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Salford’s SIRENS are breaking down barriers for professional women

Discover how SIRENS, a groundbreaking non-profit, is bridging the gender gap and uniting women from diverse sectors.

In a world where the gender pay gap persists as an alarming statistic, there is a group hoping to challenge this status quo in Salford.

SIRENS, a pioneering non-profit community, is on a mission to bridge the gender gap by uniting ambitious women from diverse sectors, fields, and backgrounds.

They are breaking down barriers, and their approach is far from conventional.

Founded in June 2023 by Dr. Caty Flynn, SIRENS has swiftly gained momentum, drawing enthusiastic responses from women who have attended their unique events, or socials.

With two successful events already under their belt, SIRENS is gearing up for an exciting showcase in Salford that promises to redefine the way we celebrate and connect women from all walks of life.

Their upcoming event at Islington Mill on Thursday, November 23rd, from 5 pm to 9 pm, is an interdisciplinary exhibition and revue like no other.

Titled “WOMAN,” this exhibition transcends the confines of traditional art showcases.

It will feature a diverse array of exhibits, from traditional artworks to academic research, business posters, manifestos, and much more.

We sat down with SIRENS Founder, Dr Caty Flynn, to talk about the project and what the group are trying to achieve.

What inspired you to found SIRENS, and what are the core values and objectives of the organisation?

So, essentially, it started off as a plan to start an interdisciplinary girl-gang and has turned into a non-profit interdisciplinary community for professional women, SIRENS: Sisterhood for Interdisciplinary Research, Exploration, Networking, & Synthesis.

The community is inclusive of all sectors, fields, and backgrounds and delivers free bi-monthly Socials in Manchester; opportunities for community members on social channels; and a blog featuring community-created content and spotlight profiles. I’ve never really done things by halves so I should have known better.

I am proud that I have reached a position in my life, through hard work and resilience, where I can be and looked to as a mentor and leader.

Ten years ago, I thought that I knew nothing and could be of no use to anyone! And, while I still need help and advice myself all the time, I now have a decade of knowledge, experience, and insight to share and to guide others where I was guided and also in areas where I found no guidance, to fill the gap, such as interdisciplinary research and practice, mental health, and connection.

I founded SIRENS purely to provide a space for women to connect across sectors and disciplines and build a community which offers support, inspiration, collaboration, and inspiration. I had to go it alone, and these women don’t. That is what achievement and pride should be about; how you change things.

SIRENS is founded on the belief that we can and need to help each other as women. A few years ago now, Margaret Atwood commented, “right now, it is both the best of times and the worst of times for women”. And, I’d say that we’re not in much different a place in 2023. We cannot succeed without each other. We cannot change things without each other. Thus, our core values are centred around our ambitions for providing an inspirational and engaging community for professional women: interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and amplification. Accordingly, the core of objectives of SIRENS are to connect professional women across fields, sectors, disciplines, career stages, and backgrounds; to champion them and amplify their voices; and to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration.

I founded the community to create a space which I felt was missing to bring together women who would not normally meet in day-to-day life due to being separated into different sectors and fields. There are lots of brilliant initiatives for women in specific sectors, such as business or the arts, but no current community prioritises interdisciplinary connection, collaboration, and celebration between and for women. This was all fuelled by my frustration at the professional silos women find themselves in. Our power to change lies in our power to connect. Our Socials were central to the whole rationale. On the fourth Thursday of every other month, we meet to network, make new friends, offer and receive support, discuss new ideas, exchange knowledge, plan collaborations, and plot for the future!

I enlisted a small group of trusted and talented core Sirens, and the whole team dedicated our spare time, expenses, and energy to running the community based on our specialisms. 

SIRENS aims to connect ambitious women across various sectors and backgrounds. Can you share some examples of how these connections have made a significant impact on the lives of the women involved?

It depends on how you define “significant”! I’m not sure that we’ve made a significant impact on anyone’s life (yet)!

But, what I do hope is that we are slowly but surely creating a space where women feel safe, connected, creative, powerful, fun, clever, engaged, interested, and inspired. And that by doing so maybe we can give them that boost to do the hard work which significant impact requires.

