VisNET: Virtual in situ networking to reinvent the rules of international collaborations and reduce gender differences in academic careers
Female academics, particularly in STEM subjects, score consistently lower than male academics in metrics measuring international  and industrial collaborations . These two related assessment criteria are key at all stages in academic careers and particularly important at senior levels to secure the highest value research grants and promotions. While several barriers have been identified to academic career advancement for women and have led to strategic interventions at national and institutional levels, there remains a lack of data and action specifically targeting networking and collaboration - the focus of this VisNET programme.
Our vision is
1) To identify key barriers to international collaboration for female engineering academics
2) To design and demonstrate interventions and new best practices in networking and collaborations to define a new and more effective normal.
The emergence and rapid development of technologies that support geographically remote working relationships presents a timely opportunity. Effective use of such tools could help to correct the disadvantages experienced by women in international collaboration. We propose an intervention to determine and remodel the implicit 'rules' of networking and collaboration. This pilot project is aimed at a cohort of female post-doctoral researchers (PDRAs). Transition from post-doc to academic is a key attrition point for women in engineering. Success is reliant on demonstrating the means to develop academic independence. Possession of a strong network can be crucial. At the same time this group has relative freedom to trial new approaches of working and represents a critical mass to demonstrate and embed novel methods, including a route to involve more established academics. Thus, the interdisciplinary academic and industrial consortium we have brought together will lead the way in developing, integrating and advocating a new approach where networking and collaboration is conducted predominantly in situ (i.e. from home institutions). We believe that at this critical postdoctoral stage implementation of strategic networking and collaboration can be career defining, providing crucial routes to build confidence, establish future academic independence and funding success. Furthermore, it has the potential to mitigate the impact of future career breaks and parenthood. By demonstrating that networks can be built without frequent travel, it will also address the perception that an academic career is incompatible with work-life balance or family responsibilities, factors identified by junior researchers when consulted about their choice to leave academia .
While we see here an opportunity to have a rapid tangible impact on the academic career of a finite group of women, VisNET will also act as an effective route to embed our approaches into the working practices of our universities. Effective in situ networking has the potential to directly tackle negative perceptions of work-life balance in academia, contribute to the promotion of flexible working patterns and advance inclusivity for other minority academic communities such as academics with disabilities or remotely located. The coordinated outcome of this programme fits directly into EPSRC's and our Universities' strategic plans to build leadership, accelerate impact and balance capabilities ensuring the continued progression of UK emerging research leaders by enhancing their experiences and embedding career robustness.
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 Shaw & Stanton, "Leaks in the pipeline: separating demographic inertia from ongoing gender differences in academia," Proc. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci., vol. 279, no. 1743, p. 3736, 2012
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