Women in Science PSL Mentorship: a program to support young women in their science careers and to reduce gender inequality
In order to encourage and support young female scientists in the development of their careers, a group of researchers from the Observatoire de Paris – PSL and the École Pratique des Hautes Études – PSL have established a Women in Science PSL Mentorship Program. Seventeen PhD students will benefit from the guidance of mentors from all walks of life. Over a period of twelve months, in addition to benefiting from one-to-one interviews with their mentor, the female students will get together once a month to take part in workshops, training programs, discussion groups and conferences to be supported in the development of their career plan. An interview with members of the Steering Committee.
PSL: You have just launched a Women in Science PSL Mentorship - what was the starting point for this program? Was there a trigger event?
The starting point is well known - although they have more degrees in higher education for all disciplines combined, women are seriously underrepresented in the field of research, accounting for only 28% in 2019 according to the Main Science and Technology Indicators published by the OECD.
Following completion of a PhD, employment conditions are unfavorable to women - they are 20% less likely than men to be able to access a position equivalent to that of an associate professor, and are subject to unequal pay, earning on average €190 less per month!1 .
Based on the fact that, collectively, men and women are equally endowed with intellectual capabilities, we are dealing with a lack of participation by women, hence depriving our communities of the contribution of our competent female peers. That alone is an injustice we wish to rectify.
As for a trigger factor... Let’s just say it was a combination of a grassroots militant determination (of individuals who now form the Steering Committee) and an institutional commitment (accelerated by the Civil Service Transformation Act of August 6, 2019, Article 80) to develop a plan for occupational equality between men and women. The planets aligned, in a way!
It should be pointed out here that although the program is primarily supported by the members of the Steering Committee, we have also received financial, logistical, and political support from our university, PSL, and specifically from our schools (EPHE – PSL and the Observatoire de Paris – PSL). Members of the Women in Science association have also guided us in the design of the program and its operation. Ultimately, we had all the necessary means to establish a program that reflects who we are!
PSL: What themes and areas will be covered during the different mentorship sessions?
The meetings can take various forms: discussion groups, training sessions provided by external speakers, testimonies from female doctors in academic careers or in the private sphere...
In addition to the one-to-one interviews between the PhD students and mentors, every month we also organize group sessions on a different topic. The aim is to address the challenges that lie ahead of the mentees in their professional careers. We are talking about personal challenges, such as work-life balance, self-confidence, decision making, etc., as much as professional challenges, e.g. how to approach a postdoctoral fellowship abroad, how to develop a career plan, what the career prospects might be (academic or not). These meetings can take different forms. Sometimes there are discussion groups, training sessions provided by external speakers, or even testimonies from female doctors in academic careers (as engineers or researchers) or in the private sphere (in industry, data engineering, publishing, consulting, etc.). On average we see that, compared to men, women suffer more from self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence, tend to underestimate their capabilities, find it difficult to value their skills, and have difficulties in balancing career and life choices. For this reason, the common thread in all these meetings is to ask the students about their experience as women.
In fact, we decided to address the issue of gender from the very first training session: “Being a Researcher: The Experience of Gender in Academia”, a training session delivered by Clemence Perronnet,2 a sociologist specializing in gender in science education. It was important for us that we start there - with the fact that the inequality that women face is not natural, but rather socially constructed, and can therefore be resolved!
PSL: Who are the mentors and mentees on the program? How are they selected?
One of the things that defines our program is the broad range of scientific themes covered, which include humanities and social sciences (such as history, archeology, art history, etc.), as well as ‘hard sciences’, like biology or astrophysics. The mentees are PhD students from the Observatoire de Paris - PSL or the École Pratique des Hautes Études - PSL, and the mentors are either voluntary faculty members from either of the two schools, or professionals from other public or private institutions. One of the objectives of the program was to avoid any conflicts of interest between mentor and mentee at all costs. That is why PSL provides the perfect framework for this program with the possibility to implement cross-mentoring, with PhD students from EPHE being coached by a mentor from the Observatoire de Paris and vice versa.
As they come from different schools, this means for the most part that the mentors and mentees don’t know each other. We organized mini meetings via videoconference, in which every mentee was able to spend 5 minutes talking to each voluntary mentor, so they could choose the person best suited to them. As the mentor-mentee pairings are based on chemistry, they make it possible to implement the very foundation of the program, namely the one-to-one mentor-mentee meetings. They take place about once a month and allow the students to share their experiences and receive advice. Of course, it’s not a question of the mentors providing scientific guidance on the students’ dissertation projects, but of trying to answer their questions, and of guiding their reflection on the choices and decisions ahead of them at the starting point of their scientific career that is the PhD.
PSL: Is it still possible for a young researcher at PSL to join the program?
No, unfortunately the program began in January, and we are not taking any more PhD students for 2022. The mentor training has already taken place and the pairings have been formed. But since dissertations usually take place over three years, most female PhD students who have heard of our program this year will be able to apply next year, for 2023. Incidentally, we are also planning to expand the program to other PSL schools. For example, we are currently in talks with our colleagues from ENS - PSL and ESPCI Paris - PSL to work together to adapt our mentorship program to their schools, from as early as 2023.
PSL: Do you have any advice for a young student doing her Master’s degree who might be hesitant to enroll in a PhD program?
Writing a doctoral dissertation is not only the final phase of your university career, but above all a first experience of the professional world. A doctorate enables you to acquire research skills, but also a range of cross-disciplinary skills. We are talking about research-based training, which can lead to a multitude of career paths, not just to an academic career. As a young woman, you are just as capable of succeeding as a man, and it must be said that attitudes have changed in recent years. We’re working on it!!
Members of the Steering Committee of the Women in Science PSL Mentorship
- Rhita-Maria Ouazzani, Assistant Astronomer, Observatoire de Paris - PSL
- Sophie Masson, Assistant Astronomer, Observatoire de Paris - PSL
- Elsa Huby, Assistant Astronomer, Observatoire de Paris - PSL
- Sophie Thenet, Director of Studies, EPHE - PSL
- Valentine Zuber, Director of Studies, EPHE - PSL
- Emmanuel Bellamie, Director of Studies, EPHE - PSL
1 : Source : MESRI-SIES, Enquête IPDOC 2017
2 : Clemence Perronnet wrote the book La bosse des maths n'existe pas : rétablir l'égalité des chances dans les matières scientifiques, Autrement Ed., 2021