CYGNA: Life-long learning in academia

Reports on our 25th CYGNA meeting with presentations on an Erasmus visit and participation in the Aurora program

The name CYGNA comes from the female version of the Greek word for SWAN (Supporting Women in Academia Network). The main objective of the group is to promote interaction among female academics based in the London area and to provide a forum for learning, support, and networking. We typically hold five meetings a year with a mix of presentations and informal discussions. We also maintain a readings and inspirations section for female academics and have a Twitter hashtag #cygna_london. If you’d like to join the CYGNA network, just drop me an email

25th meeting 22 March 2019
Birkbeck University of London

Organised by Alexandra Beauregard, Birkbeck University of London

Our 3rd CYGNA meeting in March 2015 was held at Birkbeck. So it was very nice to revisit this university, this time with a much bigger group. In addition to regulars, we welcomed five new attendees: Bettina Coleman-Schoels, Sonyoung Hwang, Clare Kelliher, Qiuping Li, and Athina Dilmperi. Some had been members for years, but never managed to attend, others had only joined us very recently. Overall, we had a record attendance of 25 members, as you can see we barely fit into the picture.

The session featured two excellent presentations on the theme of life-long learning in academia by two of my Middlesex colleagues. First Salma Soliman reflected on her Erasmus+ Teaching visit to Egypt, her country-of-origin. As the title of her presentation "Beyond Formalities" suggests, she mainly focused on her experiences outside the formal program. Her very personal story was an inspiring account about how we can make a difference in unexpected areas, if only we are willing to be flexible and live with some uncertainty.

Second, Orthodoxia [Dox] Kyriacou shared the eight lessons she learned from participating in the Aurora leadership program: Seeing into the light: some personal experiences of the Aurora programme [presentation download]. After her presentation we had a spirited discussion about female leadership styles, how to interpret assertiveness, the pros and cons of saying no, and how to say no. When Linn Zhang's line manager suggested her to participate in this programme in March 2020, she asked for feedback from CYGNA members, which she kindly collated in this document.

When to say no and three research support books

Coincidentally, I had a blogpost ready to launch a few days after the CYGNA meeting entitled: When to say no?  One of my four tips was to have standard refusal emails for requests and to ensure you only say yes because you want to or have a good reason for it, not because you don’t dare to say no. But if you do need to say no, please do it nicely; I always respond to requests and always explain why I say no. Yes it does take time, but it is about being respectful to others and building relationships.

At the CYGNA meeting, Sarah Otner suggested looking at Iain Hay's excellent book How to be an Academic Superhero which has a very useful table with sample phrases for common requests. You can find the table on Google Books, but I would really recommend reading the entire book. Middlesex academics will find an online copy in the Ebook Central subscription in our library, together with two other great Edward Elgar books on academia.

Female academics: wives of the organization?

Of particular relevance to the discussion of "when to say now" is Anne Huff's now classic Wives of the Organization. As a young academic in the early 1990s I was given a copy of Anne Huff's "Wives of the organization", which describes how gendered interactions in the workplace may subvert success for female academics. And with "copy" I do mean an actual paper copy that was grey from being photocopied again and again! Remember "the Web" didn't really exist back then and few people even regularly used email. Heck, it was only a few years earlier that I still did my university assignments on a typewriter.


Surely things have changed?

Although I found the paper interesting, like many young women then and now I naively thought the patterns described in the paper would not apply to my generation. And of course I was wrong, very wrong! In the next 15-odd years of my academic career I noticed that, although things were undoubtedly improving for women in many ways, traditional gendered interactions were still very much present in the workplace. And yes they did prevent many women from achieving what they wanted. Every time I read the paper again (I still had that hard copy) it acquired more meaning for me.

In 2005 I became PhD director at the University of Melbourne and wanted to share the paper with a group of PhD students in my seminar series Academia Behind the Scenes. But running off even greyer photocopies probably wouldn't appeal to the younger generation. Thus I contacted Anne and asked her whether she had an electronic version, and if so, whether she would allow me to put it up on my frequently visited website. That would mean everyone could read her work.

Anne readily agreed, but by a very fortuitous coincidence was able to offer something even better: a set of four papers around the general theme of the role of women in the workplace. The papers were originally meant to be published elsewhere, but this initiative fell through and the authors were happy with an alternative outlet.

The result: a very exciting exchange

As a result you can now read all four papers on my website, introduced by an interview exchange between Anne Huff and Alison Konrad. Happy reading!

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