13 dec. 2013

Engrossing talk Dr Kate O'Brien on navigating the academic jungle

Thursday December 12, 2013, KLV organized in collaboration with VWI, the Network for Wageningen University Alumni Women,  a talk by Dr Kate O'Brien titled 'Navigating the academic jungle: challenges and opportunities for work-family balance'.


While universities are often perceived as a flexible family-friendly work environment, continuous full-time employment remains the norm in tenured and senior positions. This traditional career path is strongly re-enforced by research metrics, which typically measure accumulated historical performance. There is a strong feedback between historical and future research output, and there is a minimum threshold of research output below which it becomes very difficult to attract funding, high quality students and collaborators.

This produces a conundrum for research managers: metrics can promote research productivity and excellence within an organisation, but can classify highly capable scientists/academics as poor performers simply because they have not followed the traditional career path of continuous full-time employment. One consequence is the very low numbers of women in senior roles in research and academia worldwide.


In her talk, O’Brien managed to present her findings and conclusions without getting lost in the complicated graphs and models on which they are based. She presented first the bigger picture followd by outlining why rentention and seniority of women in science matters: from an economic, innovation and social perspective. In order to tackle the problem of too few women in senior roles in academia she proposes to apply a wicked problem approach. Using mathematical models she showed, amongst other things, the research poverty trap for part-time researchers, and the influence of unconcious bias as barrier for change. At the end, she provided concrete recommendations for researchers and managers, and some survival tactics for women and men who wish to pursue a career in research, academia or science while also spending substantial time and energy raising their family.

PowerPoint O'Brien incl. recommendations and tips.



Dr Kate O’Brien is Lecturer Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the School of Chemical Engineering, The University of Queensland, Australia, and currently on sabbatical at the Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management Group (AEW) at Wageningen University. Besides her research topics environmental systems modelling, analysis and synthesis, she has a keen interest in the (lack of) progress of women in academia. She has written 2 papers on how to keep more women engaged in research/science/academia. The first one, The Academic Jungle, contains the full model and recommendations, the second, Part-time balance, is a shorter version published in Nature.

Other recommended reading material:
- example of women forming a network which helps them succeed
- women need “safe space” to practice becoming leaders



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