Women in Wheat to bring diversity to the field
There are many women working in wheat research, but this is less evident in senior academic roles. While we see a relatively even gender ratio at early career stages, the more senior Research Leader career stage is heavily male dominated.
The Women in Wheat programme has been designed to try to tackle this issue by supporting women to progress to senior academic positions in wheat research.
Wheat researchers report that it is common to attend meetings and conferences in their scientific area where there are very few women Research Leaders present. The result is a less inclusive environment and ultimately a loss to the overall research caliber as women leave the talent pool to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
“The severe lack of female representation in wheat research particularly in academia at the independent career stage is extremely concerning. The Women in Wheat programme aims to encourage and support early-career female researchers to achieve their career goals in the wheat research field so as not to continue to lose our talent pool to other research areas” said Diane Saunders, Designing Future Wheat (DFW) Group Leader and Women in Wheat programme creator.
“It’s a really exciting time in wheat research”, said Graham Moore, DFW Programme Lead, “there is an opportunity here and perhaps one we will miss if we do not have the best talent through diversity in the field.”
Women in Wheat is a pilot programme based at the John Innes Centre supporting women aiming for a career in wheat research through the provision of mentoring and training support. This is achieved by pairing individuals at PhD and Postdoctoral level with Group Leaders who are experienced but, in true mentorship practice, hold no supervisory role over the mentee. The program also provides training sessions designed to develop the skills to help the mentees succeed in their chosen field.
Providing mentorship support
Prior to the programme, most of the mentees had little or no interactions with the mentor they were paired with. This allows them to share their career plans in confidence without any conflict of interest between their own goals and their current projects. The overall effect is a safe, open space to share and develop ideas on the mentee’s career direction over successive meetings.
“I particularly value the one-to-one mentoring, which provides a unique opportunity to discuss career development with an experienced researcher’ said Postdoctoral researcher, Azahara Martin.
“It’s helpful just because we’re forced to think about our future which we don’t normally give ourselves the space to think about.” said PhD student Cassandra Jensen.
Having an independent mentor opens up a broader range of experiences to draw upon when considering future career path moves.This is valuable, as frequently the main point of view researchers receive is from their immediate supervisor.
“It’s been good to have a different point of view,” said Postdoctoral Scientist Rachel Goddard, “They can be very objective, stand back and say where something is a good opportunity.”
Another aspect of the mentoring relationship is that it provides the opportunity to share some of the less visible, personal sides of career development. It can be easy to see a Research Leader confidently presenting and forget they might not have always felt that way.
Being able to discuss these thoughts in a mentoring setting can explore these concerns. It allowed mentees to hear that feeling anxious at times or facing passed failures is not only normal, it can be helpful to learn from. Knowing this can help to build confidence.
“It’s important to share the personal side too,” said Group Leader Cristobal Uauy, “that I’ve been through certain struggles or I also feel nervous before a talk.”
“What was lovely was that we had people in higher management roles open up to students about areas they feel nervous about,” said Norwich Biosciences Institutes Learning and Development Manager, Vanda Morgan, “it showed that it’s normal to feel these kinds of personal things at any level.”
Visiting women scientists
To continue this theme of experience sharing, the Women in Wheat program encourages prominent women Group Leaders to talk to the cohort, perhaps surprisingly not on their research, but on their career path. This marks a clear difference from scientific presentations that normally focus solely on technical details and rarely on the individual who carried out the work.
Kim Hammond-Kosack (Rothamsted Research) and Alison Bentley (National Institute of Agricultural Botany) were the first senior researchers invited to share their experiences with the cohort in this way. On their visit to the John Innes Centre, they described their own very different career trajectories across research and industry.
“I loved those presentations because you see scientists as humans with issues that are similar to what you are feeling right now,” said Pilar Corredor-Moreno, “that makes you empathise with them, you can talk and interact together.”
Skills training and response
As well as presentations, the Women in Wheat programme runs training events every few months on skills for career progression; such as evaluating CVs and how to structure a presentation and prepare for interviews. These were given from the point of view of what the Group Leaders involved would be seeking when recruiting. This aims to equip the mentees with skills for career progression alongside building confidence and providing additional guidance from open and honest conversations.
Perhaps less immediately obvious, bringing the same group of early careers researchers to meet regularly has in it itself has brought benefits.
“It’s created more discussions between people on the programme” said Rachel, “and it’s encouraging to see the change in others developing over the workshops.”
The programme itself as well has been open to change and evolved based on the needs of the mentees. Training events or discussions around topics the group have requested have been incorporated into the programme. One example was discussion around pay-gaps between men and women in research and what institutions are doing to address these gaps.
“Vanda and Diane have been really open to our suggestions so a number of sessions have been introduced based on our feedback,” said Rachel “it feels more tailored to the group and I’m really enjoying it.”
The impacts of the programme are not just limited to the mentees. One of the mentors described how their involvement in the program had ‘crystalised’ their awareness of gender representation in research. Subsequently, they were able to use their position to push for more diverse gender representation in the meetings they attended. This marks how the bottom-up approach of the Women in Wheat programme has also led to top-down changes.
If early career support and building strong networks can enable greater gender representation at senior Research Leader positions, the Women in Wheat programme offers a clear step towards this. While still only in its first year, the program has received positive feedback from those involved. If found to be successful, aspects of the programme could be utilised by other DFW partners and used as a model for other research areas where women are underrepresented.
“It has been a great privilege to work one-to-one with such an outstanding group of early-career researchers, helping prepare them for the next step in their career path.” Said Diane, “the mentees are provided with additional support, practical guidance and examples that hopefully will inspire them to continue to work in wheat research”
“It has been a pleasure being involved in the Women in Wheat programmme and seeing it develop” said Carole Thomas “The secret to its success is that it is led by researchers for researchers and as such has the credibility to make a real impact for those taking part. In my view the most effective initiatives to address gender underrepresentation are those that come from the bottom up and are led by people who are passionate about making a difference, Diane is one of those people”
“I think something like this should be mandatory, and to have it for everyone,” said Cassandra Jensen.