Goal-setting for women working in a professional environment

This post was contributed by Mark Panton, TRIGGER Administrator. Here, Mark reports from the TRIGGER (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) First Early Career Seminar, which focused on goal-setting for women working in a professional environment.

Trigger logoThe issue

Too often, women have to put their broader life goals in the shade in order to pursue their career. This is neither necessary, nor is it sustainable. On 15 September, TRIGGER’s First Early Career Seminar addressed some of the underlying tensions that exist which make it harder for women to pursue a clear and balanced set of goals for themselves and their work.

In an engaging and interactive workshop, board mentor Dr Andrew Atter discussed why goal-setting can be so hard together with strategies both women and men can use to formulate a balanced set of goals for themselves; then influence their environment to enable those goals to become a reality.

The relevance of goal-setting and why it is difficult

Goal-setting is particularly important in relation to gender.  Women often have to make more painful trade-offs than men. For women it may be trade-offs in their family and working lives leading to frustrations and limited options. There is some way to go and this can also be true for men where they may have too little time for their family and too much time at work leading to issues of isolation and loneliness. There is also a sense in which many people don’t have goals and are just influenced by the environment.

What makes goal-setting so difficult?

  • Feeling stuck
  • Always out of reach
  • Aspirational (versus planned)
  • Conflicting priorities
  • Life gets in the way


Participants discussed goals they had achieved despite these issues and what could be learned from those achievements. Strategies that were debated included the basic step of asking for help; finding the emotional key and the need for resonance. Standard methodologies of goal setting were considered such as the linear, value alignment and realist approaches.

The seminar finished with the use of Triads (new for some of the participants) for a role-playing exercise involving coaches, clients and observers. Even in this short role-play some interesting responses and learnings included.

“I did have more goals and aims than I thought”.

“It was easier to open-up than expected”.

“It can be difficult to talk about goals with a line manager”

The seminar demonstrated there are practical and useful techniques and “life hacks” that can make a big difference. However, much will depend on your own attitudes and behaviour, rather than waiting for the world to become a more perfect place.

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Birkbeck’s TRIGGER initiative explores gender inequality in Higher Education

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics.

Trigger logoOn the 28 June Birkbeck took further strides toward gender equality and equity, as the EU Project TRIGGER (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) invited an audience of professionals, academics and students to consider how best to inspire aspiring female professors and managers.

Indeed, gender inequality persists in higher education despite the many positive steps that have been made by the sector in recent years. The implementation and acceleration of Athena SWAN, as well as vocal support from leading academics and professionals, has raised the profile of gender inequality substantially. Yet a report published by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in 2015 and looking at statistical data gleaned from the sector elucidates the enduring prevalence of gender inequality. In 2015, 77.6% of all Professors were male, whilst in SET (Science, Economics and Technology) subjects the figure was even higher at 81.8% (ECU).

How barriers can be overcome

The event ‘Aspiring female Professors/Managers – What can aspiring female professors/managers learn from those already in these positions?’ exists within this milieu and looked to develop dialogue, networking and solidarity to consider how such barriers can be overcome. As one speaker, Simona Iammarino, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics, remarked during the panel discussion:

“We need more than just small cogs; we need a holistic culture that lends and prides itself on both gender equality and equity.”

So, how to eradicate an inequality that is both historic and persistent? To those at the event the answer seemed to become clearer as experiences were shared among the audience and the panel. Many panel speakers discussed the necessity of having role models, with young and ambitious students, academics and professionals all attesting to the benefits of inspirational figures in the guise of mentors, line managers and colleagues.

As Birkbeck’s Professor of Entrepreneurship Helen Lawton Smith stated, “we need to understand that we’re all in this together and it is up to each of us create the support necessary for women to succeed in academia and professional roles”.


The TRIGGER event on 28 June 2016

Fostering organisational change

Birkbeck’s four year TRIGGER initiative was set up in January 2014 as an applied research project aiming to foster organisational change through promoting the role of women in research and academia. It complements several other initiatives introduced by Birkbeck to reduce gender inequality in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Mathematics) subjects and managerial roles, such as ASTREA (Networking for women in professional and support roles), AURORA (Developing leadership skills for women) and Athena SWAN.

It is through such exchanges that commitments are made, not only to fighting disparity among gender pay and seniority, but also to fully comprehend the myriad dimensions of the struggle at hand. Indeed, until the persisting mechanisms of gender inequality are fully understood, they are doomed to perpetuate themselves. Discussions at the event ranged from the issue of age and its gendered role in the life of academics and professionals (see Fields Medal), to the challenges of younger women eager to assert themselves in male dominated professions.

