advice · community · DIY · faster feminism · ideas for change · making friends · new year new plan · role models

Guest Post: How to start a professional development group for academic women

A very useful and inspiring guest post, from Bonnie Kaserman, on 10 Things to Consider when starting a professional development group for academic women. Who doesn’t love a neatly organized list at the beginning of term? Particularly one that helps us support one another more effectively?

(Also, I love the reminder that food motivates people. Oh, yes, it’s true! I’ll bring the bean dip!)


Have you been thinking about starting up a group to support the academic women on your campus?

Yes, you’ll be busy as the school year starts in earnest. Overwhelmed. But, at least in my experience, having a community to meet and talk about gender in the academy can be one of the most invigorating and sustaining aspects of academic life. Since the late 1990s, I’ve been involved in groups that support women in my discipline of Geography. (For example, see C-SWIG). Our monthly meetings are part-professional development and part emotional support. Here are a few tidbits that I’ve gleaned along the way to get a group going and keep it going:

  1. Start your group at the beginning of fall term. You think, “We’ll start something after the rush at the beginning of term.” But the truth is, life only gets more hectic. Get the ball rolling early and establish the group as part of everyone’s regular schedule.
  2. Decide on membership. Who will be in this group? Undergrads, graduate students, post-docs, faculty? Is your group exclusive to women? It’s important to have space exclusively for those who self-identify as women, but you must weigh the political ramifications of doing so. Also, with people coming and going from institutions, consider how the group’s membership will be sustained from year to year.
  3. Consider affiliating your group with your university. Funding may be sparse these days, but if your group can be considered an official student group, you may be able to apply for university funding. Use those dollars to fund guest speakers or to help fund members’ travel for conferences.
  4. Share the responsibilities. Women are often assigned time-sucking social responsibilities in their departments and at their institutions. Make an agreement about how responsibilities (facilitating a meeting, choosing readings, organizing an event, etc.) will be shared amongst group members.
  5. Establish a website and a listserv. Agree upon a mission statement and sets of goals. Also, when is your next meeting? What is the topic? What resources do you want to share? The website will serve as the group’s public face as well as the group’s archive of meetings and activities.
  6. Meet regularly and vary when you meet. Meeting once a month has worked well for our group, and, in order to accommodate so many schedules, we vary the weeknight when we meet. Keep meetings from being a burden by having a set meeting-end time. Be diligent and unapologetic about ending the meeting. Also, have each member bring a snack to share. Food = attendance.
  7. Have focused meeting topics and consider assigned readings. Have one topic per meeting and pair it with a short reading or two (as in: you can read them on the bus on the way to the meeting). Readings help to ground the group in that discussion and help to connect personal experiences to larger sets of practices. Read about academic mentoring, gender & race in academe, work-life, and classroom dynamics. Keep in mind that once the group gets going that returning members need new dialogue. Readings along with different topics help with keeping ideas and strategies fresh.
  8. Teach members about creating online presence and emerging online technologies. Remember: who learns new online technologies is uneven. Teach each other and seek out university resource staff who may be willing to guide your group in these endeavors. Also, share knowledge about appropriate software, such as Omeka and Zotero.
  9. Discuss confidentiality. Depending on the kinds of discussion your group is having, you may want to open your meetings with a reminder about building trust. “Safe” spaces and supportive environments are different.
  10. Activist activities. My group has primarily focused on small interventions in our everyday lives as academics. Small interventions can make a huge impact. At the same time, what about working together to influence a change in policy at the departmental or university level? Or making a change at the disciplinary level by connecting with other like-minded groups within your discipline’s national or international organization. Having formal impact can help to sustain a group.

Bonnie Kaserman

6 thoughts on “Guest Post: How to start a professional development group for academic women

  1. Bonnie, I'm fascinated that this list stresses both privacy and publicity–in its reminders to set a policy around confidentiality and in its call to learn to become more public in our scholarly work by engaging others online. What do you make of those potentially different (but not irreconcilable, I think) imperatives?


