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Hive Mind: Moving Boulders One Grain of Sand at a Time

women together

In November 2019, Rinad Beidas, PhD, an associate professor of Psychiatry and founding director of the Penn Implementation Science Center at the Leonard Davis Institute, tweeted: “Hive mind: I want to curate a library of books for my mentees (who are almost entirely females) on success in personal and professional pursuits with an eye towards academia. Can you help me?”

And help, they could. Within a few days, so many colleagues and collaborators had recommended books that influenced them that Beidas decided to organize the list into a publicly available document open to anyone who would like to contribute. The list currently includes nearly 60 titles of books, each one contributing to mentorship and the advancement of under-represented researchers and faculty, particularly those in the biomedical and health sciences.

But it wasn’t just the number of responses and contributions that came as a surprise. Within hours, several people — some of whom were strangers to Beidas at the time — reached out with ideas that have since turned a simple tweet into a resource that will support women in academia for years to come.

One of the first people to reach out was Jill Landsbaugh Kaar, PhD, a researcher at the University of Colorado. Though the two are only peripherally connected via the “Twitterverse” and had never had any direct contact, Landsbaugh Kaar contacted Beidas because she had been working on a similar list of mentoring titles. Pooling their resources is what gave Beidas the idea to create a publicly available “master” list and share it in a follow-up tweet.

Richard James, the Penn Libraries' Nursing Liaison Librarian, saw Beidas’ document tracking the contributions and thought he, too, could help take the effort a step further. Via Twitter, James offered to create a formal catalogue within the Penn Library system where these books are now available to anyone in the Penn community who is interested in reading them. Where possible, James also acquired ebooks to share more broadly.

Rinad Beidas, PhD

“I didn’t ask him to do that. It was amazing,” Beidas said. “He said it would take a little bit of time to put everything together, but less than six weeks later we now have this collection that’s intended to support women in academia that was organically crowdsourced. It was a beautiful example of people supporting people.”

Michal Elovitz, MD, director of Penn’s Maternal and Child Health Research Center, also suggested the development of a book club, so that anyone who is interested — not just women — can get together and talk about the books and what for many are considered difficult topics. Though that idea has yet to be fully realized, Beidas and her colleagues are working on ways to continue the conversation, beyond the books.

For example, in partnership with FOCUS on Health & Leadership for Women, Beidas developed a seminar aimed at helping women faculty on all tracks become more comfortable building their brand and promoting themselves in academic medicine. Taking place in early February, the inspiration for the seminar — aptly titled “Finding Your Voice and Building Your Scientific and/or Career Brand Authentically” — came from hearing “some very brilliant, accomplished women early in their careers” say they often feel uncomfortable tweeting something they accomplished. But, sharing one’s accomplishments, Beidas says, is among the most important activities in academia, and those who do not actively engage in building and promoting their own brand are at a disadvantage in growing their reputations, and securing future grant funding.

Promoting oneself in a way that feels authentic, she notes, is a conversation that has become more prevalent over the past few years, as has evidence-based literature on the experience of women in academic medicine and solutions to overcoming common barriers.

“These books aren’t just memoirs. There’s been a ton of literature just this year that describes women’s experiences, from being leaders in their environments, to breastfeeding and family leave policies,” she said. “There is a growing literature regarding challenges women face in leadership, how to promote oneself, and evidence-based policies that academic medical centers can use.”

Some of the transformative books that have helped shape her own thinking are those that focus on topics such as negotiation — something Beidas admits does not come easy to her — and those focused on balancing priorities to help determine when the best times are for her to engage in various activities during the day in order to be most effective.

Beidas hopes that like the list of books she’s created, the seminar will serve as a way for her female colleagues to empower and support one another — something she has always been passionate about, in large part because of the many great mentors she’s had over the course of her career.

Though she can’t recall a single, profound moment when she realized that amplifying the voices of women in academic medicine would be one her main platforms, Beidas’ firsthand encounters with some of the obstacles that threaten women’s career advancement encouraged her to take action. But just as inspiring have been the success stories, she notes, pointing to Psychiatry Chair Maria Oquendo, MD, and LDI Director Rachel Werner MD, PhD, as “great examples.”

“Seeing women who have broken barriers and taken on leadership roles is so important — not just for female faculty who can look to them as an example of what is possible, but for all staff who aspire to blaze new trails,” Beidas said. “While challenges remain, seeing diverse leaders and role models in action allows us all to more confidently take steps in the right direction.”

And these women in leadership aren’t just visible; they also play an active role in shaping future leaders.

“For me, mentoring has always been a natural extension of the mentorship and sponsorship I received,” she continued. “There’s a lot of rejection in academia, and things you’re passionate about don’t always make it to the finish line in the way you anticipate. I work with so many brilliant women who are making a difference in their fields, and I want them to feel supported, seen, heard, and valued.”

Mentoring and building supportive communities, for Beidas, also reflects the origins of her book list inquiry, and the power of the responsive community she found on Twitter.

“Sometimes you don’t need to move the whole boulder. You can just move a couple grains of sand” to have a collective impact, Beidas said. “Creating this archive of books isn’t something I did. This was a community of people who are passionate about supporting one another. It really shows you the power of what can happen when people come together.”

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