This chapter shares some of the stories told within the autoethnography group, bringing these rarely heard voices to light through a focus on embodiment. The images and words were shared in meetings, emails, or instant messages. The chapter does not discuss these stories with references or citations to wider literature as with the other chapters. Instead, these stories are presented as snapshots of the lives of the women who took part in these studies and they are shared with each individual’s consent.

In this chapter we share some of the stories that have been told within the autoethnography group, bringing you (the reader) these rarely heard voices through a focus on embodiment. The images and words were shared in meetings, emails, or instant messages. This chapter does not discuss these stories with references or citations to wider literature, as we have done in other chapters. Instead, we present them as snapshots of the lives of the women who took part in these studies and share them with each individual’s consent.

Our intentions for the work were for it to reflect the experience of those engaged with the projects, and to find points that resonated with each other, wider members of WISC, and the scientific community. We wanted to find the human points of connection that allowed others to realise the impact and lived experiences we shared. In order to achieve this, we used a variety of methods (see Chapter Two for a discussion of methods used and why), with an emphasis on creativity and embodied experiences. All the chapters of this book bar Chapter One include fictional vignettes drawn from our data, and images from our research, and this one is no different. It was our choice to use fictional narrative to create vignettes that resonated with experiences in order to protect the anonymity of our participants. The vignettes draw on experiences shared within the survey, the reflective research group meetings, and the collaborative autoethnography. The team worked together to choose themes that resonated for us and we then disseminated these within the wider community to get feedback and input. In presenting these stories, we have chosen to take a chronological approach, sharing the themes as they arose naturally in meetings and discussion over the period of September 2020 to July 2021. Before the meetings started formally, many of the group discussed the broad topics that they thought might be relevant to the project, including the gendered nature of ‘lab-safe clothing’ and how it removes femininity; and the stupid things that people say to keep women out of labs.

Over time the group grew. From the initial plan to have 6 people sharing experiences, the ongoing project now includes 12 academics from the US, UK, and Europe. In addition to the stories shared here, they also discussed practices for managing their groups, tools for prioritising work, the idea and enaction of equity within their group, and how they could work to increase diversity and representation. In a paper detailing findings from the collaborative autoethnography triangulated with data from the WISC second survey and work with research groups, we wrote:

The CA [collaborative autoethnography] group found the space to reflect, process, and share with a community of supportive peers. The meetings, rather than being another burden on their time, became points of connection and support. The importance of community for women in science is widely recognised.1,2 Given the pre-COVID-19 context of the lack of diversity within chemistry,35 it is little surprise that women, as they are often the main care givers within the home, have been impacted more by the coronavirus pandemic.6,7 … The importance of community (or lack thereof through lockdown and social isolation) was another important factor contributing to personal experiences. Communities and networks are vital for those who are marginalised.2,8 Previous work with the supramolecular community demonstrated the value of reflexive and creative approaches to help build communities and networks,9 allowing members to identify and disseminate their experiences to better understand the impact of marginalisation. The ongoing work with the CA and research groups supporting their reflective and reflexive processes10 has been valued by all participants for the opportunity to share, connect, and feel less alone.11

COVID-19

Our original intention was to capture and explore the lived experiences of running a research group as a woman. As we wrote at the start of the project, we wanted to ‘collectively craft the rhythms of our work and lives’. However, the timing of the project meant that, in addition to this, we also had the scope to capture and explore the lived experiences of being a female supramolecular chemist in academia through the ‘unprecedented’ COVID-19 pandemic (see Figure 6.1). At the time of writing the first draft of this book (20 July 2021), 67.5% of the UK population had had two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine (87.9% had had one dose),12 and yet we were on the crest of a third wave of infections.12 Globally, cases continue to rise, with variants of COVID-19 causing concern, particularly for those with underlying health issues.1315

Figure 6.1:
Figure 6.1:

‘Unprecedented’ sudden emergency

The group shared how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected them. There was a lot of fear about the unknown, with cases skyrocketing in many areas of the world. Most had been inundated with teaching and meetings, which had pivoted to being online, experiences that took longer and required more energy than in person (see Figure 6.2). One said she felt “like I’m in an episode of Dr Who as the laptop sucks my living energy and my soul”. Those who were doing face-to-face teaching talked about rules over wearing masks/visors, and we realised that regulations differed between different institutions, even those within the same country. Many had had annual performance/progression/review meetings cancelled and had been advised to prioritise teaching over all other academic work, but then had been asked why they were not submitting grant applications. They felt that the pressure was worse than usual, particularly as they were driven to ensure that the student experience was the same. Students were more disgruntled, and people shared how difficult it was to integrate new postgraduate students into a group when labs were split, and people were isolating. Others felt guilty for not teaching due to research time buyout (where their time has been externally paid for work on a particular project), or that they were in a period of calm before the storm of their teaching was to begin.

