Advice for aspiring professors and managers

This post was contributed  by Bryony Merritt from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

For those looking to take the next step in their careers, learning about the experiences of those already in the roles we aspire to can be both encouraging and enlightening.

TRIGGER‘s latest event enabled staff from across Birkbeck and other Bloomsbury colleges to hear first-hand from four women (Sarah Winmill, Director of IT for Professional Services, UCL; Sarah Hart, Professor of Mathematics, Birbkeck; Simona Immarino, Professor of Economic Geography and Head of Department, LSE; Eleanor Mongey, Head of Student Servcies, Birkbeck) who have achieved professional succes as academics, professional services staff and academic managers.

Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Assistant Dean for Equalities in Birkbeck’s School of Science, chaired the panel and began by asking the four women about their idea of what success looks like, mentors they’d had, and what advice they would give to their younger selves.

Being true to their values, bringing the best out of people and being seen as a role model were all cited as markers of success for the panel. Eleanor Mongey reflected that earlier in her career path she had measured success by promotions or securing a permanent contract, but feels now that her focus at that time was too narrow and she failed to recognise other types of achievement.

All of the women could identify individuals who had contributed to their professional journeys, whether as supportive managers or through mentoring. Professor Hart (who was one of only five female mathematics professors under 40 in the UK when she was made a professor two years ago) said that nearly all her promotions had come as a result of a manager suggesting she apply for the post. Now, as managers, the panelists recognised that they have a responsibility to identify talent within their teams and to encourage and reward it.

Failure was also a theme in the discussion, but in a surprisingly positive way. Learning to accept failure was seen as important, as was creating an environment where is is safe to fail, so that staff feel empowered to be creative and push their own boundaries.

An audience member asked the panel to identify one policy that would have helped them earlier in their careers. Professor Immarino was emphatic: we need culture change. The other panelists’ examples certainly fitted in with with this assertion. Sarah Winmill said that it is beholden on all of us to work our hours and only our hours, and not to put meetings in the first/last hour of the day so that those with caring responsibilities can attend. Professor Immarino said that academic promotions should rely less on metrics as women are substantially penalised on citations and impact metrics. Professor Hart said that workload modelling was an important tool to demonstrate where women are spending their time and ensure that they had time for research and weren’t carrying a disproportionate percentage of teaching and administrative work. The fact that the need for culture change extends beyond the workplace was also clear, with discussions on the fact that women often carry a significant ‘mental burden‘ related to domestic duties.

The event was encouraging in that these women have been able to achieve success despite the barriers that they identified and because it is clear that there is a body of women at senior levels within universities who are acting as role models and providing practical and moral support for the women who aspire to follow in their footsteps.

Further information

  • Birkbeck Astrea – network for women in professional services roles
  • Athena SWAN at Birkbeck
  • WHEN – speeding up equality in the workplaceProfessor Sarah Hart was recently filmed speaking about her career path and why she chose a career in STEM
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Growing Your Ecosystem

This post was contributed by Miranda Weston-Smith, who on 10 March was a guest speaker at an event hosted by the Transforming Institutions by Gendering contents and Gaining Equality in Research (TRIGGER) team – a research project in Birkbeck’s Department of Management.

biobeat-brandingAt a joint Birkbeck School of Science and TRIGGER event, Miranda Weston-Smith discussed her experiences in founding BioBeat together with opportunities for scientists and business graduates in bio-sciences. Miranda helps early stage biomedical businesses attract investment and develop their business strategies.

Miranda has worked with many entrepreneurs and is experienced in fundraising, business planning and technology transfer. She is a long standing Mentor for Cambridge Judge Business School’s Entrepreneurship Centre, contributes to the University of Cambridge Masters in Bioscience Enterprise course and is a member of the St John’s Innovation Centre Training Team.

Miranda studied Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge and has a Diploma from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.


She brings experience as a Technology Manager at Cambridge Enterprise, where she assessed and marketed life science technologies, negotiated licences and spun-out companies. She was responsible for technology transfer at the University of Cambridge for the Cambridge-MIT Institute. In her five years at the seed capital firm, Cambridge Research and Innovation, she invested in early stage technologies. Miranda co-founded Cambridge Network with Hermann Hauser.


As a result of working with researchers, Miranda founded and runs BioBeat, a programme to inspire the next wave of bio-entrepreneurs and business leaders. It is a way to engage with successful women entrepreneurs and she explained that in her experience women adopt different strategies to issues such as working in teams, risks, and raising finance. Doctor Helen Lee, Director of Research, Department of Haematology, University of Cambridge and Founder, Diagnostics for the Real World, and Dr Jane Osbourn, Vice President Research and Development, MedImmune and Head of Site MedImmune Cambridge were hugely important catalysts for BioBeat getting underway and for the first Bio Beat conference in 2013, with an all-female panel.

