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The Art of Listening

Our main aim with Females in Mass Spec (FeMS) – a community-led initiative to create a network of support for women in the field of mass spectrometry – was to create a truly useful resource. Organized loosely via a website, a monthly newsletter, and a LinkedIn group, we have grown into a buzzing international initiative – a network of close to 2,000 members, spanning academia, hospitals, governmental agencies, and industry. And I am very pleased to report that 10–20 percent of our members are men. At events, I sometimes joke, “Look around you. This is how us women typically feel!” It’s fun to flip the perspective, creating awareness and sensibility for shifted group dynamics. We all benefit from hearing different voices – trying to understand different perspectives and challenges, whether they are gender-specific or not. 

During our recent FeMS workshop – on 29th August 2022 at IMSC, Maastricht, Netherlands – I was amazed at how many men showed up and actively contributed to the discussions. The workshop was centered around mentorship and advocacy in the workplace. Naturally, navigating the complexity of mentorship relationships is of relevance to all of us regardless of gender.  

Over the past 30 years, I have been lucky to be both a mentee and a mentor, by and for people of various genders. And yes, I have experienced differences between genders – and thankfully so; we can learn so much from each other! It is in exactly this spirit that FeMS was founded. We wanted to build a global network for women working in the mass spec field, as well as their supporters. 

In the workshop, we wanted to learn from a panel of established, mid-career and late-career scientists about how they navigated their career so far. We wanted to share tips and tricks for self-advocacy; for example, in situations where there is potential to be overlooked for promotions. True to the FeMS spirit of being inclusive, we invited both male and female panelists from diverse geographical and scientific backgrounds. 

One question in particular, raised by a participant, comes to mind: “What do I do if I am up for promotion and have demonstrated all required achievements for said promotion, but am being told to wait, as the more senior man ahead of me needs to go first?” Jennifer van Eyk, Director at Cedars Sinai Precision Biomarker Laboratories, USA, had a reply ready. “Don’t let them stop you. Don’t stay quiet. Claim what’s yours,” she said. “If you have any doubts about your dossier being ‘ready’ or good enough – send it to me, I will check it, and vouch for you!” This is exactly the kind of encouraging nudge (well, strong push!) we sometimes need and which can be provided by established mentors, sponsors and supporters – regardless of gender. 

I very much enjoyed their stories and learned a thing or two about how I could become a better mentor myself. Mutually agreeing on expectations and then holding each other accountable is certainly something I want to focus on more.

Another question – this time posed by a male professor – stuck with me: “What can I do as a male boss to encourage junior female students and co-workers to challenge me and give critical feedback?” My answer: Actively listen. Sometimes, we simply don’t hear the things we need to hear. If our discussion partner expresses concerns or challenges in a way that we are not used to, it is all too easy to turn a deaf ear. And I suspect this problem happens more frequently for those women who are typically quiet – or from cultures in which ‘questioning the authority’ is not necessarily encouraged. I am so grateful for this professor’s openness to ask this question – he proved to be a role model in his willingness to learn, change, and become a more inclusive boss. 

Overall, I am thrilled to see how our FeMS activities are received and acted upon by the whole mass spec community – regardless of gender. After all, everyone’s voice counts – but we only truly benefit if we listen.

If you’d like to learn more about what FeMS can offer to you, please visit and subscribe to our newsletter. Or send me a request to join the LinkedIn group and follow us on Twitter. The next mentorship program starts this fall and is open to everyone in the mass spec field. Let’s continue creating a buzzing and inclusive mass spec community!

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About the Author
Anne K Bendt
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