Figure 6.2:
Some participants of this study had recently begun new jobs and shared how it was to be new in a ‘weird time’. Everyone felt flat:

COVID is feeling nearer to home and yet the world and people seem to be taking it less seriously. I am very distracted and anxious.

Lacking in motivation and finding it hard to build a head of steam. I feel I get stuck and repeat a thought (or question) like a broken record rather than hearing the answer and moving on like I should.

What do I want out the session today?

Connection.

To find a way to move forward.

M o t i o n.

I feel soft and weak when I want to feel hard and strong.

The pressures of work, and the needs of keeping the family together were at times overwhelming. One shared how she felt like a small dot between two giant rocks (see Figure 6.3). This feeling was echoed, particularly among those with young families. There was a lot of resonance with feelings of having to carry others and support people, while not being that good at asking for support in return. Resilience levels were low, and individuals felt as though there was no time for research.

Figure 6.3:
Figure 6.3:

I’m a small dot between two giant rocks

Overwork

Everyone in the group felt the pressures of overwork. Although overwork is common within academia (see Chapter Three), these feelings were exacerbated through COVID-19. Everyone agreed that there was more pressure and stress than normal. COVID-19 was making things worse, and online schedules meant that people had less freedom. There was a level of mental gymnastics involved with COVID-19, which people had to deal with without the mechanisms in place that would normally offer support – whether that was interacting with other people or officially through the institutions.

‘Universities only care about the money coming in not about the pressure it puts on you.’

The group shared feelings of guilt in every direction, and experienced pressure when they ‘should’ have been happy

‘I landed a grant and I only feel pressure. I’m frozen with pressure.’

They shared that being a PI (Principal Investigator) was very stressful. Bottlenecks included applying for tenure in the US, where COVID-19 extensions were available, but it was not clear if extra time would, in turn, increase the level of requirements that needed to be met.

The group decided to focus on ways to prioritise and find balance. This was initiated after a meeting in which everyone shared experiences of having to continuously firefight and only being able to focus on what needed to be done immediately rather than being able to plan for the bigger picture. There was agreement that if people carried on the way they were working they would burn out. One person shared a memory of Mr Creosote from Monty Python, and how it reminded her of the line ‘one wafer thin mint?’, and instead today it was ‘one more email’ and then she would go.

KABOOM!!

The group shared how they would say yes to anything to get things done and for a quiet life. However, there was a lot of anger and frustration, and this was impacting on people’s health. Coping strategies included lists, and lists of lists, but these were getting out of hand. One reflected on whether she was taking on work when she did not have to, questioning whether her tendency to say yes and take on more tasks and more responsibility was a distraction from getting on with the difficult stuff. Another, when asking her line manager for help and support, was told “you just have to prioritise”.

There was a disconnect between the reality of living and working through COVID-19, and the ways in which they were able to live and work, and most importantly take care of themselves to sustain pre-pandemic levels of working.

Self-care, community, and celebrating small wins

As a group they decided to see whether focusing on each other’s successes and sharing ways in which they looked after themselves would help them to focus on the positives. A beneficial change between lockdown 1.0 and 3.0 was an ability to delegate more, to be able to ask for help, although this was still hard for many, see Figure 6.4.

Figure 6.4:
Figure 6.4:

Why is it so hard to put myself first?

The group decided to meet and each bring an example of how they had been a ‘badass’ in the previous month, to share at least one nice thing they had done for themselves, and a silver lining from COVID-19 they had not been expecting. They found it easier than usual to focus on the positive.

Examples of badassery included:

‘Standing up for myself and going as PI on an institutional grant.’

‘Realising I have the capacity to keep going. … But that I shouldn’t push myself beyond where I can cope.’

‘Saying no when work asked me to do something untenable.’

‘Got invited to interview.’

‘Stepping into big girl shoes on a big grant proposal.’

‘Convinced boss to change product and ordered four boxes.’

‘Published my 100th paper.’

‘Won two grants.’

Examples of doing something nice included a lot of exercise, such as yoga, running, trampolining, walking, as well as making time, for example to have a bath, take leave, or have date nights. There is a wider discussion to be had that the basics of taking a bath or having time to exercise are relegated to ‘self-care’, or doing something nice, when they are relatively basic requirements.16

The final task of sharing a silver lining from COVID-19 was more varied. For those with children, having extra time with them was seen as a silver lining, although not without its own complications or challenges. Working from home was a positive (see Figure 6.5).

Figure 6.5:
Figure 6.5:

The benefits of working at home

The need for community and connection was a big factor in the group’s experience of COVID-19 and the project, and many other silver linings included an emphasis on communication, and contacting and connecting with others over the internet:

‘Being able to keep in touch with people around the world.’

