In September 2019, I was in Copenhagen at the ECNP (European College of Neuropsychopharmacology) conference. While I was reading the programme looking for interesting talks, my attention was captured by a symposium on Women in Academia. I decided to prioritise this over all the other interesting symposia, and I later felt glad that I made this choice.
During the talk, the speakers introduced the ALBA Network, an initiative to promote women’s careers in Academia. You will have to wait the end of this article to know where the name ALBA came from!
Wanting to know more, I decided to approach one of the organizers (naturally, I went for my Italian compatriot), and that’s how I met Dr Francesca Cirulli.
Francesca is a senior researcher and group leader in the Center for Behavioral Sciences and Mental Health at the Instituto Superiore di Sanità, in Rome (the Italian equivalent of the American National Institute of Health). She is involved in research in the field of behavioral neuroscience, with a special interest in the neurobiology of stress. As my previous blog on ‘women in academia’ was very well-received, I thought that interviewing Francesca was an opportunity for writing my next blog on the topic. And she enthusiastically accepted.
We met some months later at King’s College London to have our chat about ALBA, and my first question for her was about the origins of this project and how it is related to women in Academia.
Francesca: Alba is a Network that has been created to promote equality and diversity in brain sciences with an important focus on counteracting gender bias. Everybody can have access to our initiatives and become a member just by accessing our website.
Me: How did the idea of Alba come up?
Francesca: Alba was an idea of Carmen Sandi, the current president of FENS (Federation of European Neuroscience Society). It developed around some informal discussions between a group of women colleagues working in the Neuroscience field. One important point of view we shared is that when women gain important roles in the scientific community, they feel part of a minority. This has happened to many of us when we had been appointed to leading roles in scientific societies. You feel a bit intimidated and you even start wondering why you are there, whether you really deserve that role. In special situations, when you get into a room full of men, the feeling is to be a guest, in a place you do not belong to.
This part really got my attention, the way a huge project, like this network, could start just from a shared feeling. I admired the ability of these women to take a negative feeling like that and turn it into something positive. I thought that this was something I should take as an example for the future.
Me: Is the feeling you had in common the reason why the ALBA Network was born?
Francesca: Yes, ALBA was born with the aim of joining forces, to strengthen our position and welcome other women who have not received the same opportunities. We want to increase knowledge of gender biases and promote best practices to counteract it. We also want to structure some guidelines that could be a model for scientific institutions and facilitate career access for all minorities. Overall, ALBA aims to empower other women scientists and provide networking and mentoring opportunities to promote careers for members of underrepresented groups. This empowerment should be based on highlighting outstanding contribution to science from all minorities.
This is what impressed me most about ALBA: it is an opportunity to promote diversity overall, not only for women. It is an incredible, easy way to learn how to create a work environment that is more diverse and inclusive. This is why everybody should join this Network, not only women.
Me: Francesca, how can we achieve ALBA’s objectives?
Francesca: We can do it with several initiatives that are already ongoing. First of all, we are creating and sharing documents that can be used by universities and institutions to give clear indications on the ways to fight discrimination. For example, we are trying to establish a declaration to raise awareness on gender and diversity issues. Another way is to create prizes and awards for women and minorities that have excelled in neurosciences.
Francesca also told me how they are developing a community of women who are able to mentor and contact all the funding agencies in order to open job positions. Not only that! They are generating a database with information on all women scientists who can be considered when organizing a conference. In this way, it is easier to generate opportunities where women get involved.
Me: How did you manage to create a network of people supporting ALBA?
Francesca: We involved societies we were members of, and people close to us, like FENS, ECNP, EBBS (European Brain and Behaviour Society), Women in Neuroscience, SFN (Society for Neuroscience) and IBRO (International Brain Research Organisation) that have soon become sponsors for ALBA. Some of these societies have headquarters in Africa, Asia, America. In this way, gradually, people from the scientific communities of over the world have joined ALBA! This has been helped by the creation of our website, that we have spread through social media.
Moreover, sponsors like pharmaceutical companies and editorial services have helped creating the financial awards. For example, there is the ALBA-FKNE Diversity Prize, that is awarded to an individual or a group that has made outstanding contributions to promoting equality and diversity in brain sciences, including advocacy, mentorship or the creation of diversity-promoting initiatives. The prize provides financial support for participation of one person to a conference.
We also did several interviews with members of ALBA, like Carmen Sandi, that you can easily find on twitter. In these interviews, members talk about ALBA and why they decided to become part of it. This is also useful to highlight successful stories of individuals and organisations in order to create role models.
