Writing Retreat: A Unique Gender Action

At Tel-Hai College (Israel), the gender-equity unit has organized a writing retreat for women faculty for the last four years. This action arose from the notion that a retreat not only addresses the needs of women scientists regarding time constraints but also creates a supportive community within the institution that will help support women’s scientific progress.

The writing retreat has been offered to all women faculty at all academic levels within the organization. Usually, twenty to thirty women signed up for three to four workdays. The retreat takes place in a rural and quiet location, offering accommodation, meals, and basic conditions for writing and reading. During the retreat, participants meet twice: At the beginning, when each participant presented her goal for the retreat, and at the end when all shared their outcomes and thoughts. None of the activities is obligatory so that each participant can freely invest her time according to her needs and wishes.

The outcomes exceeded our expectations on several levels: First, it was efficient in terms of working products. Second, casual meetings between the participants created a sense of belonging and partnership in a supportive community. Third, these meetings created new opportunities for unexpected collaborations and mentoring relationships between faculty members who only tangentially knew each other beforehand. Finally, the retreat raised participants’ appreciation of the significance of gender-related activities that the organization supports.

From a personal point of view, this author found the writing retreat to be very effective in achieving work goals and empowering experience in terms of being part of a supportive community of women scientists. No less important, it was fun!

Author: Andrea Szuchman-Sapir, Head of the vascular signaling group at MIGAL research institute, and faculty member of the Tel-Hai College, Israel.

Do What You Like

Prof. Rachel Amir’s message to women, “Go with your dreams, with what you think is right and according to your inner desires. Do not give up. Tell yourself that you are capable, even when you are told you are not.”

Prof. Rachel Amir’s inspiring story combines spirit and science and proves, that with iron willpower and motivation, almost any dream can come true. Prof. Amir is head of the Plant Metabolism Research group at MIGAL-Galilee Research Institute, in Israel, head of the master’s program in biotechnology and responsible for advanced degrees in science at Tel Hai College. She was born on Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in the southern part of Israel and came to the Galilee in the north in her late teens.

Prof. Amir’s plan of study included more than just a bachelor’s degree; however, she felt a slight discomfort, when telling family and friends of her plan. In those days, it was not acceptable for woman members of the kibbutz to learn more than one degree. Prof. Amir, for who the bachelor’s degree was not enough, was not willing to surrender to the dictates of the kibbutz or to give up on her desires and dreams. She left the kibbutz, even before beginning with her studies. “I am proud that I funded all of my studies without asking for help”, she told. “I worked hard before starting to study, and, as was common among many that grew up on kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz) then, I did not even have a high school diploma”. She did her bachelor’s degree in Plant Protection Science at Tel Hai College in a combined track with the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment of the Hebrew University. This was followed by a master’s degree in the Botanical Department in Tel Aviv University.

You can do it, even when they tell you “you can’t”.

When Prof. Amir says, “Don’t give in!” she knows very well what she is talking about. When she approached, Prof. Dan Levanon with the request to do a doctorate in MIGAL, he answered decisively, “It will not be!” In response, Prof. Amir said, “It will be, because I want it!” This argument was repeated a number of times, and in the end in 1988, Prof. Lebanon surrendered. From then until today, 42 years later, a special name is saved for Prof. Amir, as the first Ph.D. student in MIGAL-Galilee Research Institute. After her doctorate, Prof. Amir did her post-doctorate in Weizmann Institute in Israel. Her message to women: “Go with your dreams, with what you think is right and according to your inner desires. Do not give up. Tell yourself that you are capable, even when you are told you are not.”

Prof. Amir continues till this day to break conventions; she is often in a very male environment – in the Council for Higher Education, in an appointing committee at Tel Hai College, in MIGAL and in committees judging research proposals. “I have the energy to advance women in all these committees”, she explains.

A female mentor may have improved the balance between home and career.

Prof. Amir is married to Ofer, her partner since her last year in high school. The couple has three children, ages 28-35, and she admits that it was difficult to find the balance between work and home. “I spent more time working in MIGAL than at home.” In retrospect, if I had had a woman mentor, possibly the balance between home and career would have been different. Today, I am myself a mentor, and I recommend each female researcher to get advice from a female mentor that works in the field”.

Today, Prof. Amir is a leading world authority in the field of methionine, an essential building block of proteins, which animals and humans cannot produce in their bodies, and which has a low level in plants. When methionine is lacking in food, the motor and cognitive development of living creatures is arrested. Another research subject of hers is the regulation of active materials in pomegranates, which contain many constituents that slow down inflammation, atherosclerosis and signs of aging. A third project deals with the metabolic profile of parasitic plants (held by Prof. Amir in picture), which damage crops and cause a reduction in yield.

Don’t get upset from failures.

