A Boost for Success

Fifth edition of Career Development Workshop for Women in Physics held remotely at ICTP
A Boost for Success

From the art of negotiation to writing a successful CV, from talks by scientist role models to networking opportunities: ICTP's fifth Career Development Workshop for Women in Physics was held online for the first time from 17 to 19 November 2021. Women remain a minority in the physics community, which can impede their career advancement. This workshop brought together women physicists from all over the world to learn from one another's experiences and form a sense of community. In addition to talks and panel discussions, the workshop offered training sessions on crucial non-technical skills that women physicists may otherwise have less opportunity to acquire than their male peers, and that are fundamental to overcome the gender bias that exists in the scientific academic world.

More than 160 women scientists from 66 countries participated in the workshop, thus confirming its necessity and its success. More than half of the participants are junior or early-career scientists, and 92% of them are based in developing or least developed countries.

The online arrangement made personal interactions and an immersive experience more difficult to obtain but, on the other hand, allowed for a bigger participation from scientists who otherwise -- for budget restrictions or for travelling difficulties -- would have not been able to take part in the workshop.

"ICTP recognises the importance of an inclusive workforce in science," said ICTP's Director Atish Dabholkar in an opening speech. "And we continue to support this very popular workshop, which is always well appreciated by the participants. 'Why are there still fewer women than men in science?' is a very big question today and if we want to address it realistically, we have to recognise that it has to do with many issues and it has to be a long-term goal, and ICTP is really committed to address it."


The workshop

The idea of creating a workshop to support women's careers in physics emerged around 10 years ago following an exchange of views and concerns between ICTP's climate scientist Erika Coppola, Shobhana Narasimhan from the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, India, and Elizabeth Simmons from the University of California, San Diego, USA.

The starting point was the realisation of how few women were working in the field of physics research, and how they had to struggle with the isolation of being a minority in a male-dominated field or, in some cases, facing a hostile environment. Having to balance the pressures and commitments of both career and family was also something that usually was added to the struggle.

The ICTP workshop was therefore designed to address three main goals: create a space to share experiences with people who may have gone through the same challenges; give advice and mentor on so-called soft skills necessary to build a successful career; and develop an international support network.

"We hope that even if this year everything had to be moved online," said Coppola, "we have still succeeded in giving the participants a satisfying experience, and to make them willing to 'propagate the signal'. This is the main idea of the workshop: whatever participants gain from this experience, we wish that they will then go on and transmit these newly acquired knowledge and skills to their peers, their colleagues, or younger people they mentor."

One of the recurring comments that has come from the participants in the workshops in the past ten years is that they realise how similar they are, regardless of their different nationality, culture and background. The basic issues, the challenges women in physics face really seem to be the same everywhere and for all.

"To be a successful scientist, you need many skills apart from just knowing your technical science skills," said Narasimhan. "You need to know how to communicate, how to ask for money, how to negotiate for resources. Nowadays, you also need to know how to maintain a presence on social media. These are all important skills which typically you are not taught, and are typically acquired through peers or mentors. Unfortunately, sometimes women are very isolated, maybe because they are the only woman in their department, or because they are too busy with their family, so they miss their chance to gain this important and useful knowledge."

Empowering women scientists with stronger skills, together with personal connections and networking, can help fill that gap which is still very evident in science research.

"If we are to shift the culture of science to invite full participation by everyone with interest and talent, rather than continuing to privilege those from groups that have traditionally participated, it will take concerted effort by many scientists," said Simmons. "Scientific talent is equally distributed across all populations; access is not. Improving women’s access to education, careers, and leadership in the sciences will bring more talent into these fields that the world increasingly relies on for technological solutions to complex societal challenges."


Inspiring words from role models

The workshop included talks from inspiring, senior-level women scientists who shared their experiences, the difficulties they encountered in their path, their successes and their failures, and their advice for younger scientists.

Setsuko Tajima, a professor recently retired from the University of Osaka, Japan, talked about her journey in physics, a discontinuous path made of turns and sudden stops. She shared her advice for young women physicists: "We cannot design our career; life does not go as you want. There are many things disturbing your way - marriage, childcare, movement of family, sickness, and war. Then what should we do? Try your best to find a possible way to continue research within a given boundary. But consider what is most important in your life. Have a strong will to do research, and never give up."

