Career Advancement for Women Is Focus of COACh Workshops

December 18, 2012

Pam Cook of the University of Delaware, currently SIAM's vice president for publications, was instrumental in arranging for COACh workshops at recent SIAM meetings. In the article that follows, Cook and Mary Silber of Northwestern University convey their impressions as participants in the workshops. If enough prospective participants express interest (to [email protected]), similar workshops may be offered at future SIAM meetings.

The two most recent SIAM Annual Meetings---in Pittsburgh (2010) and Minneapolis (2012)---offered workshops for women wishing to build skills that would help them move to the next career level. Run by COACh, an organization that works to increase the numbers and success of women scientists and engineers, and supported by SIAM, a COACh partner, the workshops were free to participants. Workshop participants covered a broad spectrum of levels, from graduate students through established career women (including tenured faculty). With their widely ranging professional experience, participants contributed a variety of perspectives to the workshop.

The workshops were run by professional facilitators, Jane Tucker and Barbara Butterfield (, who understand that intangible skills are required for negotiating and leadership. They have logged a great many hours helping others, in many cases women in STEM fields, meet these requirements. Their experience with the mathematics community includes workshops presented at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota.

The focus of the 2012 SIAM workshop was on negotiation. The facilitators began by eliciting our preconceptions about negotiation. It turned out that in many cases our notions don't serve us well; an example is the view that negotiation shouldn't be necessary---our hard work will be recognized and rewarded. Dream on!

We were also asked to reflect on how we feel about negotiating. Do we relish the opportunity? Avoid it? Are we intuitive in our approach, or do we plan and research ahead of a negotiation? Here, the facilitators did a tricky thing---using this introductory exercise, they quickly sized us up and then reflected back those first impressions. The results had us wondering how our communication style might undermine our goals when we approach our department chair or dean with a request for something that will really make a difference to our research program or to our department's mission. We also considered situations in which different styles of negotiation are appropriate. This was a great opportunity to explore errors in our thinking; the perspective that an ideal negotiation benefits both parties was a powerful revelation to many.

The workshop ended with some fun. We broke into groups to role-play, quickly drawing up case studies from our own situations and goals for advancing our own research. A twist in this exercise was that the "department chair" in the negotiation was handed confidential guidelines, and asked to take on some particularly infuriating negotiation style aimed at throwing off the poor junior faculty member! We leave that part to your imagination, but the next time you are frustrated by a negotiation and need to blow off steam, it might help to do some mental role-playing as a way to develop guidelines.

Participants were enthusiastic about the workshop. It was a reminder, one participant said, that "what we learned is to be applied every day and not just a couple of times during your career" (in, say, negotiating a course schedule each semester or in negotiating with a partner who takes out the trash). The role-playing was very useful, said another, because "it doesn't matter how many times you hear people telling you what to do, it is another thing when you actually have to do it." Further impressions included: "It's a true interactive way of learning about how to negotiate in a constructive way." The workshop provided "a forum for true vertical networking of women in science where we felt safe to share our concerns and learn how to resolve them in a constructive way and negotiate in a professional way." It "helped us see the flaws in our negotiation style and learn how to improve it."

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