And now, with my interview to Francesca, I have contributed to highlight another successful story that can be read by as many people as possible.
Me: So, Alba’s main focus is gender bias. Can you give me an example of bias in your experience that is important to address?
Francesca: In my opinion, an important bias is the one affecting job applications for research posts, where men are still more likely to be selected. This is probably because we all imagine researchers, and in particular those in leading positions, as being white males. I think there are practical things that can be immediately done to address this bias. For example, we could have job applications that do not require specification of gender, so that the candidate can be evaluated independently.
In addition, something that could be quickly done is to institute a bonus for maternity-leave years. As an example, according to the conditions of some ERC (European Research Council) Grants, maternity or paternity leave are career breaks that can be considered for the extension of the eligibility window. This method can compensate the disadvantage when these candidates are compared with those who did not have children.
Me: How did you get interested in gender imbalance? It must have been something that got your attention for a long time before this initiative!
Francesca: It’s a topic that has interested me since my adolescence, when books on educational biases for males and females were very popular and I have continued to gather information about it later in life. When I was doing my PhD, I read an interesting book by Terri Apter, Why Women Don’t Have Wives: Professional Success and Motherhood. It made me reflect on the fact that a wife is commonly considered a person who takes care of the partner, and while men have a wife that takes care of them, who will take care of us as women? As I was about to start a career as a scientist, this was a very important concern for me, wanting also to build a family and have children. I could see many women giving up their career ambitions because they could not reconcile them to their “caring” role in the family. How could I do that without somebody looking after me in that way?
Me: It is clear to me that acting on young generations is the key to promote gender equality and counteract implicit biases. But how can we do this? How do you educate your children and also your students to gender balance?
Francesca: Giving the example is the key. My children have the example of a mother that has been able to build up a career, but they also see that there is a good balance with my husband in terms of taking care of the family.
I know her husband is a successful scientist as well, they are an example of a couple with both people pursuing a career and having a family at the same time.
Me: Now you are also a mentor, what suggestions do you give to young women and men who are at the beginning of their career?
Francesca: Having a role that can have an impact on young people, I feel like I should do something more concrete to counteract gender bias. First of all, I try to create situations where is possible to reconcile private and work life, by providing some flexibility, especially in the balance between time at work and time with the children.
I also try to encourage young people to be realistic about their career expectations, by explaining that pursuing an academic career involves high competition and a lot of dedication. This does not mean to give up the idea of having a family, but that young researchers will have to be highly motivated to keep going. Clearly, the help from institutions in this process could make a big difference.
The truth is that several institutions want to help women but just don’t know how to do it.
That is why I like ALBA, because it involves the opportunity to build pathways that can be joined by different institutions by providing simple guidelines.
Me: So, it would be enough, for any institution, to be aware of ALBA Network and to go on the website to know how to proceed?
Francesca: Yes, we can propose simple plans for all the Institutions. In fact, on the ALBA website there are several resources that can be accessed and downloaded by anyone. For instance, there is the Practical guide to improving gender equality in research organisations provided by Science Europe. It contains information on “How to avoid unconscious bias in peer review process”, or “How to monitor gender equality” and “How to improve Grant Management Practices” and please, stay tuned for the “Alba Network declaration” to be released soon.
Me: So, how was the general reaction to ALBA?
Francesca: Very positive, also from men. I think that when we increase interest for a theme, we create a more fertile environment for initiatives. Even men are requesting more gender balance in panels for jobs interview or in review panels. And I think that a committee that is gender balanced is not only fair but is also really enriching and can provide different points of view.
Again, this means that ALBA is a useful initiative for everybody, including men. In the end, it is not only benefitting women, or minorities, but it has the greater purpose to help ANYONE building a better society.
Me: How can we join the Alba Network?
Francesca: Everyone can go on the website and become a member and if you want to contribute more actively there is much space for every kind of initiative. Now we count thousands of members!
Naturally, after meeting with Francesca, I went online to register myself as a member of the ALBA Network.
My second interview with an inspiring woman left me with so many ideas, but one was particularly resonating in my mind: the possibility to take an uncomfortable situation and transform it in something good, ambitious, empowering not only for women, but for the entire society. This can be done only by joining forces. Indeed, I have interviewed two women so far and the resulting feeling is that we can be not only incredibly strong and determined, but also very good at sharing our resources.
I will leave you with one of the most important questions about this project: Why the name “Alba”? The answer is available to everybody on the ALBA Network website, in the “ABOUT US” page.
All of you are welcome to join ALBA as another way to celebrate women, in particular this week!
Happy International Women Day to you all from me and Francesca!