I also hope that the connections we facilitate can be hugely impactful for our members. We do not offer a service of walking them through this process by hand. We’re all grown women! But, by creating this space we are facilitating connections and networks which wouldn’t otherwise emerge in traditional settings. And because we are all women, we feel safe, we feel on an even field, and we can empathise with, inspire, and support one another. We’re all learning, too, and it’s a brilliant opportunity to meet women with a variety of different experiences.

The excitement of meeting such diverse groups of women who are all equally interested in coming together is something quite wonderful and difficult to describe. It’s a space where we are not women – female scientists, businesswomen, women artists – we are individuals. There is no sense of competition and a sheer camaraderie which was what we so wanted.

I think part of this comes from hosting the events at sort of casual establishments rather than lecture theatres or conference rooms. Everyone is relaxed, can come and go as they please, and can have fun as well as perhaps learn something, make a professional connection, or take in some culture.

We don’t need to section ourselves off into boxes, in our careers or in our events! That’s the true heart of interdisciplinarity; recognising the fluidity of boundaries and the magic which can emerge from their intersection.

The response to SIRENS so far has been wonderful with members commenting “amazing, diverse mix of women”; “I’ve been waiting for a group like this forever”; “I joined SIRENS because I believe in collective power and sharing. I can’t wait to see what projects will be born from people finding common ground”; “really impressive – a great idea and serving a genuine need to learn and connect”;

“There’s no space like SIRENS yet that is truly interdisciplinary – I think this is the most exciting aspect for me: the beauty in difference and strength in our common vision for a fairer and brighter future”; and “We need this!” Of the inaugural SIRENS Social event, Naomi Timperley FRSA, Award-Winning Growth and Innovation Consultant said “It was fabulous!”

We’re so happy to be achieving the kind of atmosphere that spurred us to put our little group together in the first place and we hope to continue to deliver and improve as we grow.

The upcoming interdisciplinary exhibition and revue with the theme of “WOMAN” sounds fascinating. Can you tell us more about the motivation behind this event and what attendees can expect?

We’d like to invite all women professionals from across the city to our next social where we’re doing something a little special which embodies all of our core values perfectly in one package. We are presenting a co-constructed, interdisciplinary exhibition & revue featuring members of our community and responding to the theme of WOMAN.

We have invited a select group of talented SIRENS to contribute their work as the core of our exhibition but we are also operating a “BYOE” (bring your own exhibit!) format where attendees can bring their own pieces which we will add to the exhibition live at the event, curating as we go. You can find the full BYOE call on our blog.

By “interdisciplinary”, we mean it. As opposed to simply different disciplines of art, we are inviting responses, interpretations, refutations, and celebrations of the theme from all sectors, disciplines, and mediums. Exhibits will range from traditional artworks to academic research, business posters, manifestos, and beyond.

We are so excited to be able to present our talented exhibitors, including artists Caroline Dowsett, Tina Ramos Ekongo, Megan Brierley, & Clare Townley; researchers Professor Rebecca Pearson, Professor Niroshini Nirmalan, Ozgun Ceren Avincsal, & Olivia Rowland; Peace Activist Professor Erinma Bell MBE; Growth & Innovation ConsultantNaomi Timperley FRSA; and organisations/groups PINK Mcr, SHEwillprovide, Happening in MCR, Uncertain Futures, & Girl Gang Mcr, with more to be announced.

There will also be a one-hour revue of local women performance artists during the event, featuring Audio-Visual Artist Dee Dixon, “Broadside Balladress” Jennifer Reid, Spoken-Word Artist Kate Ireland, and more. The revue will be sandwiched by perusing the exhibition, networking, and music from local women DJs, Ki Jeal and Mabrak.

On site will be our trusty merch stall and we’ll also be joined by Pen Fight, a Manchester-based queer feminist book store and press, who will be hosting a stall of books and gifts available for purchase.

The free event takes place from 5-9 p.m. at Islington Mill, in Salford on Thursday 23rd November. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are available to purchase at the bar. Core SIREN Jen Ard will be baking some delicious free treats for attendees. The Business Group Salford is supporting the event with funding from the English Cities Fund and the space is facilitated by Partisan Collective, for whom donations will be raised on the night.