‘Getting to know you all. Getting to know more people.’

‘Networking to connect with people, especially over the internet.’

‘People are more connected. I can speak to friends and lots of different groups of friends. I feel more connected with colleagues even though we don’t see each other.’

Through the project, the group became close, maybe closer than expected, as they shared honest and authentic reflections of their lives. This connection allowed them to reveal things that they would not feel comfortable admitting to others in a work scenario (see Figure 6.6), especially around the idea of being successful when others were not.

Figure 6.6:
Figure 6.6:

This is how I feel sometimes, one flower having to stand tall while everything else is dying around me

Femininity and being a woman in the lab

The group were not always serious and, along with connection around the more sombre topics, they also discussed more light-hearted issues. We would of course not admit in print to conducting a statistically significant and totally unbiased comparative study of different luxury toilet paper brands while in global lockdown, but appropriate clothing that was worn in the laboratory was definitely talked about.

Conventionally in a chemistry laboratory it is imperative for health and safety reasons to ensure that along with wearing a lab coat, gloves, and safety goggles, all skin is covered up. This is for safety and practicality. On the feet this would mean, for example, no sandals or any gap above socks that exposes the ankles. This is in case there is a spillage of a caustic chemical, which would lead to an injury if the chemical were to contact the skin. In addition, many labs mandate that students and staff wear natural fibres such as cotton, as these are less flammable. In practice, ‘lab-safe’ clothes can equate to being told to wear a typically masculine uniform of baggy cotton jeans, trainers, and the like. The argument for this is that clothes in the lab need to be able to be removed easily in case of spills. Adding into the equation oversized lab coats and hair that has to be tied back can mean that for young women being in the lab is somewhat equivalent to removing their femininity, if they have been used to expressing that femininity through their clothes. Although some may say that a lab is not a place to express personality and identity, this perspective homogenises lab workers, and expects them to all tend towards the ‘average’ – which of course is skewed by imbalanced representation. We all have personality and identity, but only some are told that this should not be expressed, or that it is the wrong sort of personality. In the labs where we have been, typical ‘blokey’ behaviour raised very few eyebrows, but overtly feminine behaviour had a different impact depending on the group.

The goal of equality is not to remove femininity in order for women to be considered on a par with men. This does not put people on a level playing field. Instead, it reinforces the idea that only some bodies (male) are allowed to exist within the space. Equality and inclusivity mean that the space needs to genuinely reflect diversity and be comfortable to all people who might inhabit it.

When Jen L first began spending time in a lab for a WISC research project, she agonised over ‘what to wear’, because prior to that she had delineated a ‘work wardrobe’ from her ‘comfy at home wardrobe’. She asked the group what she should wear (which seemed an easier question than to think about the logistics and actuality of doing the research). This started a discussion that lasted through collaborative group meetings as well as less formal evening meet-ups. One member shared how, as a PhD student, she had had a stand-up argument with the health and safety officer in her lab as he bawled her out for wearing tights rather than the ubiquitous baggy jeans: “I told him that I could take my tights off quicker than he could pull his trousers down”. A compromise was reached in that she was allowed to wear natural (that is, cotton/wool) tights underneath her lab coat.

This approach to lab-safe clothing was one adopted by other members of the group for their students. As more senior academics, the members themselves spent less time in the lab, and were thus less restricted in what they could wear. Some of their students shared with them how they attempted to retain their femininity – through wearing fancy earrings, or tying their hair up in elaborate styles.

The group also began collecting ‘dumb things’ they had been told about why they shouldn’t pursue a career in chemistry, and many of these anecdotes such as “your hands are too small to hold a solvent bottle” or the classic “women can’t stand at a fume hood because it will make their wombs sink” found their way into the fictional vignettes we have shared.

Emotional toll

The emotional impact of the pandemic was a frequent topic of conversation within the group. This was discussed from a personal perspective, as well as that of an academic and/or group leader:

‘I am very distracted and anxious. Lacking in motivation and finding it hard to build a head of steam.’

‘Someone died of COVID while lecturing in South America – is HE [Higher Education] worth dying for?’

‘I have so much anger and I don’t know why. I’m frustrated I don’t have clean data. I can’t sleep. I have so much anxiety.’

For those with young children, they were having to combine childcare with work. At more than one meeting young children were in attendance, and one member joked that she plugged her child into a tablet and stuffed her full of whatever snacks she asked for just to be able to work. These experiences were common for working mothers across the world, who felt a combination of exhaustion, panic, guilt, and anxiety.17 School closures had an impact on parents’ mental health.18 The situation felt unsustainable:

‘It’s week four of homeschooling and the wheels are falling off. We were told today that schools won’t open until early March at the earliest. I’m working 7am to midnight. … I can’t continue at this level, I am so rundown. On Friday instead of a nap I looked at paper drafts. I need a career-building momentum of papers after maternity leave. I was just getting momentum.’

