i-COMET: Ecologists wanted for March 2020 workshop

female ecologistAda Lovelace Day is collaborating with ecologists from University of York, UK, and DePaul University in Chicago, USA, to study fungi essential to soil health as part of a global collaboration that will also promote inclusivity and the retention of women and minorities in science.

i-COMET, the International Collaboration on Mycorrhizal Ecological Traits, is looking for early career ecologists with an interest in fungal traits related to soil health to design a novel spore trap experiment and a standard operating procedure for identifying mycorrhizal traits. At the end of the workshop, participants will deploy the spore trap in their home country and share data back to the group, creating a data set with global relevance to soil health and with high impact. Very few data sets achieve this reach.

Mycorrhizal fungi are essential to soil health, playing a major role in soil quality, plants nutrient and water uptake, as well as protecting them from pests and pathogens. By investigating the dispersal rates of these spores, we can better understand if and how these fungi spread from area to area – the first step to rebuilding resilience in soils that have degraded due to environmental change, and subsequently strengthening food production and security.

Participants from around the world will attend a week-long workshop from 15th – 21st March 2020, in York, UK, where they will also take part in networking and team building exercises, given training in the suite of digital tools that will be used in the collaboration, as well as in mentoring. The i-COMET team will evaluate the effectiveness of this intervention, through survey and social network analysis, and disseminate what we learn from this to the wider STEM community, so that any group seeking to develop effective communication within diverse groups can use our findings and tools to foster sustainable communications.

Travel and accommodation costs for the workshop will be covered, and we encourage applications from potential participants from all countries. We are particularly keen to hear from women and those from the Global South. Workshop participants and a second group of non-workshop participants will be provided with access to a peer mentoring and knowledge sharing network. We will also be asking a third group of non-workshop participants to complete quarterly surveys as a control group for the study.

For more information visit our website and to apply, please complete the Expression of Interest.

ALD founder, Suw Charman-Anderson, has now become a Visiting Associate at York for the duration of the project and is working with Dr Thorunn Helgason, the project leader, and Dr Pen Holland from York, and Dr Bala Chaudhary from DePaul.

The ‘To Do’ Book Method

Writing a to do listFor years, Suw Charman-Anderson struggled with an unruly ‘to do’ list, trying all sorts of apps and websites and techniques to try to get it under control. None of them worked, until she stumbled on an innovation that would change everything about her ‘to do’ list. 

In what I am sure is a familiar story for many, my ‘to do’ lists started off as handwritten lists, often on scraps of paper that would be jammed into a notebook. Every item would be crossed off when it was done, and periodically a nearly-finished list would be amalgamated with the scraps of paper into the one new canonical list.

In 2001, when I got my first Palm Pilot, I migrated my ‘to do’ list to it. It felt like progress, but it didn’t make managing my work any easier. As I left the web design world and moved into consultancy, my ‘to do’ lists got more complicated as I juggled multiple projects running alongside each other. Then along came Omnifocus, which was hailed as a breakthrough in our ability to organise multiple complex projects. Each ‘to do’ item belonged to a project and had a deadline, status and notes. But after a while I realised that Omnifocus was where my ‘to do’ items went to die – I’d type them in and never look at them again. I read the first few chapters of Getting Things Done, but never got reading the whole book done. I tried Trello… and then Todoist, Wunderlist, Things, and many more that I’ve forgotten the name of, but every time the app would start to creak at the seams with ‘to do’ items, I’d forget to update them for a bit, and then I’d have a tedious task of sorting it all out. And every time I’d go back to scraps of paper and sticky notes.

Then I found out about disc-bound notebooks, where a T-shaped nick is made in the edge of the paper and it’s slipped onto a disk with the same T-shaped edge. The disc holds the paper in place as if it were in a spiral-bound notebook, but you can easily remove and replace individual pages. This may sound like the least interesting innovation you’ve ever heard of, but it revolutionised my ‘to do’ list.

