Development and retention of women and other gender minorities in academia via a peer-led book club intervention

2020-04-20T23:30:26Z (GMT) by Amanda L. Zacharias Deborah Y. Kwon

Purpose: In response to concerns from fellow postdocs that there was insufficient institutional and individual support to encourage women to remain in the academic “pipeline”, we created a peer-led book club intervention for graduate students and postdocs who identify as women or gender minorities. This intervention has operated successfully for over 4 years with support from the Department of Genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Design: Membership expands widely beyond the Department of Genetics to anyone on the department seminar listserv and is composed of 56% postdocs, with a sizable international contingent. Books are nominated and ranked in preference by the membership; selections have ranged from self-help titles aimed at women in business targeting common issues (negotiation, Imposter syndrome), the history of women in science, to new research on biological gender differences. Meetings are held monthly in several small groups that meet over lunch or dinner at a consistent time to foster group cohesion and accommodate different schedules. These meetings not only provide education and awareness on gender-related issues in science, but also offer a safe environment where scientists who identify as women or gender minorities are able to share personal and professional issues. Once a semester, a joint session is held to hear a woman faculty describe their career path, which serves to provide relatable examples and opportunities for trainees to network with faculty. Experts from across the Penn campus have also been brought to lead interactive workshops on relevant topics.

Results: Based on Likert scale surveys of 52 participants over 4 years, 94% reported the group helped them feel part of the university community, 80% reported increased confidence, 75% reported the group had helped them identify solutions to problems in their professional life, and 98% would recommend participating in the group to other women. All women departing the group thus far have continued their scientific careers in academia, pursuing graduate education, postdoctoral fellowships, and faculty positions, or have attained other academic positions of scientific leadership. These results indicate that an intervention of only 12 hours per year may have significant impact on retaining women in academic science.