Field feminism: How leaders can support women in STEM one period at a time.

Last summer I travelled to Nunavut for my PhD research. I was so excited in the months leading up to my trip. I would get to experience twenty-four hour daylight (almost), travel on the tundra landscape, meet local community members, and participate as a science team member on a research cruise. Then I realized that my fieldwork dates aligned with my period. I worried a lot about how I would deal with menstruating in the field, even though I had been in the field many times before. Could I buy the supplies I needed or should I use precious luggage space for pads and tampons? Where would I use the bathroom on days out on the treeless land and how would I safely store and dispose of used products? I even went to my doctor and requested a prescription for the pill in a failed attempt to control my cycle. I went to the Arctic. I brought a LOT of hygiene products with me. I took two packages of pills back-to-back and prayed that my period wouldn’t come. But as fate (or biology) would have it, my period started on my first day at sea.

After I returned to the lab, I started asking other women about their experiences and strategies for dealing with menstruation during fieldwork. The first thing that I learned was that women want to talk about it, but for a host of reasons don’t always bring it up. In my experience, the fear of being viewed as high-maintenance or less capable has prevented me from broaching the topic with others. I also collected some amazing tips and tricks – my favourite being to always bring a package of Pringles. First you get a yummy snack and later you can use the empty tube as the perfect container to store and pack out your used products. The big take away for me was that many of us learn how to deal with feminine hygiene issues in the field in isolation and by trial and error. As scientists we always learn from our peers, look to the literature, and expand on the knowledge of others. But in the realm of menstruation, we often figure it out for ourselves without external support.

One of the ways we can promote inclusivity in STEM for women and girls, is to reframe menstruation and not allow having one’s period to be a barrier to accessing productive and enjoyable experiences in the field. The list below includes three simple actions that can help us get started!

  1. Get rid of the “rite of passage” mindset

Many years ago, I was out for a day trip with students and someone asked where the bathroom was. I gestured to the nature around us and jokingly replied, everywhere. I think back to this interaction and wish that I could change my response. The student was clearly uncomfortable and my words were not supportive. There are many personal reasons why someone may not be able to toilet in the bush, and as leaders we hold a responsibility to make our excursions accessible and productive for all of the attendees. In order to promote diversity in our disciplines, we need to ensure that we practice inclusivity in all settings – the lab, classroom, and the field. As an experienced researcher or trip leader, it is tempting to adopt the mindset that everyone needs to figure things out for themselves. But, this is not productive or inclusive. I propose that the first step in making the field a more inclusive place for all people is to lose the idea that struggle is necessary for personal growth. Each individual has their own story and it is not up to the trip leader to judge their potential or dedication to the research based on their personal needs and comfort level.

  1. Talk about it!

Effective immediately, I will include a discussion on menstruation as part of the trip orientation for all future excursions. We talk about travelers’ diarrhea and all sorts of other unpleasant things, so we can talk about periods too.  Leaders can help their students and research team prepare for the field by being candid about what to expect. Tell people what to bring and include feminine hygiene products on the list. If the trip is somewhere remote and you will only have what you bring with you, be explicit about it. List the services and amenities that will be available. This is not about hosting a luxury field school, it’s about helping people prepare. Access to laundry, showers, and the opportunity to purchase needed supplies may change how participants pack for the trip. And this isn’t just for menstruating women, there are lots of personal reasons why someone may want to know what to expect in terms of access to facilities and amenities. In addition, being open and honest will demonstrate your values as a leader and act as an example of constructive communication.

  1. Pack a wellness kit.

First aid kits are a necessity in the field and many of us already supplement official first aid kits with extras like sunscreen and hand sanitizer. So why not set aside a small part of the field trip budget to build a wellness kit. This kit can contain all of the extras that will help keep trip participants comfortable and productive – because you can’t focus on your work if you are worried about your period or some other issue. The wellness kit is the perfect place to keep a stockpile of tampons and pads, but it’s not just for periods. Fill it with sunscreen, baby wipes, insect repellent, hand sanitizer, you name it. This should be the go-to place for trip participants that are missing something that they need that will make their learning experience more enjoyable and productive. The wellness kit is not intended to provide freebies to participants. In fact, you don’t even need to tell people that it exists until you are already on the trip.

So there you have it. A few easy ways you can start practicing feminism in the field. Do you have other ideas on how to make fieldwork more inclusive and break the taboo of talking about menstruation? Please share them in the comments below.

Yours truly,

The Peaceful PhD


Creating a post-conference action plan

Last week was my first opportunity to participate in a technical meeting during my PhD program and I took the opportunity to maximize learning by modifying my conference-goer plan of attack.

