Saved by the Belles

A group of University of Queensland women are banding together to support early career female academics and help them to advance their careers.

UQBelles is a group for female academics from the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law which offers networking events and workshops where women can trade skills, learn from experts and create support networks. The group’s facilitators, Jacquelyn Humphrey and Renuka Mahadevan, discuss the advantages of the UQBelles.

Three years ago, when the opportunity to lead an initiative aimed at helping early career academic women in my faculty (Business, Economics and Law) arose, I (Jacquelyn) jumped at the chance. I have been fortunate enough to have had both male and female mentors, but I know that being a “junior” female academic is not always easy. I would have appreciated a group like this when I was starting out as an academic.

I (Renuka) joined UQBelles this year as a means of getting more early-career female academics from my school (Economics) to be involved in, and thereby benefit from, the UQBelles events. So I have been door knocking, talking to this special group and encouraging them in whatever way I can. I strongly believe that has made a difference, as creating awareness of the support that is available is important. As a result, I have become an informal mentor to some of the UQBelles. I strongly believe in the value of mentoring, particularly for young female academics. There was no female role model in my school during my early career and I struggled not having anyone to turn to.

We were delighted to welcome Justine Bell-James from the School of Law to our team in the last few months. We now have facilitators from each of the schools in our faculty.

Many probably think that underrepresentation of women is not as much of an issue in disciplines apart from STEMM. For our launch event in February 2016, we looked at our faculty’s profile in terms of male and female academics. What we saw was the all too familiar pattern of equal (or more) women and men at Level A academic positions, dwindling down to very few women at Level E. Clearly, underrepresentation of women is still an issue.

In terms of what we actually do, we run a number of events each year, mainly as workshops and talks. One of our recent events was “raising your media profile” in which we had a speaker from The Conversation present on how to publish in that outlet and two academics sharing their experiences of writing for The Conversation. We also had Carolyn Varley from UQ’s Office of Media and Communications who showcased UQ’s support for academics wanting to engage with the media. We have also had workshops on: negotiation skills, interview skills, work/life balance, teaching tips, peer coaching and how to complete the (huge amount of paperwork for) UQ annual reviews.

Towards the end of each year we run a research day in which UQBelles can present their research in a friendly environment, and get feedback before the conference season. This provides an environment which fosters collaboration between disciplines, something that is already happening within the network and fits the UQ strategy of strengthening inter-disciplinary research.

Running this initiative has been great fun, and we have had good feedback from the women who have come along to our events. Many express their appreciation of just having the chance to network with other women who are in the same boat. It is always nice to feel that you are not alone in your experience. We have also been delighted at the support our Dean and Heads of Schools have given for this initiative.

Where to from here? In May this year, we decided to test the water to see if there would be interest from other disciplines in this type of group. We ran a university-wide informal seminar on “Mentoring Women in the Academic Profession”. We had 80 registrations from people in 35 different schools and institutes across UQ! Clearly there is a need for supporting early-career women in other disciplines. We would love to see groups like this one starting up in other schools – so if you are interested in this, please get in touch: