WISC has created a community and place in which stories and experiences can be shared; it has given women the means and tools to do this from an embodied perspective through autoethnography and other reflexive, qualitative approaches. This chapter* will set out what autoethnography and embodiment are, why they are important in the context of STEM, how they are usually missing in other research, and why this is a problem. It will consider the structural barriers that are specific to STEM, and are prevalent within the culture that keeps these stories hidden.
A qualitative approach to science
Autoethnography and embodiment are not words necessarily synonymous with science. While science abounds with long words, specialist equipment, vocabulary, and acronyms
In order to write this book, we incorporate literature on women in STEM and academic identity, together with data from WISC’s qualitative research projects, some of which were open to participants from all genders within the supramolecular chemistry community. Qualitative research involves a huge array of methods, approaches, and theoretical frames. In this book, and in the work undertaken with WISC, we have employed a method that uses a triangulation of data8 between qualitative surveys,9 collaborative autoethnographies10 and reflective, ongoing group meetings.11 Our approach is primarily an Embodied Inquiry,12 which privileges knowledge that originates in the body, and the feelings, emotions, and sensations that are present. It draws on Black feminist13 and Indigenous approaches to research.14 This type of research has ethical implications, as it encourages honesty, emotionality, and authenticity.15 Using data from distinct sources allows us to present a mosaic of data16,17 or multi-layered account13 in order to build up a picture of what is happening. Mosaics of data were first utilised when researching with young children who were not always able to articulate how they felt or the emotions they were experiencing. Multi-layered accounts allow ‘data analysis [to be] a co-constructed piece of artwork’.13(p3) Incorporating these techniques of data capture and analysis allows us to acquire and disseminate a picture of what people are feeling and experiencing even when those emotions and feelings are not easy to put into words. It allows us to research with rather than on our community.
Creative and arts-based approaches
In order to facilitate this aim and enable us to paint a data picture, we deliberately chose to use creative and arts-based methods.18,19 The collaborative autoethnography (CA) group
The data generated with the CA group was collated along with data generated with the research groups and through the online survey to form discrete data sets. We then analysed these data sets reflectively and thematically.22 Our objective within the data analysis exercise was to identify ‘hot spots’,23 that is, to find themes that resonated with us as researchers and that were reflected in our data sets. As you read this book, you will see that in addition to using creative approaches to gathering our data, we are also using creative ways to disseminate our findings. Along with the images you will find throughout this book, we incorporate fictionalised accounts24,25 in the form of vignettes drawing on the research sources. In these we have created composite accounts bringing together themes from the different aspects of our research. As discussed in Chapter One, the vignettes are still personal, still emotive, but they do not relate to any one particular person. This has been done to protect the researched from any perceived consequences of whistleblowing,26 and to stop readers attempting to work out if they are included. Where we share data directly, we make this clear, though we do not attribute quotes to any individual. The vignettes in this chapter and in all the other chapters are fictionalised accounts. The exploring and disseminating of ideas through fiction draws on historical work by philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre. The use of fiction and creative writing in qualitative research has been used across social science disciplines from geography to anthropology. Richard Philips and Helen Kara describe the process of creative writing within social research as the point at
The aim of qualitative data capture and analysis is not to disseminate findings that are generalisable to larger cohorts, but to
mentally place the reader in the physical environment where the study took place, and sophisticatedly breathe life into research participants’ personal histories and commentary in ways that emotionally connect the reader to the research subject at hand … the human experience is dynamic, and so should be our analyses in telling/writing tales of it.13(pp1–2)
The fictional vignettes created from stories shared within the autoethnographic research, reflective meetings, and the qualitative survey were written to evoke embodied responses from readers, and to illustrate themes and issues that resonated with us as researchers. At this point it might be helpful to stop and consider what autoethnography and embodiment are, and what they mean.
