expected, not only to be a great scientist, but also an ambassador for women (this again means you have to work harder than men, making fruit salad as you review an abstract)?

The outcome

We were happy to discover a thirst by many colleagues to hear and share more. It brought up a ton of conversations, both before and after the panel. Many people also came to us asking how they can get involved, or asking how they could organize similar events in their departments. These were not just women, but also men, who wanted, for example, to distribute a survey in their department to map the problems faced by women in that specific department.

So, this was my recipe, but only for two events – I’d be happy to try more – if you share your own recipe!


[1] To an extent this is true also for fathers, but in our society today, most fathers still take less of child-caring responsibilities on themselves than mothers. Also, at least in academia, they seem to be highly valued for taking a few afternoons off to be with the kids.



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