Book review: a must read on Women in STEM topic: “Inspiring conversations with Women Professors”, by Anna M. Garry.

Starting an academic career is difficult, and this for everybody. First getting the position: it is scarce, there is fierce competition, then along the life-time process, it is highly demanding and what is expected is essentially excellence in teaching, research, management etc.

No need to repeat what has been demonstrated about women in academia: it is most of the time a hurdle to face motherhood, dual careers and/or unconscious bias. And this is particularly true in certain countries like Switzerland, for example. Nevertheless, there are, there and elsewhere,  perfect illustrations of very successful and inspiring women in academia. And the number seems to be increasing.

Also, no need to repeat that role models are extremely important. If I had not attended several workshops and networking events encouraging women to continue their career, would I be where I am today? –I like to think yes, but who knows, and there is so much to do, still-.

Learning from others’ experiences is invaluable. In this specific discussion about women in STEM, it is first very important to know that there is a gender bias – we all do-, that there is no reason for it to be, that there are ways to solve this issue, slowly, but also that there are many alternatives. In this particular book, several women professors who have or have had positions at ETH Zürich, Switzerland, are sharing their journey from childhood to their current status, focusing mostly on the career, but not only. It is a mix of personal and professional values, a mix that is so typical in academia.

Even though there is, at the end of the book, after the interviews, a summary and a global picture of what can be drawn from those discussions, I was particularly taken aback by the fact that so many clearly described their path as “unusual”, “chaotic path”, “unorthodox path”, “a less direct route”, “not carefully planned trajectory”, “not straight career path”, “unconventional path”, “very untraditional”, “a little random”.

Is there actually any usual, conventional, traditional path? I remember from other professors (not necessarily women) that it was also not very linear or planned.

One narrative I particularly related to is from the Argentinian professor who followed the French curriculum with 2 years in classe préparatoire where you are told (everybody who is studying is told) you have to compete, that you are not very good, but that you are the elite of the nation. And then moving to a top engineering school in Paris. But mostly I related to her love of doing experiments and her comments on: “you have to keep trying”, “It is important not to accept that all common beliefs are a given, you should try your own ideas” and “don’t listen, […] find for yourself”.

It is very inspiring and informative to know all the potential paths that can lead to a similar future, at any stage of a career, even if you have to apply to a full tenure position right after your PhD!