Sponsoring women in academia

Sponsoring women in academia

11 February 2021

In acknowledgement of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Orygen postdoctoral research fellow, Dr Imogen Bell has written this article to celebrate those who have sponsored and mentored her throughout her career.

As we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I reflect on my early career as a female academic and the things that have helped me along the way. I am often struck by the struggle of academia, but also the excitement and meaning it brings my life. Working at Orygen means striving for innovation and never being satisfied with the status quo. I have come to live by this ethos in my professional work and it is the grand challenge of building a better society through research that I continue despite the challenges. In considering how I landed where I am, in a role I love, a team I adore, doing meaningful and exciting work, I realise that it wouldn’t have happened without the women who have supported me along the way.

My honours supervisor was a woman, a senior professor known for her dedication to mentorship and support of early career researchers, especially women. She inspired me as a young researcher as I glimpsed at the professional life she told me I could have if I really wanted it. I continued to complete a PhD with her, alongside an equally supportive male supervisor that brings the same commitment to his students. Through my PhD, she helped me navigate decisions, build knowledge and experience, and gave me opportunities to grow. She talked to me about the struggles of academia for women, generously sharing insights from her own life to help me understand. She remains a close colleague and friend.

In reflecting on the importance of supporting young female academics, a recent conversation comes to mind. This was with my wonderful female mentor at Orygen, another with clear commitment to supporting junior researchers, who explained to me the difference between a mentor and a sponsor in academia. A mentor is someone who acts as a role model for a more junior colleague and provides guidance on their career. A sponsor is someone who actively advocates for a junior researcher to give them opportunities and make them visible within the scientific community.

It is well known that women are underrepresented in senior positions within academia (and other professions). Research has shown that child rearing and family commitments do not solely account for this gender gap and that the barriers women face are largely social and systemic. Studies  have also found that sponsorship is critical for succeeding to high levels in academia, and that men tend to benefit more than women. This makes sponsorship of women in academia particularly important to break the glass ceiling stopping them from reaching the top.

The conversation with my mentor lead me to reflect on my own experiences with those who have played a role in supporting me. I have been lucky enough in my early career to have been sponsored by senior academics who have opened doors for me and helped me walk through with confidence. Their dedicated support has paved the road for my career to develop and on International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I celebrate them.