Managing ‘to do’ lists for multiple projects

Ada Lovelace Day is a surprisingly complex affair, with multiple projects running in parallel and lots of ‘to do’ items that need to be tracked and completed. Having a single list would rapidly become unwieldy and confusing, so instead I have separate lists for each project, and these lists are collected in a single disc-bound book. And, using dividers which are also re/movable, each set of lists for each project sits in its own section of the book.

TUL disc-bound notebook

Right now, I have 14 sections, arranged in order of importance. Key projects, like Ada Lovelace Day Live, the Finding Ada Network, and Fundraising, are at the front of the book. Projects that I have had to put on hold are in the middle, and the very last section is for ideas I may never get around to. This means that nothing is ever forgotten until I decide it is no longer valuable to remember it. If I have a sudden thought about something I’d like to do one day, I jot it down and it goes into the “Future” section. But if I want to get myself up to date on what’s next for Ada Lovelace Day Live, I flip straight to those pages and there are my lists.

When a list is complete or needs rewriting, I can remove and discard the old page, and put a new one in its place. I never end up with a scrappy notebook full of half-crossed off lists. Everything is organised, tidy, and in its place.

A disc-bound system

I now have a whole set of disc-bound notebooks, with pages frequently being transferred from one to another.

We start with my day-to-day book that I used for making notes whilst I’m working or on a call. That one frequently has ‘to do’ items jotted down whilst I’m in the middle of other things or as part of meeting notes, so those get regularly transferred over to the To Do Book. But because the disc-bound system I used also comes with its own special hole punch, it also has a load of scrap paper in that I can doodle on when doodling is required!

I have a project book, so that I can keep notes together. Every call with my Advisory Council, for example, will result in notes that are transferred to the project book once I’ve gleaned everything I need to from them. The project book contains only live projects; completely projects will removed, clipped together, and stored. I also have a disc-bound diary, and a couple of special project books where I know I’ll be writing a lot more notes than normal.

Because pages can be removed and replaced ad infinitum, when I travel I can take just the pages I need, leaving all the rest behind.

The To Do Book Method

So, here’s how the To Do Book works in reality.

  • Monday morning: It’s time to review the ‘to do’ lists for my most important projects. I run through all the lists and pull out the most important and urgent items, writing a list for week on to a new sheet of paper.
  • Every morning: I look at the week’s list, and pick between three and five tasks for the day, and write them in my diary.
  • Every day: If a time-sensitive task comes up, that gets put immediately into the diary on the right date.
  • Every evening: Clean up the lists – anything that didn’t get done is transferred to the next day, and I add the next few tasks, though never more than five in total.
  • Friday evening: Clean up all the lists, transfer new tasks to the right project, and see how much of the week’s work I got done.

It’s a simple process, easy to manage and easy to adapt. So if you find yourself getting overwhelmed with complicated ‘to do’ lists and find that an app just doesn’t cut it, invest in a disc-bound notebook and see if this works for you too.

In defence of small talk

Small talk, or “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters” as the dictionary has it, has an unfairly bad reputation. For a lot of people, small talk feels awkward or difficult, and for many others it just seems like a total waste of time, especially in a business context. But small talk has an important purpose and learning how to make great small talk will serve you in good stead.

Opportunities for small talk are surprisingly frequent during the work day and, for people who feel comfortable with it, they pass without regard. In the lift, at the beginning of meetings, walking up the stairs, waiting for the kettle to boil when making tea, we’re chatting away to all and sundry about seemingly meaningless things… or we’re suffering in uncomfortable silence, wishing we either knew what to say or could just be left alone. So why do we do it?

Small talk is a form of ‘phatic communication’ – that is communication that has no informational or transactional content – and it’s this seeming lack of purpose that can make us feel uncomfortable. But phatic communication is a social activity that we use to create and maintain social bonds, define interpersonal relationships, and determine our relative social position. At the beginning of a meeting, small talk helps strangers to demonstrate friendly intentions and acquaintances to re-establish their relationship. At the end of a conversation, it’s a way to affirm our positive attitude towards the other party – think about how discombobulating it is when someone cuts a conversation off cold and just walks away.

