What their stories tell us: Female researchers in conversation

On April 15 from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., Research and International Relations will host the third edition of In Her Own Words: Stories from Distinguished Research Careers, an event which features McGill’s most accomplished women researchers and academic administrators in conversation about careers in academia.
From left to right: Lisa de Mena Travis, Dr. Luda Diatchenko and Dr. Rosie Goldstein

On April 15, from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., Research and International Relations will host the third edition of In Her Own Words: Stories from Distinguished Research Careers, an event which features McGill’s most accomplished women researchers and academic administrators in conversation about careers in academia.

All researchers have a story to tell. This edition features Professor Lisa de Mena Travis, Department of Linguistics; Dr. Luda Diatchenko, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Human Pain Genetics in the Faculties of Dentistry and Medicine; and Dr. Rosie Goldstein, Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations). Ms. Jacquie Rourke, a seasoned broadcaster and manager in McGill’s audiovisual department, will moderate an hour-long discussion focused on the diverse experiences of these researchers in navigating the academic environment, including their advice on overcoming the professional challenges of being a woman in academia. McGill’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier will deliver opening remarks at the event. A networking cocktail will follow the formal portion of the event.

The Reporter spoke with each of the panelists in advance Wednesday’s conversation.

Register for the event.

The In Her Own Words event is founded on the idea that everyone has a story about becoming a researcher and a story about how research has made a difference. Why do you think it’s important for women in particular to share their stories about making a career in academia?

Lisa de Mena Travis: It is important for those making their way through the early stages of a research path (undergraduates, graduate students) to be able to see reflections of themselves in the members of the generation(s) above them. If they only see people very different from them, or they assume that senior researchers never had the doubts or challenges that they themselves might be experiencing, they will be more likely to leave the research path and take alternative paths open to them.

Rosie Goldstein: I think it is important because each of us has a unique story; however, there are also trends that can be observed as women share their stories. All of this is instructive to more junior academics (both men and particularly women) so that they can learn from our experiences. It is part of being a mentor, role model and facilitating the careers of others.

Luda Diatchenko: I believe that it is difficult to make a career in current competitive environment for everyone. However, for women it is even more difficult since they often feel pressure to choose between career and family. I believe that men do not have this pressure, or at least have much less of it.

What do you wish you’d known about pursuing a career in academia that you didn’t learn while studying?

Lisa de Mena Travis: Unfortunately, many of the lessons learned after graduate school are negative – the amount of non-research work required, the politics of academia, the stress of work/family balance. I’m frankly glad I didn’t know more about these issues because I might have questioned my career choice especially given the job market for academics. This is not to say that I regret my decision, but at a point where it would have been easy to turn away, I might have.

Rosie Goldstein: I wish I had known and understood the barriers for women in academia – I would have confronted them earlier and prepared myself better. This is one of the reasons I feel it is important to tell our stories, so that the next generation has more of a ‘head start’ on these issues.

Luda Diatchenko: I wish I’d recognized back then that I can be a creative human being as anyone else can be, and I that need to trust myself more.

Each of you have reached great heights in your academic careers, yet in 2012 the Council of Canadian Academies produced a report detailing the barriers limiting the progress of women’s academic careers. In your opinion, what is the single most important thing universities can do to support the advancement of women in academic careers?

Lisa de Mena Travis: There has to be a basic change of culture, but it is not clear how to trigger this shift because our biases are very deep-seated. I feel that if there were more diversity in the professoriate generally, more styles of academic behaviour represented, then one style would not be dominant.

Rosie Goldstein: I agree with Lisa that there has to be a basic change in culture. This is not doing one thing alone, it is really about creating a supportive environment for a diverse student and faculty demographic, being conscious of our biases and working to get beyond them.

Luda Diatchenko: In reality, [supporting a] family and [raising] little kids are the greatest challenge for many women with academic careers. And the most critical years in an academic career coincide with the age when the majority of women have small children. I believe that the most important thing a university like McGill can do to support women is to create an affordable or free daycare for students and young researchers.

At the upcoming “In Her Own Words” panel, what other issues do you hope to discuss?

Lisa de Mena Travis: I hope to discuss how to navigate academic politics without changing one’s value system; how to have a healthy amount of self-criticism without becoming paralyzed by it; how to create an environment that stimulates and supports creativity rather than blocks it; how to stop equating negativity with intelligence and high academic standards.

Rosie Goldstein: I hope we can discuss the positive aspects of being a woman in academia, and impart useful tips and advice for success from what we have learned.

Luda Diatchenko: In discussing creating an academic environment that is based on equality for males and females, I hope we will take the time to discuss the gender-specific or biological issues facing both females and males in their pursuit of a research career.

In Her Own Words: Stories from Distinguished Research Careers; April 15; 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Tanna Schulich Hall (555 Sherbrooke Street West). Register for the event.