Celebrating CYGNA: Supporting women in academia

A history of CYGNA's development to celebrate its 5th year and international women's day

My interest in the role of gender in academia has a long history. One of the reasons I moved away from my native country – the Netherlands – in the mid 1990s is that I couldn’t see myself having a successful academic career there. At the time, I could almost count the number of female professors in Business & Economics on one hand. A 2018 special issue of Economisch Statistische Berichten, in which I co-authored an article Gender Bias and Meritocracy: how to make career advancement in Economics more inclusive, showed that although the overall number of female professors increased, the Netherlands is still bungling at the bottom of the European rankings.

Working my way through the ranks in the UK and Australia, my interest in the barriers for female academics only increased. Thus when I had a chance to work with a colleague at the University of Melbourne – Isabel Metz – whose research focused on gender in management I jumped at the chance. Together we conducted a major longitudinal study of gender [and international] diversity in editorial boards of academic journals, written up in the blogpost Trailblazers of diversity: editors and editorial board diversity.

Move to London leads to CYGNA

When, after 13 years in Austra­lia, I returned to the UK – or rather London – in March 2014, I was struck by two seemingly contradictory aspects of academic life there. First, the larger London area has a very high level of concentration of universities, making it a potentially very rich and supportive academic environment. Second, most individual female academics that I spoke to felt quite isolated, especially when working in smaller departments where they were often the only ones working at their level or in a specific research area.

Therefore with two junior colleagues - Argyro Avgoustaki and Ling Eleanor Zhang, later joined by Shasha Zhao – I decided to set up a support network for female academics in the London area. After 12 successful meetings as the HROB network, we relaunched the network in January 2017 with a collaboratively chosen new name and an official logo. The name CYGNA comes from the female version of the Greek word for SWAN (Supporting Women in Academia Network). The name CYGNA appealed to members for its Latin origins and its slight mysteriousness. The connotations and imagery elicited by the word swan were also seen as clear positives:

  • the traditional symbol of beauty and grace in ancient Greece, which, combined with the Latin inspired name, provides us with strong academic roots
  • serene and calm on the outside, but madly paddling under the water, just like most academics these days
  • peaceful, faithful, and almost entirely herbivorous, but assertive when defending things that matter, such as gender equality and our research
  • at home in diverse environments (water, earth, air), reflecting the national and cultural diversity of our network, which counts more than 20 nationalities

With our new name and logo firmly established, ESCP London – a loyal CYGNA supporter – also kindly provided funding for CYGNA mugs and pins. We now use our mugs and wear our pins with pride!

Why we are different from other networks

Our network differs from other academic women’s networks in at least five ways:

  1. Many other women’s networks are single-university networks and cover all disciplines from Archaeology to Zoology. Although this might build institutional coherence, single-discipline networks across universities like CYGNA offer different institutional perspectives, provide better opportunities for research collaborations, and present the opportunity to discuss sensitive issues with those outside one’s immediate circle of colleagues.
  2. Likewise, countrywide networks such as WHEN [Women in Higher Education Network] have an important role to play. However, the sheer size of this type of networks makes forming the close bonds that are needed for women to thrive in academia difficult. At CYGNA new members are only added to the mailing list if they are known to at least one active current member and they are explicitly introduced and made to feel welcome at every meeting.
  3. Most university and countrywide networks only organize only a few events a year, often fairly short in duration. On average, CYGNA has met for half-day events five times a year since its inception. Since May 2020 we have had monthly virtual meetings. With 36 meetings organized to date (December 2020) this means lots of opportunities for academic women to meet and a solid stock of accumulated resources on our website.
  4. CYGNA is open to international members. In fact, nearly one half of our active members do not live in the UK. This provides members with the opportunity to network outside the UK. Its London location means that we also regularly host international CYGNA members. To date, we have had visitors from Australia, Austria, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, the Netherlands, and the USA. Given that, by coincidence rather than by design, 95% of our UK CYGNA members originate from outside the UK, this makes for a very international network.
  5. CYGNA is resolutely FREE for its members. Our speakers are usually CYGNA members who offer their time for free, whereas the host university sponsors our catering. We do not charge for membership or for attending our meetings. This ensures our network is open for academics at any stage of career and to those who work at less well-resourced institutions.

CYGNA growing in size and stature

Membership of the CYGNA mailing list has continued to grow and at present consists of nearly 300 members from more than 30 countries and 100 different universities. In the early years, its founding members did most of the organization and we generally met at the universities that they were affiliated with: ESCP London, Middlesex University, and Kings College London/Royal Holloway University of London.