Through small talk people also reveal contextual information that they couldn’t otherwise share, particularly in a business setting. It’s around the coffee machine that you’re most likely to find out that your colleague was up all night with their sick child, which is why they looked like they were nodding off in the meeting. This extra nugget of information allows you to sympathise with them instead of getting annoyed – the context turns a negative reaction into a positive one, and helps prevent ruffled feathers.

But what if you feel deeply uncomfortable with small talk and just don’t know what to say? The good news is that it’s a skill that can be learnt and developed, and that there are some simple tactics for you to try:

Prepare some questions

Memorise a list of open-ended questions that you can ask the other person. They don’t have to be questions about work, though if you know you have something in common that’s a good place to start. As clichéd as it sounds, commenting on the weather is a pretty safe bet, as is asking how someone’s weekend went.

But beware formulaic questions such as, “How are you?” which invite closed responses like, “Not too bad, thanks” and don’t give you an opening to further conversation. It’s also unwise to ask questions that are too personal, so don’t ask women if they have children, for example, and avoid topics like religion, politics and money.


Listen more than you speak. If you’re shy and don’t like talking about yourself, then you’re in luck, because people respond very well to those who actively listen to them. Make eye contact, smile, and use both verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate that you’re listening.

Prepare your responses

If you can, try to give away something about yourself when you’re answering a question. Small talk is a back and forth, so try to resist the temptation to give a monosyllabic answer to a question to try to shift attention away from yourself.

If you really don’t like giving up info about yourself, you can also ask supplementary questions that deflect attention to yourself, but still indicate that you’re interested in your conversational partner. You can also practise mirroring the gestures, posture, facial expressions and even tone of voice of your interlocutor to help build a rapport.

There are no wrong answers

Don’t fret about getting an answer ‘wrong’ or about whether you think you were sufficiently scintillating. Phatic communication is about signalling openness to future social interactions, it’s not going to be remembered for long by the other party, so if you ask questions, smile, listen, and give salient answers, you’re saying everything you need to say.

Small talk doesn’t have to be tedious or awkward. With a little bit of thought and practice, it can help you to build stronger professional relationships, as well as giving you valuable insights into what’s going on with your colleagues. So the next time you’re in a lift or waiting for a meeting to start, embrace the weather forecast!

Introducing the new Finding Ada Network

MentoringLess than a quarter of women in STEM have ever had a mentor, according to a small Twitter survey that we ran in January, yet mentoring is one of the most effective ways for women to develop their career.

That’s why we’ve launched the Finding Ada Network, a new online peer mentoring and knowledge sharing network for women in STEM and advocates who work towards gender equality. Our aim is to provide affordable long-term peer mentorship opportunities, along with actionable advice on careers, skills, advocacy and more, to women whether they work in industry or academia, or aren’t currently working at all.

According to mentorship platform Chronus (about whom you’ll hear more later), mentoring has benefits for both mentors and mentees, with mentors experiencing a six times higher promotion rate and mentees seeing a five time higher promotion rate. Mentees also benefit from the opportunity to improve their personal and professional skills, including improved confidence, communications skills, ability to process feedback and better problem solving. Mentors develop their leadership skills, develop new professional relationships, gain new insights into their industry/field, and experience increased job satisfaction.

So why aren’t more women benefitting from mentoring? In large part, access to mentoring depends a lot on who you work for. Larger companies are increasingly seeing the benefit of workplace mentoring, but for many small businesses it’s both unaffordable to buy in a world class mentoring platform and difficult to provide enough mentors. Indeed, it can be challenging for mentees if your mentor is too close to you in the org chart, stifling the honesty that’s essential for a mentoring relationship to flourish.

With the Finding Ada Network, your mentor could be anyone! It might be someone within the same industry but working for a different company, or someone going through the same career stage or facing the same challenge, or someone with a completely different perspective. Or all three – you’ll be able to have as many mentors as you need, with relationships lasting as long as required.

Phase 1 launching now

The first phase of the Finding Ada Network has already launched to women and advocates in STEM in the UK. Subscribers have access to exclusive content covering careers, personal and professional development, mentoring best practice, advocacy and HR policy, navigating academia and more. And they can also access a private area of our community forum where they can discuss the challenges they face and ask advice from other members in an informal group mentoring context.