I usually plan ahead for conferences. I like to review the program in detail and highlight key sessions that I plan to attend and search for key people who could become future collaborators or mentors. In between technical sessions, I fill my schedule with social and networking events to meet new colleagues and spend time with friends and peers. However, once the event concludes, I often dive back into old to-do lists and quickly revert to established habits without making time to cultivate the new ideas, ways of working, and relationships that germinated during the conference.

Creating a post-conference action plan is one way to help digest the dense content presented during the conference program and follow up on potential collaborations with new partners. The list below includes prompts and ideas on how to develop your own post-conference action plan with a focus on reflection and implementation of key ideas and learnings.

  1. Write a short stream-of-consciousness paragraph about the event. Include the name, location, description of the program, sessions and workshops attended, and connections with new colleagues. This will help refresh your memory after an information-heavy event.
  2. List a few bullet points that summarize the key learnings and ideas from the sessions most relevant to your research or about the speakers who presented thought-provoking material.
  3. Review your conference notes and make a list of ideas that you would like to follow up on. This could include trying a new method, searching for a cited reference, or following up on an offer to collaborate. Sort your list into technical, project management, engagement and outreach, professional development, and collaboration categories.
  4. Select a few action items to implement and tell someone about it! Including a post-conference action item in your personal development plan will encourage accountability and increase the likelihood of following through.

It took me about one hour to review my conference notes, write a reflective statement, and compile a list of eight actions across the five categories listed in bullet three. This approach could also be scaled to longer and shorter opportunities. You could repeat the exercise weekly during an intensive field school or a long field season or take five minutes to write a follow-up action on a sticky note after a lunch talk. This should be a personalized experience – engaging in the reflective thought process will look different for each individual. After you organize your thoughts and reflect on your experience, solidify your learning with a concrete commitment to implement something new.

© SF Jones, 2017

Read! (something not related to your thesis)

Reading is one of my favourite ways to relax. Anytime. Anywhere. Snuggled up with a novel on a rainy day, deciphering poetry and discussing with friends, or brushing up on local history and culture while travelling. I remember the feeling of joy after completing my master’s and picking up a book that was not related to my thesis. I was going to get to read again… for fun! Looking back, I’m sorry that I didn’t make more time for reading during my program and this time around, I have made a promise to myself to keep reading even if it’s just a little bit here and there.

Here are my top three tips for graduate students on finding the time to read something different.

Indulge in a warm-up read.

Mornings are my favourite time in the lab. I arrive early, grab a coffee, put on some music, and sit down to organize my day. Before diving into heavy, technical papers, I like to start with what I call a warm-up read. Warm-up reads are short, light on jargon, have nice figures, and discuss the big picture – think Nature or Science papers. I like to get inspiration for my warm-up reading list from table of contents email alerts or by looking through the reference lists of articles that I have found useful or enjoyed. Warm-up reads are perfect when you want to take a step back from your research, but not too far back. You can pick something generally related to your field, which will lessen any guilt about working on something else. After starting your day with something fun you will feel like you have already accomplished something and your brain will feel ready and motivated to take on more detailed and challenging tasks.

Help yourself.

I absolutely love self-help books and I encourage everyone to give this genre a shot. I have amassed a small library of books on technical writing, research methods, and graduate school and they are full of ideas on how to improve as a student, scientist, and individual. I wish that I had discovered this treasure trove of reference material earlier. Some of my favourites are The Craft of Research, A PhD is not enough!, and PhD – an uncommon guide to research, writing, and PhD life. Many self-help and reference books do not have to be read linearly, you can pick and choose what sections you are interested in and treat chapters like mini-modules. This means that the time commitment for these books is relatively low. I like to borrow new books from the library to see if they are something I will use before purchasing my own copy. Reading resource books is a great way to learn something new or different, while still gaining knowledge that you can apply to your thesis or professional life.

Carry a novel with you.

Keeping a novel in your backpack is a great way to capitalize on surprise reading opportunities. Instead of playing with your phone or wasting time on social media, use your time riding transit or waiting in line at student services to read something fun. I always have a fiction book on the go, even if it takes me months to get through. And because you are tied up somewhere away from work anyway, there is no guilt for spending time indulging in reading for pleasure.

Reading exercises the creative parts of my brain. It keeps me happy and makes me a better person and scientist. And if you still need another reason to pick up a book, remember that good writers are also good readers. The more you read, the better your writing will become – and good writing is essential for successfully completing graduate school.

Reading list

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., Williams, J. M., Bizup, J., and Fitzgerald, W. T. (2016) The craft of research, fourth edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 316 pp.

Feibelman, P. J. (2011) A PhD is not enough! A guide to survival in science. New York: Basic Books, 144 pp.

Hayton, J. (2015) PhD – an uncommon guide to research, writing, and PhD life. USA: James Hayton PhD, 209 pp.

