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History of the UmFrauen

The first call for proposals for the peer-mentoring project at the University of Zurich took place in autumn 2000. It envisaged that independent project groups would form and encourage women in science within the framework of the MentoringWerkstatt. Each proposal had to include a concept of how the networking within the group and with the scientific community should happen.

Intrigued by information leaflets and events, but mainly through word-of-mouth recommendation, 22 botanists, zoologists, as well as an environmental economist, a bio-ethicist and a mathematical biologist joined to form the UmFrauen (UmFrauen = Umweltwissenschaften-Mentoring-Projekt für Frauen). Accompanied by the keen, but nevertheless skeptical attitude of male fellow employees, they developed a peer-mentoring concept that suited their particular needs.

Despite technical heterogeneity, the group of PhD students, postdocs, PDs and assistant professors was characterized by the common scientific focus on Environmental Sciences and Ecology. The project was based at the Institute of Environmental Sciences (IES) and was led by Petra Lindemann-Matthies. When the proposal was submitted, all members of the UmFrauen group were integrated within the scientific community either through their research projects, contracts with research institutes, had a working place and were members of a PhD programme.

Which steps are necessary for a successful scientific career? Which strategies and measures are particularly adequate to support academic advancement? Which key competences are needed in a research environment, apart from professional scientific expertise? These questions were dealt with in an intensive way during the writing of the proposal. As a consequence, the joint writing process already profited group members, as it involved a sensible examination and discussion of our own career planning. The following prerequisites for an academic career we identified: (1) good integration in professional networks, (2) intensive contacts with peers, and (3) strong dedication to the scientific community.

Our commonly developed concept proved successful. In January 2001, it was funded as the only scientific project from the natural sciences together with 5 other projects, out of 37 applications. Up to 2005, 33 young female scientists participated in the UmFrauen mentoring group. Furthermore, 17 professors from Switzerland and other countries, as well as 12 experts from industry were invited for informal meetings and workshops.

While regular informal meetings provided a basis for networking and scientific exchange among the mentees, our concept therefore envisioned to go further, beyond the peer-mentoring aspect. Mentees should be encouraged to get in touch with established scientists in the field of Environmental Science and Ecology, to open up opportunities for collaboration, to gather views of the academic context and everyday life at university, and to get expert knowledge on career-supporting tasks (writing of proposals, acquisition of research funding, academic job applications). In addition, we wished for our guests to serve as potential role models, mentors, and mediators. Moreover, part of our project money was requested to invite qualified experts from private industry to provide training in fields such as leadership and management, bargaining, and communication.

All persons invited were informed about the UmFrauen group and their requirements in advance. Scientists were sent a list of questions and asked to comment on our questions from a professional and personal perspective. Questions related to topics such as "women in science" or "family and career". Since 2006 the project is financed by the Science Faculty of the University of Zurich.