Women in STEM and advocates for gender equality in STEM, whether male or female, can enjoy a 40% discount through until the end of July, bringing the cost down to £5.40 a month, or about the same price as a glass of wine or a pint if you’re down the pub, and almost certainly cheaper than the taxi home afterwards!

Ambitious plans

We have ambitious plans for the Finding Ada Network! We are working with Chronus to bring you their best-in-class peer mentorship platform, providing one-to-one mentoring complete with goal setting, scheduling, file sharing and more. Chronus is used by global companies such as Amazon, EY and more, but for most small businesses and certainly for individuals, it’s out of reach.

Once we have a robust community, we’ll be partnering with Chronus to expand our offering so that we cover all four types of mentoring:

  • Traditional: 1-1 mentoring with a (sometimes only slightly) more senior advisor
  • Reverse: 1-1 mentoring for senior staff with a younger advisor, useful for bridging generational gaps
  • Process: Focused on supporting a mentee through a specific process, eg asking for promotion or organising a conference
  • Group: Asking for advice on an ad hoc basis from the wider community

We also plan to expand to the EU, North America and eventually the rest of the world. If you’d like to know when we do, please join our waiting list and we’ll email you as soon as we arrive in your country.

Supporting advocates

There are many mentoring schemes available for women in STEM, but the Finding Ada Network is different, and not least because we are the only mentorship network that recognises the importance of advocates to the mission of realising equality for women in STEM. According to our research, nearly half (48 percent) of women working in STEM also have a secondary role as advocates for gender equality, with only 11 percent of our survey respondents working solely as advocates (and 57 percent of those are men).

The advocates we spoke to in our research told us that they had ended up in their role because they believed it was important work, but that they’d had no formal training and received less support than they would like. We want to change that, and make sure that advocates get easy access to the information they need to do their job, and that they too can benefit from the wisdom of the Finding Ada Network crowd, as well as sharing their own experience and knowledge.

In it for the long haul

Mentorship works best when the relationship between mentor and mentee is given time to grow, to flourish and to deepen. But few people spend their working lives progressing up the ladder within a single company anymore, and increasingly we must turn to portfolio careers, learning to pivot and adapt as circumstances change. Traditional employer-based mentorship schemes fail participants when they change jobs or temporarily leave the workforce for whatever reason and lose access to their mentor.

The Finding Ada Network will create a stable environment for mentorship, so you can take your mentors with you even if you change jobs, or take a sabbatical or career break. Equally, your expertise continues to be valuable to others regardless of where you work or, indeed, if you work. We recognise that life is changeable, so by focusing on online mentoring that’s independent of your workplace, we will create an environment that fosters long-term mentoring relationships, supporting women wherever they are and whatever they are doing.

Support Ada Lovelace Day whilst supercharging your career

One last unique aspect to the Finding Ada Network is that by subscribing, you’re also helping us to inspire the next generation of girls in STEM and promote and support women currently working in or studying STEM via the wide portfolio of work we do year round. Ada Lovelace Day isn’t just a day, it’s a mission, and you can be a part of that mission by becoming a part of the Finding Ada Network.

So subscribe today, and become part of the genesis of something amazing!

Seven ways to improve your empathy skills

EmpathyEmpathy is fast becoming recognised as an essential skill that improves relationships between individuals and contributes to business success. Research into the impact of increased empathy goes back decades, and businesses recognise its importance. Ford Motor Company has even asked its engineers, who are mostly men, to wear the Empathy Belly so that they can experience some of the physical effects of pregnancy.

What is less widely understood is that empathy is a skill that people can learn, improve and strengthen, like any other skill. We all know people who seem to be naturally empathic, but we never question whether that’s an innate ability or whether they’ve actually just learnt well and use the skill a lot. Indeed, women are expected to be more empathic than men, but this is a self-fulfilling prophecy where women get a lot more practice as empathic burdens are placed disproportionately on their shoulders.