Autoethnography and embodiment
Autoethnography is a research approach, with an origin in the words auto (meaning self), ethno (meaning people), and graphy (meaning I write). Ethnography is a verb and a noun, in that one can ‘do’ ethnography, which in turn will result in an ethnography. Ethnography is the study of people, of social systems, and is a research approach common to anthropology and sociology. Traditionally, ethnography might include the study of remote villages and cultures, an approach much associated with anthropology.28 Ethnography can draw on sensory experiences, such as the smells, sounds, and feelings associated with an experience or environment.29 Autoethnography thus means the study of the self in relation to the social environment and context. This research approach, also termed critical autoethnography, is commonly used to explore subjects that are sensitive, contentious, and have personal meaning to the researcher.30 There is no one prescribed way of conducting or disseminating an autoethnographic research study. Autoethnography is a research approach that demands a lot from a researcher. It is an inclusive approach that incorporates viewpoints and understandings of knowledge that are not limited to white, Eurocentric ideas. Validity, rigour, and repeatability, hallmarks of more traditional research approaches, are interpreted differently within autoethnographic research. Validity is gained by the researcher being critically reflexive (that is, reflecting on events, the thoughts and feelings associated with those events, and their part in creating them along with the impact and implications for those around them),31 self-aware (that is, conscious of the thoughts, feelings, bodily reactions, and responses to events and to others),32 and honest about their vulnerabilities, privilege, and position in the work they are doing (this is often termed positionality in research). This is where the idea of embodiment comes in, as it is used here to mean the totality of thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, images, and kinaesthetic or proprioceptive
The intention behind this self-awareness is to ensure that researchers continually ‘[exhibit] reciprocity and vulnerability in the research process’.13(p7) This self-awareness is not limited to the ‘data gathering’ elements of an autoethnographic study, but includes the analytic process; as Evans-Winters goes on to say, this allows the researcher ‘to show how data analysis can also be soul work that serves to heal thyself’.13(p7)
Knowledge and creativity in STEM
For all the talk on innovation in science, STEM has relatively fixed ideas on ‘what counts’ when it comes to research approaches and methods.36,37 Traditionally, scientific ideas of knowledge would privilege ‘evidence’ over ‘anecdotes’ and numbers over words. This divide between quantitative and
WISC and creative research
The creative research approaches that WISC uses are due to the involvement of Jennifer Leigh, the only social scientist on the Board. Jen L initially took an undergraduate degree in chemistry, and completed two and a half years as a postgraduate computational chemistry student before leaving her PhD unfinished while pregnant with her second child. She went on to complete a PhD in education. She left science, though she is a qualified secondary school science teacher and full member of the Royal Society of Chemistry. She trained as a yoga teacher,43 and then as a somatic movement therapist and educator.44 This training in yoga,45–47 Authentic Movement,48 developmental play,49 and therapeutic technique50 informed much of Jen L’s future work.51
The ideas of embodiment and authenticity in research became central to her understandings of her own career,52 academic identity,53,54 and research.12 She set out her path from chemistry to movement and back to chemistry again in a book chapter where she used a framework of longitudinal rhythmanalysis55 to look at the moments of eurhythmy and arhythm56,57 in her research career. Jen L has written extensively about her approach to using an embodied perspective and
How does this work for WISC?
WISC’s overarching aim is to address equality and diversity in the supramolecular community, and to create a sense of kinship within this same scientific interest group. Our first survey of the community allowed researchers to express the support that they wanted and share the barriers that they faced.7 A recurring theme was the isolation and loneliness of young women, and a desire to connect with others in the field, and to see that there were role models ahead of them indicating a path to success as a supramolecular chemist. WISC’s approach to surveying emphasised qualitative responses, where questions were asked in a format that allowed interpretation and extended answers. The intention was to capture the voices of the community. WISC held an open panel session at the 2019 Macrocyclic and Supramolecular Chemistry Symposium (MASC) which was attended by men and women ranging from undergraduates to PhD students and internationally renowned senior professors from around the globe. At this event we shared our website, and advertised the first WISC skills workshop, to be held in Cagliari in September 2020 (postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19). Our plan was to hold a series of panels, and host creative community spaces at the major conferences and events that would be attended by much of the global supramolecular chemistry community. We wanted to provide safer spaces where chemists could play with the ideas of reflection, make, connect, and talk to each other. These plans were upset by the COVID-19 pandemic. While there had always been a plan to have an online, virtual presence for WISC through online mentoring, resources, and the like, the more experimental and creative aspects of community building had to be put on hold. Instead, WISC decided to pivot its work towards an exploration of lived experiences of COVID-19, alongside a campaign to
The withdrawal has been agreed as the opinions expressed in this essay do not reflect our values of fairness, trustworthiness and social awareness. It is not only our responsibility to spread trusted knowledge, but to also stand against discrimination, injustices and inequity. While diversity of opinion and thoughts can spur change and debate, this essay had no place in our journal.61