The event itself embodied this sense of solidarity and commitment to gender equality, with networks forming around shared aspirations, experiences and struggles. If indeed institutions are to instigate a culture equipped to overcome inequality, it will be through a sharing of information, a proliferation of networks and through the support of key decision makers.

You can see a video taken of the event online, for those wishing to read more you can catch a summary of the panel responses posted to LinkedIn. You can read more about TriggeR  and upcoming events on their website. Students interested in mentoring programmes run by the college can check out Mentoring Pathways.

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TRIGGER Mid-Term Workshop

Transforming Research Institutions, Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality: a Half-Way Reflection

This post was contributed by Mark Panton, Jeanne le Roux and Helen Lawton Smith of the Transforming Institutions by Gendering contents and Gaining Equality in Research (TRIGGER) team – a research project in Birkbeck’s Department of Management.

Trigger logoThe TRIGGER consortium mid-term workshop was held at Birkbeck on 14 April 2016 with participants from across Europe and the USA attending the event. Trigger is a five country FP7-funded European project (2014-17). It aims to promote systemic interventions designed to have deep, long lasting and widespread impacts at all the different levels in 5 research organisations. The project, coordinated and co-funded by the Italian Government, assisted by an institute specialised in gender and science, involves as co-funders five universities from different EU countries (Czech Republic, France, Italy, UK, Spain). In Birkbeck, the project involves the School of Science and the School of Business, Economics and Informatics.

The workshop was designed to present an occasion for common reflection and dialogue on the factors affecting the implementation of institutional change action plans for gender equality in science.

Opening speeches

Welcoming speeches were given on behalf of Michele Palma, Department of Equal Opportunities, Presidency of Council of Ministers of Italy, TRIGGER project coordinator and by Giovanna Declich, ASDO, technical assistance to and accompanying research on the TRIGGER Action Plans, and Stephen Frosh, a Pro-Vice Master of Birkbeck and Chair of the Birkbeck TRIGGER Board.

Listen to the speech by Stephen Frosh:


Professor Frosh made a number of key points that were reflected in the later discussion groups. He praised the excellent work being done by TRIGGER and gave the rallying call: “If you are meeting resistance then you are doing something right”.

Giovanna Declich, acknowledged the complexity of issues that were being addressed. She discussed some of the obstacles, enablers of change together with a range of emerging issues that include new rules to support work-life balance.

The TRIGGER experience at mid-term

The first morning session, chaired by Professor Rosemary Deem, Vice Principal (Education) & Dean of the Doctoral School at Royal Holloway was devoted to a reflection by each of the TRIGGER teams on their experiences at the mid-term point. The discussion was moderated by Alice Hogan, Independent Higher Education Consultant and inaugural Director of the ADVANCE Program of the National Science Foundation, USA. She highlighted the challenging nature of the work to achieve change, which is often not recognised and stressed that to do so takes exemplary and courageous university leadership. It is important to understand why institutions don’t change, sometimes because they don’t think there is any need to, so it is important to take this into account and not to get discouraged.

Helen Lawton Smith discussed the TRIGGER experience at Birkbeck, where sometimes pre-existing schemes can cause conflicts. One of the positives to emerge is the TRIGGER external board that allows engagement with other academic institutions and, most importantly, engagement with external business groups. In order to institutionalise actions developed within TRIGGER developments, a PhD module will be developed within the college for gendered research and gender and career develop programme both of which will be sustained after the end of the TRIGGER project.

Katerina Grecova of the University of Chemistry and Technology said that in Prague individual agreements such as those relating to home-working and applying for maternity leave during research projects have been institutionalised through a collective agreement. A competition has been established in memory of first female professor in Czechoslovakia and this has been very successful. Also a book of interviews with female researchers in Czechia has been published, which provides role models and can serve as a motivational tool.

Ines Sanchez De Madariaga and Ines Novella from the Technical University of Madrid provided an insight into gaining the attention of leaders. Prior to TRIGGER data was available on gender issues, but it was not internationally comparable and produced in an unsystematic and poorly designed way. Producing an in-depth 100-page report that was well designed and graphically set out the data provided the turning point in a meeting. The Rector of the university had read the whole report, making comments on each of the graphs and then formed an action plan. Previously, the legislation existed, but nothing had been done about it. The university has also worked with the United Nations to set up the UNESCO Chair of Gender, Technology and Sustainability.

Sophie L Henry and Rachida Lemmaghti from the University of Paris Diderot, France set out how their university has long tradition of gender equality work, being one of the first to institutionalise gender research. In the 1970s the university provided very strong support for research in this area and in 1985 got assistant professor on gender. In 2010 the university created a department devoted to gender equality. With TRIGGER, Sophie and Rachida learned to negotiate with teachers on gender, since it was important to support what was already there. Training is now in place for all first year university students. In Italy, Rita Biancheri and Silvia Cervia from the University of Pisa said that thanks to previous experience women’s salaries, careers and work-life balance have been promoted.