We all agreed that we had never attended anything like this – an interdisciplinary exhibition featuring a range of formats and sectors – and so we decided to do it ourselves. That DIY approach is where most of us started and we all still have a soft spot for doing things this way. We are okay with the fact that it seems slightly like organised chaos, at least for the moment. Really exciting things happen at intersections and we cannot wait for the event.

Of course, the theme of WOMAN was sort of a no-brainer. If it’s the first interdisciplinary exhibition and our mission is to amplify and connect women, what better theme to highlight both our individuality and those things which bind us? I hope that the event will underline our values by making their potential a reality.

SIRENS encourages attendees to bring their own exhibits for the exhibition. How does this interactive approach contribute to the overall experience, and what kind of submissions are you hoping to receive?

We have no hopes or fears for the BYOE! Well, we hope that people will feel emboldened to get involved and to create/bring an exhibit, even if that seems a little out of their comfort zone or usual practice. The artists of course will be familiar with exhibiting, as will academics with the research poster format. But, we’re sort of challenging even those individuals to think outside the box. The exhibits need to respond to the theme and there are a few practical specifications (find the full BYOE details on our blog) but otherwise, it’s pretty much open to interpretation in the broadest sense. We hope to get a wide variety I suppose because we always prioritise interdisciplinarity.

In terms of our rationale for the BYOE format, we all sort of come at things from a very social, collaborative, and creative perspective. Of our core group, Lisa Lorenz is a designer and activist and regularly volunteers her time and efforts to social causes, Professor Ursula Hurley is a researcher recognised internationally for her expertise in socially engaged creative practice and co-creation, and in my PhD thesis, I proposed a social theory of consciousness and creativity! Aside from this shared ethos which brought us together, with connection and amplification as two of our core values, we think that this sort of co-constructed, communal and interdisciplinary exhibition, which exhibits not just the chosen few but anyone who dares to put themselves out there, is a perfect way not only to connect women in our community but also to showcase their incredible and diverse talents.

For attendees who aren’t exhibiting it is once again a brilliant networking opportunity and a chance to take in the inspirational stuff being created by the women around them. We always want our events to appeal to the broad variety of women in our community and an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach ensures that we are responding to the different interests, experiences, and needs of the group.

Could you share some insights into the diversity of exhibitors and performers at your events? How do you select and invite them to participate?

I work across sectors and invite pretty much every woman I meet in my professional life and beyond to join SIRENS and get involved with our events! But, we each have our own networks related to the sectors and fields in which we work so we cover quite a lot of ground when we pool our contacts and knowledge across science, art, business, academic, public, and so on.

We look out for women who participate in female initiatives, organisations and groups for women, et cetera, that already exist. Our goal is not to compete with these groups but rather to get us all in one place and to shout about them so that our members can join them, too!

But, as well as diversity across disciplines and sectors, we are also committed to creating a space which is representative and inclusive of all experiences. We are forging connections with groups and women from all social groups. 

There are so many amazing groups which support particular intersections, such as gender, age, race, ability, migration status and others, and it is so exciting to bring them together with the shared lens of being a woman trying to make her way in today’s professional world. At SIRENS, we are all driven by the fundamental belief that any women’s initiative must speak to, stand for, and inspire all women.

For this event, we have focused on artists, academics, leaders, and groups whose work and endeavours specifically focus on women as accords with the theme of the exhibition. However, we generally are just looking out for inspiring women from all stages of their careers who want to offer their time and expertise to our community members, whether that be via a more traditional panel discussion or something more out of the box like the November event. We invite women to get in touch if they have ideas for a future event., too! There’s some more information about that on our blog.

SIRENS Socials take place in Manchester. Do you have plans to expand your events to other locations, or is there a broader vision for reaching women outside of Manchester?

Maybe someday! We’re extremely new and the operation is very small right now. We’re also unsponsored so there is a limit to what we can do with no funds. We might expand beyond Manchester in the future but, for now, we’re happy where we are and growing steadily.

That said, we’re getting requests to bring SIRENS all over the place, from Newcastle to Australia! And we have online members across the globe – if only a small sprinkle at this stage!

The majority of the core group is based in Salford, and we have delivered all of our events here so far. I’m from Salford so obviously, it has a special place in my heart and there always seems a sense of experiment and daring but also community, here, that you don’t get elsewhere in the city.