Since the third year of CYGNA, we decentralized the organization of meetings. This meant that the organizing load could be shared and that we could expand our meeting locations. We have met at Birkbeck University of London, Cass Business School, ESCP London, Imperial College London, King’s College London, London School of Economics, Middlesex University, and Royal Holloway. The viritual meetings that we have organised since the COVID-19 pandemic hit have been organised by academics from Australia, the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and UK universities outside the London area.

How CYGNA is helping its members?

Our swans have different reasons for joining the network. Some are mainly interested in the topics discussed in the seminars; some particularly enjoy the networking element or the personal stories of career struggles. Others join our meetings to meet [potential] research collaborators; many of us make CYGNA days our fixed day for meeting our co-authors face-to-face. Several of our swans have used the CYGNA network to gain inside knowledge about job opportunities and different university cultures. Here is what some of our members had to say:

CYGNA helped me feel supported by women colleagues who share similar experiences and challenges within academia. I gain lots of insights into a variety of topics that I would not have gained in any other way. Also, I find it rewarding to meet with like-minded people, who share similar goals and undergo similar challenges and who support one another with ideas of how to capture opportunities and overcome challenges on our academic journey, all in a relaxed and friendly environment.

CYGNA has been a wonderful support to me in various ways. Several colleagues there have helped me with publications and acted as critical readers before submissions. I also found great support when changing job and getting career advice. It was very valuable to have a safe place in which I could discuss specific offers and get advice choosing what was best for me personally and professionally.

I met many great female scholars through this network. With one of them I ended up editing a special issue at the European Journal of International Management. CYGNA really helps girls in academia to get their name out there!

Cygna has been a great place to meet other academics with similar interests. I have always felt reenergised after attending Cygna events. I have also found that the topics that we discussed are relevant and practical. For example, the seminar dedicated to social media in the academic context was very informative and made me take action. It made me think about my profile in social media and, consequently, revise my personal and professional information available online.

Being an early career academic in Australia, I feel that CYGNA is a valuable way for me to be connected to an international community of like-minded scholars, who are generous in sharing their experiences and providing helpful advice. The regular emails and updates inspire and motivate me in my research and career. I hope to join one of the CYGNA events in person one day when I visit the UK!

Cygna has helped me greatly when I was finishing my PhD and was looking for my first academic home. I have received lots of helpful advice from Cygna members then regarding where to apply and how to prepare a strong application.

As someone who finds diversity of views rewarding, I was always apprehensive when invited to attend groups that reinforced certain identities, gender included. I did understand the value of such groups, but I never fully clicked. Two year and counting with Cygna and the only times I feel anxious is when I know I cannot make a meeting or cannot stay to the end. At Cygna I expanded my research by starting to work with colleagues from other universities; I strengthen personal relations with work colleague by socializing after meetings; I learned new ways to cope and conquer adversities that still affect women in academics, by listening to candid accounts about the lows and highs of working in academia.

CYGNA web resources

I maintain a section for CYGNA on my own website, harzing.com, which is drawing well over a thousand visitors a day. It includes a summary and pictures of our five meetings a year, a quick overview of the topics covered in our meetings and links to the presentations.

We also maintain a readings and inspirations section for female academics and have a Twitter hashtag #cygna_london. In 2018 I started to write up our meetings in separate blogposts for easier access.

Middlesex University supporting CYGNA

Middlesex University is a staunch supporter of CYGNA. We have had a meeting at Middlesex at every CYGNA year since 2015. My colleague and member of the CYGNA organizing team, Shasha Zhao, always finds us a very nice room, for two of our meetings she even secured the VC’s board room, very fitting for our seminar on academic promotion. In all modesty, I think we provide the best catering of any university. You won’t find a meagre plate of biscuits for the coffee break or a small plate of sandwiches for our networking dinner when we have a CYGNA meeting at Middlesex :-)

Supporting (gender) diversity is high up at the agenda at Middlesex. Overall, 60% of Middlesex academics are female and our Middlesex ambassador Angela Griffiths has a special interest in networking for women in the workplace. In October 2018, Middlesex was the first university to receive UK Investor in Equality and Diversity Charter Mark. In September 2019, Middlesex University Business School supported a 1-day on-site writing retreat for CYGNA members, just like it supports a yearly off-site writing boot-camps at Cumberland Lodge for its academic staff.

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