This demonstrates a really positive desire within the community to address social justice issues, and to decry blatant racism, sexism, and discrimination. However, the views expressed within the article were still publicly defended by a vocal minority, because it had originated from a successful senior scientist and was therefore seen as valid. The article was very quickly taken down from the journal website, many of the editorial boards resigned, and the International Advisory Board has since been reconstituted.62
How WISC measures success
Success as an academic might be measured in terms of numbers of publications, citations, and amount of grant income,70 and the individual members of WISC and WISC’s Board are subject to these metrics. However, we as a collective group of individuals choose to measure success by different means. In addition to numbers engaging with WISC through Twitter, via surveys, in webinars, the Skills Workshop, support clusters, and feedback received from people engaging with WISC, we determine success by the quality of those interactions, such as the fact that senior supramolecular chemists are recommending that their PhD students and postdoctoral researchers contact us. There has also been a willingness among group leaders of all genders to engage with topics that have traditionally been ignored within science, such as combining a ‘successful’ academic career with motherhood in a field where there are few successful senior women role models with families, where motherhood can be seen as a barrier to progression, and where even talking about the desire to have children might be perceived as an indicator that a young woman is not serious about her career.71 Similarly, the prevalence of sexual
WISC also measures success in the way in which its field-specific mentoring programme is making an impact on those who are signing up to be mentored, and those acting as mentors. In summary, 90% of mentees expressed satisfaction with the programme and requested to continue working with their peer group for more than a year. The programme doubled in size in its first year, and has already resulted in a special issue and editorial in ChemPlusChem on mentoring. A second special issue in Frontiers on women in supramolecular chemistry has been published, and a third is in process in Supramolecular Chemistry highlighting first generation chemists.75,76 Mentoring was one of the key initiatives the supramolecular community requested in WISC’s first survey.7 The importance of mentoring for women, particularly those in marginalised fields, is well recognised.77–79
To sum up, WISC measures success quantitatively and qualitatively. We want to demonstrate through numbers how our approach is impacting on individuals and the community within supramolecular chemistry, and the change we are instigating. We also want to reach out and connect emotionally in order to share the reasons why change is necessary, and the difference that it makes when it happens. We want to combine rational claims with the emotional impact that they have on people’s lived experience (see Figure 2.1).
Maria, 32, Early career
I’d consider myself fairly successful in my career. You know, I have a permanent position, and my group are doing well. We’re not a huge group, really quite small but the things we are doing are working and I have had a couple of grants awarded recently. It’s funny, I thought I’d be happy when they came through but I was actually quite scared! It’s a good job I am prioritising my work right now. My partner is supportive, he understands that work is my focus, and that means that we actually live about two hours away from each other at the moment. At one point we were in different countries! It can be lonely, but it does leave me a lot of time to work late and at weekends when I need to. These new grants mean that we’ll be expanding pretty quickly with a new post-doc and two new PhD students. I do feel the pressure in that though – this thing that you’ve been wanting and working for suddenly comes good and now you have to deliver! I really don’t want to get it wrong hiring this post-doc. What really helped was being able to stop and reflect and to think about it as well as to talk to others. I couldn’t believe it when I found that I was not the only one who had had these thoughts and fears! I even heard stories about getting the hiring all wrong and we chatted about the different things that you can do to see if someone was suitable or would fit into the group. I know getting this right will set the tone for my group for the next few years. I really want to create a culture where everyone feels valued. I’ve been a post-doc myself enough and worked alongside others enough to know that some people out there might be good on paper but can just rub others up the wrong way.
Sometimes it seems cultural, you know? But I shouldn’t say that. I know I need to be really aware of bias when it comes to hiring. I’ve asked my friends if they have any masters students that might be interested in the PhD positions, and I’ve also asked around if there are any good potential post-docs but I know that I want to be open to anyone who comes. Having to do everything all online because of COVID makes it harder though!
One thing they suggested was doing a task-based activity, and asking for a one-page research idea or fellowship outline. That should help to see if they can write. I need to get a LOT of publications out of these grants so I need people who can write. But I also need people who can get on…
It’s going to be interesting to see if I get a lot of women applying. I know that sometimes women do. I know a couple of friends have groups that are nearly all women; that’s just the way it turned out because of who applied. I’ve
If you’d told me this time last year that I’d have been looking forward to those meetings and that I would have been getting out my notebook to draw stuff I’d have laughed at you! Reflecting and drawing aren’t things we really do in science. But it has really helped me figure out how I feel about things, and untangle all the emotions about it. I want to do a good job, and I think this experience is helping me to do a better one. We’ve had lots of hard and personal conversations – conversations I think everyone should have about privilege and equity and racism – but I have got so much support just from finding a community like WISC.