Introducing the Cambridge bio cluster

Miranda introduced the Cambridge bio cluster that involved a range of organisations involved in medicines, R&D Support, clinical diagnostics and consumer health. Many of the companies involved in these areas have connections with Cambridge University. Those involved in medicines may have direct intellectual property (IP) relationships with University. For others, the relationships may be more indirect through networking between individuals and groups.

Miranda discussed the differences between the Cambridge biocluster of 2010 and of 2015. Lines are much tighter and investment has significantly increased through a range of funders. For example, Axol Bioscience after setting out to obtain £600,000 through a crowdfunding campaign, managed to bring in £1 million.

On advice for entrepreneurs, Miranda stressed that it is Important to find out where strengths of a company lie. The company needs to find where it sits in the market – where its customers are – and then funding can speed-up. For example, one company set out to exploit exhalation technology through non-invasive equipment that was developed as a veterinary product for horses and other animals. However, having discovered that managing severe breathing attacks such as asthma costs the NHS over £1 billion per year, the company is now developing the technology for human patients. The approval procedure, finances and returns are completely different in these two sectors.

Another aspect stressed by Miranda is linking-up the product and the market with the financial details. Investors are really interested in the two aspects of market and finance as well as the product, so providing projections of three-year cash-flows can be very important. Investors will be seeking creativity in potential problem-solving from an early stage.


Miranda then took questions in a lively session during which most delegates to the seminar participated by asking specific questions or joining in the discussion that ensued.

The first question related to the institutional anchors that underpin the bio-science cluster. Miranda said that Cambridge University provided local industry links and was there as a strong, constant presence. The corporates that are present are a mainstay that can provide sponsorship as well as international connections and perspectives. BioBeat is also a way of opening up fresh energies and a way of encouraging people to do more.

In answer to later questions about the university’s role, Miranda confirmed that the institution does not usually seek absolute control of enterprises, but tries to support incubate, and accelerate ideas. Cambridge University’s IP policy is that of retention of the first right to file patent applications; but copyright rests with the researchers. This means that there are many ways to exploit the ideas and not just go through the University. In addition, Cambridge Enterprises puts in seed money, but this is generally done in a low key way. Generally the University sees itself as an enabler and incubator.

A series of questions and some discussion followed about how to get involved in networking from a student business perspective, rather than as a scientific researcher. Miranda suggested that the first thing to do is to just try it after scoping-out what events are going on. Miranda candidly admitted that when she first started, she didn’t really understand what networking was all about and that you have to learn on the job. Porosity and being interested in what others are doing are important. Also, if you go out with one or two colleagues, it is important not just to stand together; just go up to people and start talking to them.

In the discussion it was mentioned that potential entrepreneurs could attend interesting networking events. Such events are regularly attended by service providers, head-hunters, institutions and sometimes investors. In London, One Nucleus holds regular events. Miranda confirmed the value of attending them.

Asked about how the Cambridge bio-cluster compared with others in Europe, Miranda suggested that one of ways is to look at companies that are moving into the area, such as   Ilumina. Microsoft has its European R&D office in Cambridge. Astra Zeneca (AZ) already has various laboratories around Cambridge, but eventually some 1600 – 2000 people will move in to their new building. The impact on the cluster will be for example, there will be opportunities for sub-contracting work and for early stage collaborative projects.

Finally, on the subject of how Miranda saw the cluster evolving, she said she expected Cambridge University to continue to spin-out biotech companies, and with spin-outs from other companies, the cluster will grow further. Spin-outs will also come from Barbaham Institute and Addenbrookes Hospital and from companies such Illumina.

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Gender Equality in Entrepreneurship Policy: Looking to the Future

This post was contributed by members of the Transforming Institutions by Gendering contents and Gaining Equality in Research (TRIGGER) team – a research project in Birkbeck’s Department of Management – following a workshop which they led at Dundalk Institute of Technology, Dundalk, Ireland on Thursday, October 22

Women at conference (pic credit: Ignite New Zealand under CC via

Women at conference (pic credit: Ignite New Zealand under CC via

The international panel at Dundalk Institute of Technology (DKIT), Ireland, was asked to reflect on the differences in the challenges that women entrepreneurs face compared to their male counterparts. Their responses would then shape their views as to whether the panel thought that different policies are needed to support them.

Professor Colette Henry, a member of the TRIGGER team and Head of Department of Business at DKIT introduced the panel. Professor Helen Lawton Smith – as the Birkbeck lead of the TRIGGER project – chaired the session, and began by asking the panellists to share their own perspectives and experiences of women’s enterprise policy. The panel brought together perspectives from both research and practice.

