More professors and better writing

Don’t get me wrong. I am not going to tell you how to become a professor by improving your writing (though I suppose there could be a link), nor how to improve your writing if you are a professor (though that might also work!).

Rather, I am going to tell about two events that I have followed this week.

The first event, was a one-hour webinar on How to get more women professors hosted by Curt Rice, Vice President for Research & Development at the University of Tromsø, in Norway. The numbers speak for themselves. In Europe, 18% of full professors in universities are women. At the University of Tromsø, it’s almost 30%, making it one of the leading institutions in Europe. In a little more than ten years, they moved from being the worse-in-class university in Norway (in 2001, only 9% of full professors were women) to being the best one in the country. So, how did they do it? Simple. They invested in it and it worked. They called it The Promotion Project. And it was not about promoting more women to higher pay grades so as to boost their numbers. It was all about making sure women were properly supported and encouraged along the way. This involved bringing in additional teaching support; fostering opportunities for career development; freeing time for the participants (not just women!) to focus on specific high-priority activities (e.g. by granting a residential full week away from other commitments). Why did they do it? Two reasons, they claim. One: it is right. Think about fairness, role models, cultural change. Two: it is smart. Think about benefits to work environment, productivity, group intelligence. Of course, it required resources. Of course, it required effort. Of course, it required vision. But the potential benefits of improving the work gender balance, it appears, far outweighs the costs. Fascinating stuff!

For sure, gender equality issues and gender balance at work are among the top priorities of any policy making strategy at pretty much every institution I have come across. However, one thing is to set targets for increased proportion of women at the top level of the organisation. Another, is to put measures in place to achieve those targets in a guaranteed, consistent, and sustainable way. Sure enough, as Curt Rice points out, one needs to be clear about the “why” before thinking about the “how”. But the hope is that more universities will be willing to follow their example and take on a similar stance.

The second event, was a more down-to-Earth one. But as I happened to be the organiser and the host, I was really looking forward to it. The event consisted in three half-day workshops on Hands-on Writing aimed at PhD students in Physics at the University of Edinburgh. My aim was to help students realise that good scientific writing can be learned. That there are simple models and strategies that can be used to improve one’s writing style. That there is no big writing project that cannot be broken down into simpler, more manageable parts, once the structure has been properly laid out. It was fantastic to work with such engaged and motivated students and to receive such positive feedback from them.

The workshop was complemented by short sessions on productivity run by my colleague, Olga Degtyareva, a Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and author of a blog on Peaceful Productivity for Creative Types. She shared her techniques on how to prevent becoming overwhelmed, stay on track, and avoid procrastination.

So, it has been a busy (and productive!) week. Hopefully, the skills that my students have learned will help them throughout their careers. Maybe, some of them will become professors one day. And maybe, they too will contribute to increase the number of women professors at their universities.

PS If you’d like to listen to Curt Rice’s webinar, you can get a copy at http://curt-rice.com. Also, note that he will be hosting another webinar on May 23rd (6pm, UK time) by the title “Skinny dipping with snapping turtles: Careers in academia.” Just follow the link to register or visit Curt Rice’s blog for more details.

PPS And if you want to improve your writing skills, just get in touch (use the Contact me form on the top of the page) and I will inform you when my online webinar on scientific writing becomes available.

Participants at the Hands on Writing Workshop

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