Valérie Masson-Delmotte (Co-Chair, Working Group I, IPCC & Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environment, France) shared her experience as a woman in climate science, coordinating the assessment of the state of knowledge for the physical science basis of climate change. She remembered how, when she was offered to be a co-chair at IPCC, she at first did not want to accept the position. This was for two main reasons: first, she felt that she was not good enough for that role, and second, she was frustrated to see so few women in leading roles in that institution. She was finally persuaded to accept the role by her two young daughters, who told her: ‘If you don't accept, how do you expect things to change for women in science?’

Sossina Mariam Haile of Northwestern University, USA, talked about her story and how she went "From Schoolgirl in Ethiopia to Professor in the USA". She shared her experience as one of the few – and often the only - women of colour in North American universities. Her message to young women physicists was "to just take the opportunities that present themselves to you and run with them. Use them to your fullest capabilities. Success is being prepared for opportunities that arise."

She also talked about imposter syndrome and how to take advantage of the opportunities that are created to increase inclusivity without feeling like you are given an easier path towards success. "In the USA, the number of women who graduate with PhDs and choose science and engineering is around 27%. In the last couple of years, the percent who applied for our faculty positions who self-identify as women was around 13%. This means that there's a lot of self-selection. So, we're never going to get to equity. We have to figure out why some women choose not to pursue this path."


Drama therapy for women in physics

Maitri Gopalakrishna is a drama therapist, counselling psychologist, and practice-researcher based at the Parivarthan Counselling Training and Research Centre in Bangalore, India. For years, she has been an important part of ICTP's workshop’s success.

In her sessions, she applies methods and processes from drama and theatre to achieve psycho-social growth and change, to enhance well-being, productivity, and achieve common goals, by developing a sense of group and an ability to work together.

"The premise of my work is that people think with their bodies," said Gopalakrishna, "and when we engage our bodies in learning or in processing and sharing, there's a different level of care, of retention, of connection. It helps build connections much better; it helps people network with each other, it helps build trust, rapport. It also helps you learn in a way that is faster, and it helps you retain learning because you actually had an experience of it."

Compared to past editions of the workshop, moving the activities online was a big challenge because of their peculiar need of movement and interaction. "Of course, it was not ideal," said Gopalakrishna. "There was a sense of immersion when everybody came in person to ICTP; everybody was there together for one week and that helps the participants to really be immersively engaged. It's better than nothing, but I really missed just being in a room together."

She managed however to recreate an experience as similar as possible to the one in person, and to build a space, virtual but still safe, to allow participants to share, engage and bond.

Her sessions typically start with some icebreaker activities, where participants begin to know each other and feel comfortable within the group. "Very soon they begin to share slightly more intense things about themselves," said Gopalakrishna, "and they realise that they have in common many of the challenges that each of them faces every day, from harassment, to isolation, to hostile work environments, to having to be a super-woman balancing work, family and the rest of your life."

These bonding activities are paired with some basic theatre exercises that help build the group and are then used to explore some of the challenges that emerged from the informal discussions. "For example, I would ask the group to depict a scene or a scenario that shows a problem, and each of them plays one of the characters involved. Given a problem, we then ask 'What would you do in this situation?' But instead of answering the question, they go and enact it. We normally end up with a bunch of new ideas, new opinions and solutions to that problem."

At the end of the sessions, the participants are usually invited to discuss what they have learned, what they are going to take away with them, and what they feel inspired to do to promote change and support others. "We've found that there seem to be three main reasons why these workshops are so impactful," said Gopalakrishna. "The first is that you build a sense of community, a support network; the second, is that there is a validation, they feel that they are not the only one going through certain challenges; and the third one is a sense of empowerment and motivation, to move from helplessness into a place where they feel like they can do something, and that bearing it or quitting it are not the only options. I think it gives a lot of comfort when we say that emotions are also important and they're normal. I think with physicists, the expectation is that you should be able to logic your way out of any experience, out of any feeling, out of anything. But it's evident that just because you know why something is the way it is, or even if you know the solution, it doesn't always mean that you can act on it, you can do it or that it makes you feel better. So, we know that there is a big gap between insight and change."

Here is where drama therapy really shows its impact: it helps to close that gap, through actually practicing the change, enacting new behaviours, experimenting new solutions to approach difficult situations. "I think such spaces are vitally important, and I think we'll find that if these spaces exist, people will actually be able to do better work."



--- Marina Menga

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