The panellists were:

  • Ms Sarita Johnston, Enterprise Ireland
  • Professor Barbara Orser, University of Ottawa, Canada
  • Professor Bill O’Gorman, Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland
  • Professor Lene Foss, UiT – The Arctic University of Norway
  • Ms Roseann Kelly, Women in Business Northern Ireland

Structural and contextual challenges

In response to the question of the different challenges faced by men and women entrepreneurs, Lene Foss suggested that women face both structural and contextual challenges. Roseann Kelly identified these as a difference in the kinds of networks they have as well as the existence of fewer role models. Lene Foss further highlighted the dual role that women play as both mothers and entrepreneurs, as well as national differences in women’s propensity to become entrepreneurs. In Norway for example, immigrant women are more likely to be entrepreneurs than Norwegian women.

On the question of whether support for improved networking opportunities for women was an appropriate policy response, Bill O’Gorman cited his recent experiences of women’s attitudes towards women-only networks. He gave an example from his own work where his team at Waterford had set up three networks in Ireland and Wales: male only, mixed and female only. Surprisingly, while women initially were reluctant to join women only-networks because they realised that gender diversity is important and a women-only network would segregate them from men, the women-only network appeared to perform best. While the other two networks folded, the women-only one continued and still exists.

Sarita Johnson, Manager of Female Entrepreneurship for Enterprise Ireland, cited research that has led to Enterprise Ireland to support women-only programmes including networks. This demonstrated that the challenges facing women entrepreneurs are different, specifically with regard to attitude towards risk-taking and raising finance. For example, Enterprise Ireland invests in 100 high potential start-ups (HPSUs) per year. The specific targeting of women has meant that the number of women entrepreneurs in this category being awarded grants has risen from 7% to 18%. She also found that women-only networks tend to perform best – for example, in raising export sales.

Need for better understanding of gender differences

Dundalk Institute of Technology (pic credit banlon1964 under CC via

Dundalk Institute of Technology (pic credit banlon1964 under CC via

Barbara Orser highlighted that it is not just social capital that contributes to women only-networks performing better – it is also technology adoption and financial capital. There needs to be better understanding of gender differences, for example, with regard to levels of confidence, in order to develop better policy. Three aspects were identified as important: women’s social circles; social capital in the form of information gathering networks, and fear of failure.

Roseann Kelly suggested that women are sometimes reluctant to benefit from women-only initiatives and prefer not to be labelled as ‘women entrepreneurs.’ This is a marketing issue – exemplar women are there by right and should celebrate their success. They should play by their own rules and not those set by men. Moreover, women should not have the equivalent of ‘old boys’ networks, because women are better at inclusivity than men.

When the Panel were asked how a hypothetical one million euros might be best spent to support women’s entrepreneurship, Sarita Johnston from Enterprise Ireland said that a programme which would give financial support to women entrepreneurs would offer the quickest and most tangible benefits. Blended support in the form of networking, accelerator programmes and role models is the best approach for supporting start-ups. Access to capital pulls through the development of other skills. Bill O’Gorman thought the money being spent on Ireland’s action plan for jobs is effective, and an emphasis on female entrepreneurship would yield benefits.

Roseann Kelly pointed out that Women in Business Northern Ireland has no public funding for enterprise support and has to be self-sustaining. Public funding would give a boost to their programmes. Barbara Orser suggested that public monies in Canada could be spent on encouraging more women to become entrepreneurs. A specific population that might benefit from funding is women university students; these are under-represented in Ireland’s women entrepreneurs.

Impacting on the entrepreneurial culture

The challenge for the TRIGGER team at Birkbeck is to build on the insights gained from academics’ and practitioners’ experiences to make an impact on the entrepreneurial culture within the college. This means encouraging more female students, as well as professional and academic staff, to share the lessons of the differences in challenges they face with other communities. This panel event shows that there is much to be gained by sharing perspectives from within different institutional and national contexts.

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A quiet anniversary? Reviewing the Race Relations Act 1965

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

Race-Relations-Act-webIt has been 50 years since the initial Race Relations Act was introduced in the UK. But despite progress being made in the fight against race-related discrimination since the 1965 Act came into play, many argue there is still a long road ahead before true race equality is reached.

A fascinating evening of discussion and debate around the Race Relation Acts of 1965, ’68 and ’76 as well as more recent legislation in 2003 and 2010 was held at Birkbeck’s Malet Street Building on Tuesday, June 19 as part of Social Sciences Week.

Run by the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism in collaboration with JCORE, the event brought together top thinkers in the field of race relations to review the historical context of the Acts, to explore the current landscape, and to consider the implications for the future.

Following introductory speeches by Professor David Feldman and Dr Edie Friedman, presentations were led by Dr Camilla Schofield from University of East Anglia, Dr Anastasia Vakulenko from the University of Birmingham and Dr Omar Khan of the Runnymede Trust.

