This post is the second in a blog series based on discussions at monthly meetings of the Ronin Institute Women’s Interest Group.The first post in this series was on Productivity and balance as a woman scholar Forthcoming posts in this series will include thoughts on managing stress and more.
In early 2021, a trend all too common in academia began to emerge at the Ronin Institute. Women were often carrying more than their share of volunteering in service functions, and yet were fewer in number and less visible than their colleagues in activities like publishing and presenting their work. In response, the Ronin Institute Advisory Board added a Ronin Women Interest Group Slack channel (#ig) and led subsequent discussions about why this was happening and what we (and the Institute) could do to both recognize and support the efforts of Ronin Institute women or, women who wished to join – but hadn’t followed through. Where were the women scholars? One thought was that women have less time (often doing more caregiving and domestic work) and less access to resources for doing scholarship.
Several Ronin Institute women members proposed to organize more formally and find ways to support one another. An early attempt at organizing centered on a mentorship program for Ronin Institute women, led by members Arika Virapongse, Sheilamae Ablay, and Ponn Mahayosnand. After several meetings and increased interest, members proposed to upgrade the Slack channel into the Ronin Women’s Interest Group as an IG+, in order to increase women’s visibility at the Ronin Institute and indicate a commitment to meet regularly in order to support each other’s scholarship. Ronin Interest Groups are flexible–all scholars are welcome to join or leave at their discretion–but a core group must commit to meeting regularly for at least six months in order to maintain IG+ status. Two co-leads, Amy Collins and Ponn, and four core members, Sheilamae, Jacqueline Kory-Westlund, Emily Monosson and Arika, committed to meet regularly and collaborate on joint projects. From the onset, we emphasized that we are a women-focused group but are not exclusive to women, and welcomed any scholars who share our mission in supporting women in scholarship. Our members are from all over the world, spanning at least six different time zones.
To develop structure for our meetings, we created a spreadsheet where scholars listed topics that they were interested in and which they felt comfortable leading. We also actively recruited members to lead these topics and worked to identify areas where members could collaborate on projects. These projects included a peer mentorship program, blog posts, articles about women in scholarship, and weekly writing sessions. Based on our spreadsheet of interests, we came up with six topics for our first meetings: book writing, entrepreneurship, mentorship, productivity/balance, stress and self-care, and later career.
Our first meeting was led by Emily Monosson and Jacqueline Kory-Westlund. Emily, a toxicologist and seasoned book writer, is working on another book called Blight, a mass market nonfiction book about fungal blights to be released by W.W. Norton. Jacqueline’s book is an exploration of a healthy graduate school life based on her experience as a doctoral student at the MIT Media Lab. Emily and Jacqueline led us in a great discussion about how to find an editor, how to write with caregiving responsibilities, maintain motivation, develop skill sets for writing, and how to leverage the book to help your career. They also shared a great resource that lists publication rates for freelance writing. Our ongoing Let’s Write sessions, a weekly time slot devoted to two hours of quiet writing, developed from this meeting. Jacqueline also wrote a blog post with a great summary of the meeting.
Arika and Sheilamae led our second meeting on entrepreneurship. They presented their different experiences as independent contractors, different modes of payment and marketing, and a list of resources and recommendations that helped them along the way. One major challenge that all attendants discussed was getting paid for our work. We discussed the misconception that independent scholars should do their work for free, possibly because of the common practice in academia where scholars are expected to do unpaid or low paid work by peer reviewing articles, serving on committees, or teaching as a graduate student/postdoc. Arika shared some relevant resources, e.g., A guide to winning clients by David Fields and the YouTube video F*ck you, Pay me, and Sheilamae gave us links to entrepreneurial groups on social media, like the women’s consulting workshop on Facebook and the small business and independent consulting group on Linkedin.
Ponn led our next meeting on mentorship. One of the biggest challenges to women’s achievement in scholarship is lack of mentorship, so it has been a major focus of our group from the beginning. As an extension of two previous meetings, Ponn proposed next steps to launching the Women’s IG+ Peer E-Mentoring Pilot Program, a virtual program that matches Ronin Institute Women members to be reciprocal mentors based on mutual interest. She polled the attendees to gauge interest and solidify programmatic details. After a successful recruitment period, six attendees agreed to participate in a 6 week pilot launched in October, 2022. At the end of the pilot, participants completed a program evaluation survey. We have started to analyze the evaluation data and will submit our findings to a peer reviewed journal for publication.