© SF Jones, 2017

The game-changing sponsor

The atrium of the Taylor Institute is saturated with the hum of discussion. Small group chatter, digital interactions, and the occasional rush of content spilling out of the workshop galleries. The melody from the piano interacts with the crowd. A different type of dialogue, bolstering the event’s creative culture. The atmosphere is charged with this year’s conference theme – “conversations that matter.”

Impactful mentoring and empowerment were reoccurring topics threaded through my conference experience. The plenary session, conversation cafes, and workshops sparked my curiosity – how can I be a better mentor? How can I be a better mentee? I reflected on my personal support network and thought about some of the pivotal moments in my career where my mentors challenged and changed me.

A few years ago, I attended an interdisciplinary luncheon focused on diversity and engagement. The folks around my table exchanged introductions and explained their interest in the session and how it applied to their daily work. When it was my turn, I expressed a few personal aspirations accompanied by some ideas to increase my exposure and further develop as a diversity champion. My comments prompted a more detailed discussion after the session with a senior leader who was sitting at my table. Later that day, he contacted my supervisor and expressed his support for my involvement in activities that would allow me to broaden my skillset and gain the exposure I desired. He identified with my passion for the subject and connected a potential opportunity with my career goals.

Contacting my supervisor only took a few minutes of the leader’s time. But those few minutes of sponsorship had a profound impact on my career. A nod from a respected leader earned buy-in from my immediate supervisor and colleagues and effectively granted permission for me to spend time developing a skillset outside of my core technical competencies.

It certainly helped that my sponsor had a large circle of influence, but you don’t have to be a senior leader to be an advocate. At the student level there is room to nominate colleagues for awards and to recognize outstanding contributions from peers, and even up the line from effective supervisors and leaders. A quick recommendation or introduction could establish a connection that becomes the foundation for great teaching, learning, or research. And a moment spent providing thoughtful feedback has the potential to change the way that someone thinks about their personal and professional development.

So thank you, to the sponsors and mentors who have shared their networks and resources with me and encouraged me to explore and take risks. I hope that I can give back to others with the same generosity and sincerity, because it has made all the difference to me on my journey.

© SF Jones, 2017

Inspired by my experience at the 2017 Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching hosted by the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary.

The new you (with new boundaries)

It’s rare to be offered an opportunity to completely reinvent yourself. Over the last few years my professional self has experimented with making changes to improve efficiency and well-being. Unfortunately, most of my changes were short-lived. It’s hard to turn over a new leaf when everyone around you still expects the old one. Generating buy-in from colleagues and supervisors can be a challenge and in almost every circumstance, I surrendered to my old habits and abandoned my plan. Starting a new degree can be an opportunity to redefine your professional image and establish balance and boundaries within a new community.

Virtual ways of working have introduced new dimensions of flexibility into the workday. Technology allows many employees and students to work from remote locations, while still maintaining collaborative relationships with colleagues. Flexibility can also promote peer collaboration on a local scale. For example you could change your cluster of neighbours depending on who you need to work with on a particular day or during a particular project. A few years ago, I had a lightbulb moment while working in this type of environment. I noticed a correlation between visibility and volume of spontaneous work requests. Being visible meant being included – a huge benefit when working on projects that require collaboration. But being included in every discussion can also be disruptive, especially when you are included because you just happen to be there rather than because you have something unique to contribute.

Technology has also contributed to a culture of immediate response. Depending on the communication tool being used, we often know when a recipient has read a message – another form of visibility. And we get impatient when we know that someone has looked at a communication, but hasn’t responded. For me, deciding how and when to respond to digital and face-to-face requests is a boundary issue. It can be hard to institute new habits when you have already established a pattern of answering emails over the weekend or giving tutorials during your lunch break.

During an impactful career counselling session I remember being asked – what does a fresh start look like? The beginning of a new academic program, perhaps at a new institution or in a new city, is an opportunity to implement your wish list. Looking back at my master’s program, I regret that I didn’t make more of an effort to become part of the graduate student community. I wish that I maintained a more organized file structure and that I spent more time writing at the front end of my program. I have a long list of items that I would change if I could do it all over again.

Leveraging these regrets is a smart way to get started with a new challenge. Will I maintain regular working hours or adopt a flexible schedule? How will I network within the Department and the greater University community? What quality of work will I turn in? How much is good enough? What type of teaching assistant do I want to be? Will I answer emails on evenings and weekends? Or reserve that time for family? What do I think I could have done better in the past to promote happiness and well-being? And it isn’t just about the negative – what did I do well that I want to repeat or prioritize?

A new graduate program will be full of new teachers, mentors, and connections who will inspire and guide you along your journey. Complement this with self-coaching. Make use of your personal experiences and take advantage of the opportunity to try a new approach. I’m standing at the beginning of a new adventure and I’m not going to miss my chance to do it all over again.

© SF Jones, 2017