March 08 2019

CYGNA: Supporting Women in Academia

Anne-Wil Harzing is Professor of International Management at Middlesex University. She’s a founding member of CYGNA, a network for women working in academia. Here, Anne-Wil outlines the origins of CYGNA and shares some of the ways they are supporting female academics.

My interest in the role of gender in academia has a long history. One of the reasons I moved away from my native country – the Netherlands – more than twenty years ago is that I couldn’t see myself having a successful academic career there. At the time, I could almost count the number of female professors in Business & Economics on one hand. A 2018 special issue of Economisch Statistische Berichten, in which I co-authored an article Gender Bias and Meritocracy: how to make career advancement in Economics more inclusive, showed that although the overall number of female professors increased, the Netherlands is still bungling at the bottom of the European rankings.

Working my way through the ranks in the UK and Australia, my interest in the barriers for female academics only increased. Thus when I had a chance to work with a colleague at the University of Melbourne – Isabel Metz – whose research focused on gender in management I jumped at the chance. Together we conducted a major longitudinal study of gender [and international] diversity in editorial boards of academic journals, written up in the blogpost Trailblazers of diversity: editors and editorial board diversity. My own field – International Business – predictably did well on international diversity, but was one of the worst performers in terms of gender diversity. In fact, in 2018 I was – together with two Finnish academics – the first female academic not educated in North America to be elected as a Fellow of the Academy of International Business. Female academics still make up less than 15% of the AIB Fellows.

Move to London leads to CYGNA

When, after 13 years in Austra­lia, I returned to the UK – or rather London – in March 2014, I was struck by two seemingly contradictory aspects of academic life there. First, the larger London area has a very high concentration of universities, making it a potentially very rich and supportive academic environment. Second, most individual female academics that I spoke to felt quite isolated, especially when working in smaller departments where they were often the only ones working at their level or in a specific research area.

Therefore with two junior colleagues – Argyro Avgoustaki and Ling Eleanor Zhang, later joined by Shasha Zhao – I decided to set up a support network for female academics in the London area. It was initially called the HROB network, Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour being the research area of interest of most of our members. After 12 successful meetings as the HROB network, we decided to relaunch the network in January 2017 with a new name (CYGNA) and an official logo. The name CYGNA derives from the female version of the Latin word for SWAN (Supporting Women in Academia Network).

Why we are different from other networks

Our network differed from other academic women’s networks in at least five ways:

  1. Many other women’s networks are single-university networks and cover all disciplines from Archaeology to Zoology. Although this might build institutional coherence, single-discipline networks across universities like CYGNA offer different institutional perspectives, provide better opportunities for research collaborations, and present the opportunity to discuss sensitive issues with those outside one’s immediate circle of colleagues.
  2. Likewise countrywide networks such as WHEN [Women in Higher Education Network] have an important role to play. However, the sheer size of this type of networks makes forming the close bonds that are needed for women to thrive in academia difficult. At CYGNA new members are only added to the mailing list if they are known to at least one active current member and they are introduced and made to feel welcome at every meeting.
  3. Most university and countrywide networks only organize only a few events a year, often fairly short in duration. On average, CYGNA has met for half-day events five times a year since its inception. With 25 meetings organized to date this means lots of opportunities for academic women to meet and a solid stock of accumulated resources on our website.
  4. CYGNA is open to international members. In fact, nearly one third of our members do not live in the UK. This provides members with the opportunity to network outside the UK. Its London location means that we also regularly host international CYGNA members. To date, we have had visitors from Australia, Austria, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, the Netherlands, and the USA. Given that, by coincidence rather than by design, 95% of our UK CYGNA members originate from outside the UK, this makes for a very international network.
  5. CYGNA is resolutely FREE for its members. Our speakers are usually CYGNA members who offer their time for free, whereas the host university sponsors our catering. We do not charge for membership or for attending our meetings. This ensures our network is open for academics at any stage of career and to those who work at less well-resourced institutions.

How CYGNA is helping its members?

Our swans have different reasons for joining the network. Some are mainly interested in the topics discussed in the seminars; some particularly enjoy the networking element or the personal stories of career struggles. Others join our meetings to meet [potential] research collaborators; many of us make CYGNA days our fixed day for meeting our co-authors face-to-face. Several of our swans have used the CYGNA network to gain inside knowledge about job opportunities and different university cultures. Here is what some of our members had to say:

“CYGNA helped me feel supported by women colleagues who share similar experiences and challenges within academia. I gain lots of insights into a variety of topics that I would not have gained in any other way. Also, I find it rewarding to meet with like-minded people, who share similar goals and undergo similar challenges and who support one another with ideas of how to capture opportunities and overcome challenges on our academic journey, all in a relaxed and friendly environment.”

“CYGNA has been a wonderful support to me in various ways. Several colleagues there have helped me with publications and acted as critical readers before submissions. I also found great support when changing job and getting career advice. It was very valuable to have a safe place in which I could discuss specific offers and get advice choosing what was best for me personally and professionally.”

“Being an early career academic in Australia, I feel that CYGNA is a valuable way for me to be connected to an international community of like-minded scholars, who are generous in sharing their experiences and providing helpful advice. The regular emails and updates inspire and motivate me in my research and career. I hope to join one of the CYGNA events in person one day when I visit the UK!”

CYGNA web resources

I maintain a section for CYGNA on my own website,, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and is drawing well over a thousand visitors a day. It includes a summary and pictures of our five meetings a year, a quick overview of the topics covered in our meetings and links to the presentations. We also maintain a readings and inspirations section for female academics and have a Twitter hashtag #cygna_london.

Middlesex supporting CYGNA

Middlesex University is a staunch supporter of CYGNA. We have had a meeting at Middlesex at the start of every CYGNA year since 2015. Supporting (gender) diversity is high up on the agenda at Middlesex. Overall, 60% of Middlesex academics are female and our Middlesex ambassador Angela Griffiths has a special interest in networking for women in the workplace. In October 2018, Middlesex was the first university to receive the UK Investor in Equality and Diversity Charter Mark. In September 2019, Middlesex University Business School will support a 1-day on-site writing retreat for CYGNA members, just like it supports off-site writing boot-camps at Cumberland Lodge for its academic staff.

This blog post was originally published on Professor Anne-Wil Harzing’s website,

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