Productivity and life balance
Jacqueline and Andrea led our fourth meeting on Productivity and Life Balance. The focus was on achieving desired goals while caring for children, elderly parents and other family members. The group discussed challenges and strategies used to achieve balance in work and family life, and how essential it is to share and/or outsource certain duties. We identified a common challenge – finding equity in shared responsibilities in the home – and how we often have to find pockets of time to complete our work, e.g., early morning, late at night or during children’s school or nap schedules. Jacqueline also wrote a blog post on this topic, summarizing some of what we discussed.
Stress and self care
Stress and Self Care was led by Amy Collins and Amy Teffer. Each attendee was asked to jot down the “stressors that you experience or can imagine women experience”. We came up with common themes like work, being different, household, planning, coping, caregiving, and achieving goals. The group discussed a study that demonstrates significant gender differences in teaching, service and research responsibilities in academia and how it contributes to increased stress in women. We pondered the concept of “cognitive load” and how it impacts our scholarship. We also identified solutions such as reframing success, finding social support, mentorship and shared resources. Jacqueline also wrote a blog post summarizing some of what we discussed.
Next-stage/third-phase research projects
The last meeting: Legacy, Passion Projects & Next-Stage/Third-Phase Research was led by Emily Monosson. We experimented with a new meeting format in order to reduce the burden on meeting leads. Rather than appointing a lead who was responsible for formally presenting a topic and leading a discussion, the lead was simply a facilitator. This worked out well for our last meeting–Emily ensured all participants were heard and we were able to problem solve and share methods, in real time. In addition to the meetings above, we’ve compiled a reading list of resources and a meeting log that is open to Ronin Institute Women members for reference.
After nine months of meetings, engaging conversations on our slack channel, and live discussions amongst our members, we’ve learned the following about the members of the Ronin Women IG+:
- Ronin Institute Women are a diverse group, but we all share a common struggle in balancing life and work. Some of us experience unequal responsibilities in the home.
- We are very short on time, and this impacts our work and our ability to access supportive resources and to be active in our professional communities. Many of us are primary caregivers for children and elderly parents. We fit our work into pockets of time found during the day and night.
- We experience a high level of current and residual stress from our lives in academia. Many of us endured overt or implicit discrimination and joined Ronin in order to be free of institutions that were not women or family friendly. Some of us struggle daily with negative messages we’ve received about being women and mothers in academia.
- Many of us manage to maintain a high level of scholarship despite these challenges.
We’ve also learned a lot about founding and maintaining a successful IG+ within the Ronin Institute. Here are some of our thoughts:
- Meetings need to reflect the interests of the group. A brainstorming meeting every few months, in addition to the monthly meetings, has helped to keep the topics and programs relevant to members.
- Experimentation is essential – we’ve made it a priority to test different formats and timing for the meetings in order to maintain interest.
- Members must be actively engaged and share responsibilities – a small group of members tends to take on most of the burden of running the group; therefore we’ve tried different ways to increase support and participation. A more relaxed format for meetings as well as the mentor program has generated more interest and dedication to the group.
It turns out the Advisory Board was right about why women are less visible at Ronin. Our IG+ has struggled with the Catch-22 of having a group composed of women scholars–we need mentorship, peer support and resources, but many of us lack the time and energy to engage with a group that provides these benefits. We’ve made the following changes in order to keep the group productive and meet our most immediate needs. First, we received very positive feedback on the pilot mentor program in October. Ponn plans to develop another session in 2023 with hopefully many more participants. Second, our meetings now focus primarily on writing productivity- a main interest of the group. We will continue our weekly Let’s Write! Session (led primarily by Stephanie Cassilde and Arika) and our monthly meetings will be workshops to provide support and feedback on our current writing projects. Third, our new co-lead Jacqueline (in addition to Ponn) will focus specifically on collaborative writing projects resulting from our workshops or programs. These changes will hopefully address our most immediate needs: mentorship, support and feedback on our current projects. We look forward to welcoming new members, continuing our experimentation with best practices, and celebrating the accomplishments of such an impressive and motivated group of scholars.
[Image credit: “Two Friends Reading Poetry” by Françoise Gilot]
This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.