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What are women’s networks in science and engineering for?

Commentary article by Jenny Koenig 

In 1994 a chance remark at the end of an article in Nature about “The Rising Tide” report on women in science and engineering helped to move forward the formation of the Association for Women in Science and Engineering (AWiSE). “The Rising Tide” report documented the loss of girls and women to science, engineering and technology (SET) at every stage. So what has changed in the intervening years? Do we still need a network for women scientists and engineers?

 Many people, women included, get quite uncomfortable about the idea of a women-only network. Men complain that they aren’t invited yet I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to meetings about flexible working in the sciences, or encouraging more women entrepreneurs and failed to see any men there at all – despite the fact that they are invited. There are plenty of men-only networks – they just aren’t called that. For example, a high-tech IT company which shall remain nameless, have a “go-karting club”. Needless-to-say there aren’t many women in it. There is also a club for middle –aged men who’ve been made redundant from senior jobs. They don’t call it that obviously, but that is really what it is. Essentially, people form clubs to meet with like-minded people – someone they can chat to, someone who will understand where they’re coming from, someone who might be able to put them in touch with someone else, or help them with a fresh idea for a problem they are facing.

 So why might women scientists and engineers want a women-only network? This is a personal perspective but it reflects a trend that women tend to (though not always) seek out AWiSE when they are at a turning point or facing some difficulty. I remember when I was a fresh-faced young PhD graduate, starting my first job at a large engineering firm. I was one of very few women scientists – in fact I only ever met one other. The other women were either secretaries – stereotypically dressed in short skirts, high heels and lots of make up – or technicians – stereotypically dressed in leggings and baggy T-shirts. Most of the men were stereotypically dressed in grey suits or that funny shade of grey-green, wearing cardigans with elbow patches and trousers made of that odd synthetic material that must have been quite popular in the 60’s. I remember feeling like the odd-one-out.

 Why should that matter? Well it does matter because other people see you as the odd-one-out too. I developed a patentable idea at about the same time as my colleague who was similar in age and qualifications, but male. We both went to see the patent agent. My colleague had a long in-depth discussion about the potential for his idea. I was asked whether my boss knew I was there and was there anyone else who should be included in the patent? That sort of attitude can really dent your confidence. Now I can laugh at it but at the time I remember feeling unsure of myself. Over the last year, I have been struck by the number of young women engineers who have been to AWiSE meetings who have expressed reservations – saying that they don’t feel comfortable in their working environment. Having someone to talk to who has been in that situation and can understand, can be enough to keep you from leaving.

 Fast forward seven years, I had moved back into academic biosciences and I had just had a baby and was ill. I had intended to return to work full time but I was struggling to cope and I tried to find another scientist who had worked part-time so I could get a better idea of the pros and cons of part time vs full time. No one amongst my circle of friends and colleagues could think of anyone working part time in a senior but untenured academic research job. I was really quite unprepared for the attitudes of other scientists, male and female, when I finally decided that I really couldn’t cope and just had to work part time or else not at all. I went from a promising young thing to a no-hoper in no time at all. That took some getting used to. I’ve since met a number of women, through women-only networks, who have faced a similar situation with a similar result and at least now I have a better understanding of the world. I may not like it, but I’m now better able to deal with it and move on.

 At about the time I was struggling with working part time, being ill and having one and then two babies, I met Joan Mason, the founding Chair of AWiSE. She made an enormous impression upon me. She had faced enormous discrimination but remained completely positive. She turned her considerable energy to helping women to succeed or at least progress. She took any negative comments (whinging if you want to be unkind) and turned them around with “so what are we going to do about it then?” She had such an incredible fighting spirit that infected everyone she dealt with. Recently, when asking someone to speak at an AWiSE meeting I got the response “of course I’ll speak, it was Joan and AWiSE that helped me at a difficult time before I got to where I am now”. If nothing else, that is an excellent example of the power of a women-only network – a network that understands the problem and can help to find a solution.

 Joan died in 2004. For eleven years she was the driving force behind AWiSE. She badgered people into doing things, donating money, giving talks, providing services for free. She represented AWiSE on many national and international bodies. She helped (with the Women’s Engineering Society) to establish a mentoring scheme for women in SET called MentorSET (see MentorSET is a very practical way of helping women by helping link them with someone they can talk with about issues to do with work and how home life impacts upon work. She got me into AWiSE by saying “OK so what are we going to do about this then? What’s your email address? When can we get people together for a meeting?” I bet she did the same for many other people.

 The problem with these sorts of networks is that people move on. Once an active organiser or two disappears to have a baby, or moves to a job elsewhere, the activity of the branch starts to fade. Once the momentum is lost, it is so much harder to get it started again. Much of the success of Cambridge AWiSE depends on the enthusiasm of a few. If ever I express a fear that the organisation is not sustainable, the response is one of, “no you can’t give up – it is really important”. Most women who might need AWiSE, are at a stage in their lives when they have very little time – trying to juggle work and family leaves little time for anything else.

 If we are to keep AWiSE and other women’s networks going, we need to devise a sustainable model and this is what we are attempting to do with Cambridge AWiSE.

I don’t believe that science, engineering and technology have moved on to the point where women can genuinely realise their potential. Just look at the figures. But as Joan would have said:

”What are we going to do about it then?”

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