These feelings were echoed in a poem by Cali Prince:19(p37)

Who was it
during
the COVID-19 pandemic
Who worked
day
until next dawn
at the hearth of the kitchen table?
The women,
they said.
Who was it
who home-schooled
their daughters,
their sons?
Who quelled
the disorder
and alleviated
anxieties
As they toiled
together?
Not in solitude,
not in silence
or peace
not in purpose-built studies
but in the rubble
of breakfast dishes
and half-written sentences?
Not always,
but most often
it was the women,
they said.
And in the midst
of the pandemic
whose productivity
was compromised,
whose attention was
divided and split?
Not always,
but most often
it was the women,
they said …

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown had a negative impact on many people’s mental health,20 and academics were not immune from this.21 Unsurprisingly, this was reflected in the participants of the collaborative autoethnography. In addition to their own struggles, they shared concerns about their groups’ mental health:

‘My group are so disconnected. We’re doing Zoom meetings but the sessions are not so helpful.’

‘I had a new international student start and I’m so worried that they aren’t able to connect with anyone.’

‘They’re just fragmented and I don’t know what to do to make it better.’

The group felt a high level of responsibility for their students, and this was an extra burden on top of their responsibilities for themselves, their families, their loved ones, and pressure to do work. The group discussed relationships inside and outside the lab. Managing groups and feeling responsible for their mental health and progress in addition to holding together for yourself and loved ones was a big theme, and one that we decided to explore with the WISC second survey (see Chapter Seven).

COVID-19 was tough on those in long-distance relationships if they were separated more than usual due to lockdowns and travel restrictions. For some it was a time when they actually got to be together, as they were able to work from home and live in the same place for once. “We lived together for two months – I felt bad for being so happy.”

Hermione, 38, Mid-career researcher

Working through COVID has been so bloody hard. The whole world has been struggling and I am no exception. However, in addition to being on this rollercoaster as an individual I have been working full-time throughout and been responsible for my whole group. I cannot tell you how many days I have had that have been full of meetings. Meetings with my department as we tried to sort out the sh*tstorm that was the ‘pivot to online delivery’. That is not so easy in chemistry! I had it easier than some because I have always recorded my lectures, but I know that others had it so hard. It seemed to take four times as long to prepare for an online lecture. It’s not just the planning, it’s the recording, recording again, recording yet again, sorting out captions, sorting out the asynchronous material – the bits that the students have to read or watch alongside the actual lecture – then of course doing the synchronous bit. Have you ever sat in front of a screen and talked to little black boxes because everyone has their camera turned off? It’s pretty soul-destroying and very hard on the voice! Some students actually contributed a lot more than if they’d been in a lecture theatre because they used the chat, but it is just so draining. And labs! I know of universities that sent out lab kits that students had to use at home – things like baking a cake or testing pH. To keep them engaged I guess. I am lucky in that we had actually done pretty much all our labs before lockdown and then got to plan how we would approach the next semester over the summer. Back-up plans and back-up plans and yet more back-up plans.

It takes time though. And I am also responsible for my group and making sure that we carry on getting the research out. I care about my group. I was really aware of not wanting them to feel abandoned and isolated so I made sure that we had regular meetings – in small groups as much as whole-group ones. They were a bit more informal too. I never used to wave hello at meetings before! I feel responsible for my groups’ mental health. I am the one who has to hold them together and make sure they have work to do but aren’t overloaded. I’m the one who has to negotiate for them to be in the lab again when they can. That was not fun. At first everything was just shut down for ages. Then other departments started to go back in and I had to negotiate for my lot to get in too. We were split for ages, so half were in at one time then the other half. It meant that my group weren’t together as a whole for months. Communication started to break down, and I think some people got really isolated, particularly the newer ones. It was so hard to keep hold of everything. It’s a bit better now, though our lab is on a schedule of two days on two days off. I’ve noticed that they’re pushing themselves really hard – working really long days to get as much done as possible – and it has meant that we just can’t do some of the reactions that take a long time.

They all had to move the fume hoods around and that was a palaver. My group used to be a lot smaller than the guy I share a lab with, but his has shrunk while mine has grown. That’s what happens – it depends on grants and getting money in. He won’t give me any more space though, and makes me feel like a demanding woman just for asking! Getting enough space is always a fight. One more thing that takes energy from me. I can’t remember the last time I took leave. I feel like I need to be there all the time in case something goes wrong. That and the fact that it’s not like I can go anywhere!

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