Yet, she does not get upset from failures, definitely not professional failures. “Failure is an inseparable part of success. I used to be sensitive to failures, but with time I understood that together with successes there are also failures, and today I know how to deal with them. In addition, I understand that I don’t understand, and in that manner, I reduce my level of frustration. Each time that I understand something, other unanswered questions arise. So, I feel comfortable in accepting this understanding, doing research and moving forward.” (Translated and partially summarized from an article in Hebrew, “Al Hazafon”, 16.6.2021.)

Dr. Dorit Avni Awarded EUR 7.5M Grant for Ground-breaking Research

Dr. Dorit Avni credits a gender equality plan implemented during the R&I Peers Project with her success at leading and winning a prestigious EU Horizon2020 project bid in the amount of EUR 7.5 million. Dr. Avni, whose project ALGEA4IBD will pursue ground-breaking research on inflammatory bowel disease, is group leader of the Bioactive Metabolites and Immune Modulation Laboratory at the MIGAL Galilee Research Institute (MIGAL), a regional mega-R&D centre supported by Israel’s Ministry of Science and Technology, and partner to the R&I Peers Project.

As part of an R&I Peers Gender Action Plan implementation at MIGAL, Dr. Avni and her colleagues participated in “Champions,” a course launched in 2019 aiming to promote advancement of women researchers and increase their participation in international and competitive research projects, in leading scientific journals, and in economic and research decision-making,

Following the course, which tackled empowering self-confidence, improving presentation capabilities, and developing the ability to write competitive research proposal, Dr. Avni initiated, led and coordinated a successful consortium bid for the ALGEA4IBD Project.

Of her achievement Shai-Lee Spigelman, Science and Technology Ministry Director-General says, “this award is an impressive achievement that few achieve, with international recognition confirming the importance of this innovative project aimed at transforming algae into sorely needed treatments for inflammatory related diseases.”

For more details see the article published in Yahoo Finance and The Jerusalem Post.

MIGAL Program Promotes Women Researchers

Implementation of the R&I PEERS project at MIGAL, Galilee Research Institute Ltd., is designed to develop activities with a group of women researchers from various fields of knowledge and expertise. The idea was to lead research at the MIGAL Institute for scientific excellence and to encourage a research breakthrough.

In the context of the project, a training program was deployed that included a variety of workshops, lectures and meetings aimed at enriching the women’s toolkit, improve skills and create rich scientific and work-life balance. In addition, regional and national industries were engaged in order to contribute to future know-how development at Galilee by increasing involvement of women in the fields of agriculture, environment, biotechnology and food science. This training reached over twenty women researchers.

Text Box: Fig 1: Senior and junior researchers by gender at MIGAL
Fig 2: Senior and junior researchers by gender at MIGAL

The challenge addressed by the project is the existing inequality in senior research positions. A survey conducted at the beginning of the project indicated that, despite gender equity at pre-admission stage, the balance between women and men diverges considerably in among primary researchers.

The women’s training program in research that been carried out all year has been a huge success and we have a new plan for next year.

Mutual Learning Workshop in Ljubljana

On October 14, 2019, the second Mutual Learning workshop under the topic of “Towards the identification of measures and actions for successful Gender Equality Plans implementation within Research Performing Organisations (RPO)” took place in Ljubljana in collaboration between the Znanstvenoraziskovalni Center Slovenske Akademije Znanosti In Umetnosti (ZRC SAZU) and the Cyprus Neuroscience & Technology Institute (CNTI).

The workshop was executed following the principles of the methodology of the Structured Democratic Dialogue (SDD) and was attended by fifteen (15) participants holding either research or administrative positions in their institutions. The goal of the workshop was to identify measures/actions (administrative, organizational culture-related, financial, legal…) which could be taken to make Gender Equality Plan implementation beneficial for all employees in research organizations.

The main conclusions of the workshop were the following:

  • Organisational and political support on implementation of gender equality: Women’s gender representation principle should be applied when appointing work bodies and preparing legal acts and other strategic documents in order to assert the role of women and gender. These action plans should have an obligatory nature, be supported by policy and thus follow a top to bottom approach;
  • Awareness raising: Raising awareness of unpaid care work within academia and institutions is an important factor to ensure that all employees benefit from the implementation of GEPs;
  • Management support: The role of superiors in the implementation of GEPs is vital in a way that if they are careful and responsible about gender equality in their institutions, then it is expected that the whole institution will support the new ideas. It is easier to implement gender equality in the whole organization if there is support at a higher level;
  • Inter-institutional cooperation: All stakeholders involved in gender equality plans should be brought together and the knowledge already generated from their past experience to be collected and published at one place in order to benefit academia and other stakeholders interested in designing their GEPs.