“A quiet anniversary”

Dr Camilla Schofield spoke about the history of race relations, and the Race Relations Act, focusing in particular on the initial 1965 and 1968 Acts.

The 1965 Act, she explained, represented in many ways a radical break from the passivity of the UK legal system, but she noted that many anti-racist groups and activists felt the Act was not strong enough to challenge racial discrimination in a meaningful way.

For instance, of the 327 complaints made to the Race Relations Board between 1966 and 1968, 238 cases were considered to be outside its jurisdiction. As such, the Act was considered by many as a process of pacification, rather than criminal sanction.

While the 1968 Act extended the law to recognise private discrimination in employment, housing, credit and insurance, still it – like its predecessor – was not considered powerful enough, and was certainly not heralded as a triumph of the Left. This in part, Schofield explained, is perhaps why the 50th is such “a quiet anniversary”.

However, she made a case for reinvigorating interest in the Acts, and highlighted the importance of not considering them as outright failures. There is room, she said, “to tell their history from the bottom up”, by focusing on the experiences of the volunteers and officials who have been involved in the enforcement of the Acts, such as members of local conciliation committees. This would not be “a radical history”, she said, “but one of everyday lives”.

Muslims and Jews: “A fragmented picture”

Looking further on than the ’65 and ’68 Acts, Dr Anastasia Vakulenko discussed the historical perspective of the Race Relations Act with regards to Muslim and Jewish communities.

While the third iteration – the 1976 Act – was superseded by the Equality Act of 2010, Dr Vakulenko explained that many Muslims and Jews still feel they could be protected better under the law.

In the beginning of this journey, five decades ago, these groups were not at the top of the agenda, she explained. Their complexities in terms of self-identification, which run across cultural and religious boundaries, meant in many cases it was not easy to bring any discrimination cases to tribunal.

Fitting themselves to discrimination law was very difficult. Until 2003 for example, Jews could only make a case for discrimination on grounds of race, not religion. However, Dr Vakulenko noted, they were at least able to benefit from the Race Relations Act at a time when religious discrimination wasn’t recognised in law. Muslims, on the other hand, could only benefit indirectly, when the act of discrimination impacted on the individual on grounds of race e.g. if he or she was Muslim and Asian.

Through the latter half of her presentation, Dr Vakulenko cited recent cases which highlight the ongoing complexities in UK race relations and the responses of the legal system, such as that of 15-year-old Shabina Begum’s unsuccessful High Court battle to wear an ankle-length jibab gown in school; and the 2009 Jewish Free School case in which the school was ruled as guilty of having discriminated against a pupil who was not considered by the orthodox religious authorities to be authentically Jewish.

Looking at the current landscape, Dr Vakulenko said she saw a fragmented picture, in which Jewish and Muslim communities often see themselves as the most aggrieved minorities: with Muslims having to challenge discriminatory perceptions of being “radical extremists”; while Jews are tackling the image that, en masse, they are supporters of an “apartheid state”.

The challenge, then, is for these two communities to avoid falling into partisan political traps so that they may find a common ground and a stronger allied voice against discrimination.

“Do we need more legislation?”

Bringing the presentations to a close, Dr Omar Khan discussed the state of play for racial equality in the 21st Century.

Speaking from his position within the UK’s leading independent race equality thinktank, he explained why he believes it is misguided to think that we live in a “post racial society”. Rather, he finds there are considerable challenges to surmount before race equality can be reached:

  • The challenge of analysis – a difficult task when we consider that the nature of ethnic equalities always vary
  • The challenge of mobilisation/activism – given the relatively small population of each ethnic community, there is still a major need to bring them together in a sustainable way
  • The challenge of policy – without robust data collection, we can’t know the effectiveness of government policies on race equality.

Offering a new way to frame this argument, Dr Khan asked the question: ‘Do we still need further legislation in Britain, or is it about finding better ways to enforce the legislation that is in place?’

“Racism has not gone away,” Dr Khan told the audience. “It’s time to come together on a common platform in Britain”.

Without better enforcement and a wider, more honest debate on race equality, he added, it could be 50 or even 100 years before we can come close to being a ‘post-race society’.

Off the agenda?

Following the presentations, the speakers gathered together to field questions from the audience. Topics arising included the emergence of UKIP; whether race has fallen off the political and activist agenda; and how the Race Relations and Equalities Acts impact upon schools.

Dr Friedman offered some closing comments, noting that it is important not to forget the Race Relations Acts. Instead, they should be considered important milestones that should be followed up, to make sure that we continue working towards creating a society what we all want to live in.

Agreeing with those thoughts, Professor Feldman added that “what is needed is more enforcement and more mobilisation, as well as more research”.

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