Women are assumed to be ‘naturally empathic’, but in reality we learn it just the same as every other skill, which means we don’t always get it right. So let’s take a look at what empathy is and isn’t, and techniques for improving your empathy skills.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. It is the skill to develop insights into how others are thinking and why they react as they do, the capacity to recognise people’s emotional inner life, and the desire to make them feel heard and understood. Empathy creates trust and trust improves relationships.

Business is as much about building good relationships as it is delivering a service or product, so it’s obvious how empathy feeds into the bottom line. Empathy is also important in an academic context, allowing lecturers, tutors, supervisors and researchers to build strong and healthy relationships with their students, co-authors, collaborators and peers.

Empathy is increasingly important as globalisation increases as well. Working with international teams from multiple cultures requires more empathy than working within a familiar and homogenous group. And sensitivity is especially required when working with, and on issues affecting, minorities and underserved communities. The advocate must develop deep empathy for the people they serve in order to be effective.

But empathy is not about taking on more emotional labour, it’s not about always being the person who de-escalates tension within the workplace, is the shoulder to cry on or the person to rage at. It is not about taking on other people’s work in order to make life easier for them, and it is not about exhibiting people-pleasing behaviours such as pretending to agree or apologising all the time. And it’s not about avoiding conflict or being compliant.

Indeed, dealing with conflict is a scenario where empathy is especially important – understanding why there is disagreement and what is motivating the people involved can provide important insights into potential solutions. And sometimes, those solutions have nothing to do with the putative subject of the argument, because the real problem lies elsewhere and thus so does the answer.  

So how do you improve your empathy muscles? Here are a few tips to try:

  1. Listen, and listen fully. Focus all your attention on what people are saying, rather than checking your phone or mentally preparing your next response as they speak. The more you pay attention to what they are saying, the more you will hear the nuance in their tone of voice, and that will tell you a lot about how they are feeling.

  2. Make eye contact, but don’t stare. Eye contact is a crucial aspect of body language which indicates honesty, sincerity, confidence and comfort, and that you actually are paying attention! Staring, on the other hand, is a sign of aggression. If you’re not comfortable making eye contact, practice with someone you trust, but be careful not to overcompensate.

  3. Pay attention to body language. Facial expressions and posture can all tell us something about how the people we’re talking to are feeling. Are they tense, relaxed, excited? Their body language and facial expressions might be saying something very different to what their words are saying, and could give you insights into their real thought processes.

  4. Don’t interrupt unless you really have to. No matter how keen you are to put your point of view across, it’s generally better to let people finish so that you reduce the risk of misunderstanding and help them to feel heard. Sometimes, however, interruptions are necessary, so when you do interrupt, be respectful and polite about it.

  5. Acknowledge. Once you’ve listened, acknowledge what you have heard. People don’t just want to speak, they want to be heard, they want their feelings to be recognised. This doesn’t mean using trite formulations like, “What I hear is…”, but explaining your understanding of the problem they have expressed can help ensure that you really have got it right, and gives them a chance to clarify if they need to.

  6. Pay attention to group dynamics. Empathy is not just important in one-on-one conversations, but also in groups. Is someone being excluded? Why might that be? Are there undercurrents of aggression, frustration, or other negative emotions that you can spot via body language? What is the power dynamic? Understanding group dynamics will help you function better in that group and, if you’re a manager, give you key insights into potential interventions to improve team cohesion.

  7. Engage in scenarios thinking. We respond better to difficult situations if we’ve already got a mental model of what needs to be done, so run some thought experiments, perhaps even practice with a trusted friend, to work out your response to various problems. This will not only help you spot warning signs so that you can intervene earlier, but also help you respond empathetically should issues arise, rather than reacting in surprise.

Empathy is a skill and like any other skill, the more you do it the better you’ll get at it. But equally, don’t overdo it. Empathy is a finite resource and it is possible to wind up with ‘compassion fatigue’, so use the empathy you have very wisely. If you’re a manager, make sure your staff are taking their fair share of the empathy load. Better still, look for ways to reduce that load, perhaps by changing team culture, building in breaks so staff with empathically demanding roles can focus on other things, and facilitating better team communications.