Ana Rotter Shares Best Practices for Implementing Gender Equality Plans

Ana Rotter, a researcher at the National Institute of Biology at the Piran Marine Biological Station, shared with us her experiences in the work of promoting gender equality and implementing gender equality action plans. “It is somewhat unusual for the microbiologist and statistician,” she said, “to have an intense commitment to gender equality, traditionally dominated by humanists and humanists.” But that is why her experience is all the more valuable. We hosted Ana Rotter as an invited lecturer as part of an international meeting of R&I PEERS partners – Pilot Experience to Improve Gender Equality in Research Organizations .

Ana Rotter started addressing gender issues in 2011 when she received the L’Oreal and UNESCO National Program for Women in Science. It was then that she first became exposed to the media and began to notice differences between the treatment of women scientists, not only by gender, but also by geographical origin or whether they came from the so-called Eastern or Western Europe. On several occasions, she publicly spoke with her opinion and in response received that this kind of activity does not come from a scientist and is not compatible with scientific excellence. This has not stopped her, she has been involved in several different projects dealing with finding solutions to social inequalities. Rotter pointed out that the European Commission is currently supporting a number of related projects seeking a solution to gender inequality, such as Plotina, Change, Libra, Integer and Gender Time. She emphasized the need for mutual cooperation and knowledge sharing between projects, and shared her experience with the fundamental difficulties in implementing action plans and trying to solve them.

“The first problem may lie in the very design of the goals of the plan,” said Ana Rotter. If, on the one hand, we can have associates who want to finish the project as soon as possible in order to get back to the “right” scientific work, on the other, they are those who have too high and unrealistic goals. The solution is found in “soft”, smaller, even more easily practicable measures, which are therefore long-term measures and remain valid after the end of the project. It is also important to establish direct accountability for the implementation of the measures, and it is not irrelevant who cares about what. If tasks are assigned to the youngest in the group, the chances of derivation are less. Institutional change requires the search for people who have a high level of authority in the institution, but one should not forget the so-called “middle management”, which is often overlooked,

However, even if the design of the project is good, it can stop at implementation. First of all, due to lack of knowledge, which is present mainly in STEM, which traditionally does not address topics such as social equality. Knowledge is gained through continuous participation in workshops, networking and exchange, as well as through the diverse composition of research teams where one person can influence others. One-off measures that are not implemented after the formal expiry of the project should also be avoided. According to Ana Rotter, the action plan needs to be constantly adjusted and new measures added.

The third challenge lies in the so-called human factor, that is, the possible resistance of employees and management, to whom gender equality projects may seem insignificant, unrelated to their work, or conditioned by current “popularity”. Believing that they have not experienced something themselves, many women and men believe that there is no inequality in the scientific sphere. Such responses are important, Rotter points out, and especially communication with those who are most skeptical. According to Ana Rotter, the solution is not to pressure colleagues or big gripes, such as gender quotas, as they automatically provoke resistance. In her view, the conversation and emphasis is much more on the point that action plans are not about the formal introduction of new rules but only about guidelines and proposals, which will have a positive impact on the work atmosphere and relationships between the employees of the institution. Even small approaches such as flexible working hours or promoting achievements on a website can help you feel better. Again, it is important to include colleagues at all levels, both women and men, researchers and administration workers, techniques and PhDs that are often overlooked. The best motivation to talk, however, was the all-human common thing: food and drink. Rotter organized an informal meeting with beer and burgers at her institution, to which most technical, male staff came. The conversation began with an invitation to the participants to present their work and why they were indispensable at their institution; only after such an introduction, in which she emphasized the importance of each member for the institution,

The final challenge is the monitoring and evaluation of action plans – in the absence of these, there are no sustainable approaches. Given the time constraints of the projects, measuring the grip should start in the middle of the project and establish an opportunity for future continuation. Data is crucial as it can prove that the institution has inequality problems. For example, if within a project we can arrange for the annual report to collect data suggesting a link between pay, employment practices, promotion and gender, then data collection may continue beyond the end of the project, says Ana Rotter. International projects also need to pay attention to cross-cultural differences. For example, there are not many housewives in Eastern Europe, mainly because of the legacy of employment policies of the socialist regimes, paid maternity leave, and an extensive childcare network. That’s why with us, Unlike Portugal, Austria or Cyprus, there is no need to promote women’s employment and there are different approaches. In doing so, Ana Rotter reiterates the importance of soft approaches, as they affect not only those currently occupying leadership positions, but future leaders who, as she hopes, will have a different consciousness.

From Spolinznanost

Is there still gender discrimination in academia?

It seems that still some proactive steps must be taken to make it happen.

People speak a lot, for years, but we can not see a big change in the attitude, nor in the administration. 

Very few steps are taken seriously to change the situation and there is just a lot of talk. In many places, the situation is similar, but in the academia there are possibilities to show and bring about a change.