A conversion with Dr. Rhoda Hawkins

  1. What inspired you to become an academic director, and what challenges did you face along the way?

As a child I was fascinated by the natural world around me and wanted to understand things. My love of nature, God’s creation, and questioning mind led me to study science. I dreamed of being a scientist because I found the idea of doing scientific research exciting. I’ve also always enjoyed teaching and seeing the light in someone’s eyes as they understand a complex concept for the first time. So becoming an academic, which combines teaching and research, was something I strove for. I’m a born leader in the way I think about things and as I became senior enough I took on more leadership roles.

I’ve recently started at AIMS Ghana as our Academic Director. I was captivated by the vision of AIMS when I first heard of it in 2005. In 2010 I had the opportunity to visit AIMS (South Africa) for the first time. I met such inspiring students and staff there and in other AIMS centres since. It is now a privilegde for me to serve AIMS students and staff as Academic Director.

The main challenges I have faced along the way have been self-doubts. Academia can be a tough, competetive and demanding environment and I often question whether I am strong enough to make it or to survive in it. I struggle to recover from every rejection and to gain the courage to try again. I have got this far thanks to the encouragement of people who believed in my potential when I did not.

2. How do you balance the demands of your role as an academic director with your personal life?

This is something I find very difficult because the work never stops and there is always more one could do. Balancing the demands of teaching, research and management is hard, especially when there is too much of each. I have the advantage and disadvantage of being single. This means I don’t have to also look after children as most women do but I have none to force me to stop working. My tendency is to work too long hours and put my all into my work. Consequently I have experienced serious burnout and had my mental health damaged. I am therefore still learning how to balance things better.

One thing that has helped keep me going is running. I enjoy running and find it relaxing for my over-worked brain.

3. What advice would you give to young women who aspire to leadership roles in academia?

Find people who will support you, for example a mentor. Don’t listen to those internal nor external voices that tell you that you cannot do something because you are a woman. Support other women and nurture women who are younger than you. Together we can help make the way smoother for each successive generation until people respect women as much as they respect men.

4. How do you work to promote gender equality and diversity in your department or institution?

I often give talks and discuss with women individually about their concerns. I have spent years participating in equality, diversity and inclusion committees but been frustrated by talk without action. I’ve helped to change policies but changing subcultures of departments or institutions is harder and takes time. As I have seen, sometimes small things make a big difference to someone feeling like they belong and are valued. For example having a drink with someone, listening to the perspectives of others and thanking people.

5. What initiatives have you implemented or supported to address issues facing women in academia, such as the gender pay gap or lack of representation in leadership positions?

In organising conferences I have implemented female speaker quotas and arranged to provide child care for women wanting to bring a child with them.

In my previous University (in the UK) I implemented a progressive shared parental leave policy for PhD students but then saw that policy rejected at the national level. This example shows that sometimes we need to work hard even just to prevent things getting worse.

I participate in initiatives mentoring women since I believe mentoring is something that can help a lot. In my new rôle at AIMS I’m getting involved in existing initiatives such as our Girls in Mathematical Sciences programme for high school girls and our gender ratio quota for our MSc student populations. I’ve started planning new initiatives, for example, to tackle the gender ratio of lecturers.

6. What have been some of the most rewarding experiences of your career as an academic director, and how have they impacted you personally and professionally?

Some of the most rewarding experiences for me have been attending international conferences. Meeting different people, being inspired by the work of others, discussing ideas, seeing new perspectives and thinking creatively together are what makes conferences so valuable. These opportunities inspire me and spur me on in my work.

The moments I feel most proud are when one of my PhD students passes their viva and successfully completes their PhD. This is especially so for my female and other minority category PhD students and those who have overcome particularly challenging circumstances  during their PhD.

7. How do you see the future of women in academia and what steps do you believe need to be taken to achieve greater gender equality and diversity?

My hope is that in the future women will make up 50 % of those in academia at all levels and will be respected as much as their male colleagues. The reason we are not yet there is that we have inherited systems that were designed by men, for men. We need to challenge the assumptions embedded in those systems. We all need to work together to recognise the value of different skills and ways of working. We then need to carefully redesign new systems that are still good for rich white men but are also equally good for all people including poor black disabled women. Following the AIMS next Einstein intiative, we want the next Einstein to be an African women.