But, Manchester in general is such an exciting place to be creatively and drones of new professionals are moving here. It’d be lovely if SIRENS could facilitate new friendships for women who have moved here for their careers. We will be hosting future events in the city centre and other boroughs, as well as our home turf of Salford.

The gender pay gap is a significant issue, and SIRENS seems to address it by empowering women. What other initiatives or strategies do you have in mind to help women in their professional and personal growth?

We are currently operating the following initiatives for our members:

  • Socials: SIRENS Socials are bi-monthly events for our community members and consist of networking as well as an interdisciplinary feature such as a workshop, panel discussion, or exhibition. Our Socials embody our core values of interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and amplification, and play a central role in our mission and vision to create a vibrant interdisciplinary community which connects and inspires professional women.
  • Online Community: Our online community on Instagram and LinkedIn provides a space to share information with our members about our socials and other offerings, a space to network digitally, to share content including events and opportunities, and to shout about community members. All of our channels are public access and open to join/comment for all. All of our online content adheres to our core values, vision, and mission and our online community is growing steadily.
  • Blog: Our blog, Songs from the Enclave, is a co-constructed online space where we share opportunities and outputs, important information about the community, and our SIRENS Spotlight feature which amplifies the story of individual members through a questionnaire-style profile highlighting their talents, movements, and offerings. The blog is a shared space to inspire, engage, and include our members as part of our larger mission.

We are committed to ensuring that our outputs are consistent with our values, mission, and vision and that they respond to the needs, interests, and insights of our members. We evaluate our impact and value adherence through the following methods:

  • Regular meetings of core SIRENS to evaluate and improve the community and our outputs
  • Anonymous Feedback Surveys for SIRENS Socials, post-event.
  • Surveying and responding to all engagement and contact from members via social channels and email

We are not offering ourselves as a professional service as such but as a community for those who are navigating professional careers and are looking for camaraderie, inspiration, and opportunities to collaborate. We do not claim to be everything to all women but we do think that this space was needed and so we made it. We hope to be able to continue to deliver and improve what we already have rather than trying to offer the world.

I would like to offer more in the future. I do have a sort of desire to do a journal at some point – the SIRENS journal, for interdisciplinary research & practice by women. It’s quite strenuous fitting SIRENS in around my business, as it is! I’m sure that we will grow steadily as we refine our outputs and once we have more capacity and perhaps funds to do so.

SIRENS offers free events, and you mentioned raising donations for Partisan Collective and performers. How can individuals and businesses support your mission, and what impact can their contributions have on your organization’s activities?

It is really important to me to offer our events for free to our members because we know that this is no time to be trying to squeeze more outgoings into the budget and we want to remain inclusive to all. To make this happen so far, we have been forking up the cash for expenses out of our own pockets. We are grateful to be supported by The Business Group Salford with a small amount of funding from the English Cities Fund for our November event. We are in the process of trying to secure some more consistent sponsorship due to the success of the community so far so that we can optimise our reach, activities, and impact.

Because we are currently unfunded, we are not able to offer payment to the SIRENS who contribute to our events at the minute. We are so grateful to those involved so far who have volunteered their time for our socials for free.

We’ll be raising donations for Partisan at the exhibition because we are firm believers in what they do and are extremely grateful that they have waived the hire fee for our event, without which it wouldn’t be possible. Partisans have been supporting and inspiring our community for years and the least we can do is try to give back and encourage others to do the same.

We’ll also be raising donations for our revue performers. We have been completely upfront about our funding situation but it is still a priority for us to try to pay artists if at all possible. We appreciate that performing for free is not viable for all artists. But, we do hope that the showcase will help to celebrate our chosen local artists and inspire and connect the women in our communities.

Please bring all of your spare cash to support their work!

With funding, we’d like to be able to pay all of our contributors, including our core team, and improve our online and in-person offerings. Other kinds of helpful sponsorship could include offering venues, catering, or other event resources, or volunteering to help with our core team. We would also like to create a community board, so please contact us if you have experience in running a non-profit organisation and would like to get involved.

You can register for your free ticket for the event here

Find more information about SIRENS here

Find more information about Partisan Collective here

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