  2. Oh Aimée, thanks for asking that. I wish I had a more coherent response to your question. I think it goes back to the differences between supportive spaces and safe spaces, whether those spaces are online or at a meeting or on campus. I want to connect my answer to academic gossip, which is located in that space between privacy and publicity.

    Some gossip is helpful (i.e. it's how we know the rules of academia, and also particular things like what kind of position is becoming available). Other gossip is destructive. (There's even a Canadian study about academic bullying- of which gossip is part. The study found that those traditionally marginalized from the academy are far more likely to be bullied, and that this bullying has drastic effects, even leading to suicide. And, yes, I'm talking about faculty members bullying each other.)

    Having a group meet to talk about personal experiences in the department, even with the goal of being supportive, obviously, can be very unsafe. Personal stories can turn into gossip and leave the group. There's no anonymity so members have to be guarded about what they say. Having a website and having resources, and having a space like Hook & Eye, allows for an audience (and some participants) who are anonymous. But, as you know, anonymity isn't always best when trying to make change. These online and offline modes delimit the kinds of activism we can take on.


  3. While academic bullying (sometimes called “mobbing”) is probably a genuine phenomenon, some of the studies of it don't do it a service. They seem politically motivated, and don't do much to distinguish bullying from some sorts of rational behaviour … e.g., people becoming isolated in a department because they behave like jerks and treat their colleagues badly. This may be hard to distinguish in studies done after the fact (when is that not going to be what bullies claim is happening?), but to pretend there's no difference here is to ignore something obvious and important. So read with due academic caution!


  4. @Ph Diva, The study I was referring to is:
    McKay, R, D Huberman Arnold, J Fratzl, and R Thomas. 2008 Workplace Bullying in Academia: A Canadian Study. Employee Responsibility and Rights Journal 20: 77-100

    But for a few other sources on gossip:
    Adkins, A 2002 The real dirt: gossip and feminist epistemology Social Epistemology 16 (3): 215-232

    Grigsby, R.K. 2007 The Deadly Trap of Gossip: A Pitfall of Junior Faculty. Academic Physician & Scientist p 4-6

    Passmore, A 1996 Geo-gossip Environment and Planning A 30: 1332-1336

    Westhaus, K 2006 The Unkindly Act of Mobbing Academic Matters Fall:18-19 (And West also has many other sources to look at)

    @ddvd Sure, I totally agree that there are certain people who are jerks and are marginalized because of it and there are other reasons people are isolated, but I'm *hoping* that the spirit of the studies on bullying and mobbing is really about the fact that we need to acknowledge that this IS happening, and also to help us look at our own behaviors. Are we justifying our behavior towards others because we feel that someone who needs to be marginalized because of his/her behavior? Part of how bullying/mobbing happens is that no individual bully is to blame for it. Are we looking at our own behaviors and how we might contribute to bullying/mobbing?

    I'm also struck by the list of some of the behaviors that these studies list as bullying behaviors and how I've seen a majority of them happen to colleagues (ad to the colleagues emotional and professional detriment. For those who are experience marginalization through bullying/mobbing, it must be somewhat of a comfort to know they they aren't crazy, that this is a REAL phenomenon.


  5. Any advice for those of us who are between institutions? I work as an RA so I am still involved (co-authoring, authoring, submitting articles, applying to conferences, etc . . .) but I am beginning to feel isolated. The professor I work for, and the university with which she is affiliated is in another country, so I am pretty much on my own. I love my job, and I am preparing PhD applications (I wanted a year off to prepare myself, etc . . .). I have friends who are Grad Students, but I am beginning to feel isolated. I would love to get together with grad students or other academics so we could discuss ideas and support each other–I know I always have the option to go out and drink with my former colleagues, but that is not what I want. I just need intelligent, academically inclined company (preferably not tweaking because of comps) ;)So yeah, advice would be appreciated, before I run off and audition for community theatre just to get out of the house lol


Comments are closed.