Negotiating institutional change

The second session, moderated by Jeanne Le Roux, founder of JLR People Solutions was on Negotiating institutional change with leadership in research institutions: setting the scene

Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Assistant Dean for Gender Equalities in the School of Science, Birkbeck discussed some of the issues in attempting to gain Athena SWAN accreditation at Birkbeck. In the course of three months, Belinda has put in place of actions designed to improve the environment for gender equality in the college. There have been a number of small, but incremental gains. These include a series of talks with senior people coming in to discuss their approaches to gender and diversity and made a number of changes such as some of the language like ending the use of “non-academic staff”.   It is now clear where the holes were in the previous application.

Henry Etzkowitz, visiting Birkbeck Professor, from Stanford University put forward his view that gender equality in science was possible through self-organised work, protest, and legal action. Professor Etzkowitz went on to give a number of examples of how this has worked, such as gender-based conferences at Berkeley, the Ellen Pao legal case in the USA, and protests in Europe.   Henry also challenged Birkbeck to take the initiative to build the Rosalind Franklin Institute for Gender and Science.

The teams were then invited to discuss what has worked in the TRIGGER project in their institutions and what did not.

The Top 5 issues for the TRIGGER project at mid term:

  • Awareness: people in the universities are not always aware of the project
  • Priority: not being on the top leadership agenda
  • Structure of leadership: change or very wide leadership structure
  • Resistance: people are resistant to the gender issues
  • Sustainability: lacks of resource to make actions sustainable

To deal with university leadership the main messages are:

  • Use the targeted audience’s language
  • Ensure the team is recognised and has the adequate sponsor
  • Use data to make the case

The afternoon followed on from the morning and was devoted an interactive group session on how to find solutions to some of the problems of negotiating institutional change with leadership in research institutions. Groups were asked to brainstorm on the solutions for one specific key issue so that could produce quick wins and initiate actions that could be part of a longer-term action plan.


The solutions were to:

  • Create a network of champions whose purpose is to raise the project awareness and enable the project to be on the priority list.
  • Use open language, not a confrontational style.
  • Link project to the institution strategy, core mission and agenda.
  • Involve the administration e.g. HR, External relations… to overcome resistance and make the project sustainable
  • Use data to showcase the project and impact of it.


Progress has been made but in every university, there is much more to do. Negotiating change is about addressing pre-existing power relations and finding ways around them to provide better solutions to gender inequality.

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List of speakers and discussion Chairs

  • Stephen Frosh, Pro-Vice Master, Birkbeck, University of London, Chair of TRIGGER Board, UK.
  • Michele Palma, Director General of the Department for Equal Opportunities – Presidency of the Council of Ministers, TRIGGER Project coordinator, Italy.
  • Chair: Rosemary Deem, Vice Principal (Education) & Dean of the Doctoral School, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK.
  • Giovanna Delich, ASDO, responsible for technical assistance to and accompanying research on the TRIGGER Action Plans, Italy.
  • Alison Hogan, Independent Higher Education Consultant, Inaugural Director of the ADVANCE Program of the National Science Foundation, USA.
  • Helen Lawton Smith, Birkbeck College, University of London, UK.
  • Katerina Grecova, University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague, Czech Republic.
  • Ines Sanchez De Madariaga and Ines Novella, Technical University of Madrid, Spain.
  • Sophie L Henry and Rachida Lemmaghti, University of Paris Diderot, France.
  • Rita Biancheri and Silvia Cervia, University of Pisa, Italy.
  • Jeanne Le Roux, Founder, JLR people coaching to JLR people solutions, London, UK
  • Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Athena SWAN, Birkbeck College, University of London, UK.
  • Henry Etzkowitz, visiting Professor, Birkbeck, University of London, Quandam Faculty Fellow, Clayman Institute of Gender Research, Stanford University, USA
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Twickenham business woman celebrates graduation after busy two years

A Twickenham businesswoman who has juggled family and study commitments while setting up her own HR consultancy celebrated her university graduation this week.

Sarah Mason

Sarah Mason

On Monday (18 April), Sarah Mason graduated with distinction with a Master’s degree in Management Consultancy and Organisational Change.

During her two-year part-time degree at London’s only specialist provider of evening university study, the 42-year-old Meadway resident established Talent Advantage, her own human resources and leadership training consultancy which built on her experience in senior roles at global recruitment firms. Since her consultancy’s launch in March 2014, it has become well established in the recruitment industry.

She was drawn to the MSc programme at Birkbeck’s Department of Management as it allowed her to combine full-time work in the daytime, while attending up to two three-hour lectures per week in the evenings at the college’s Bloomsbury campus.

She had previously completed a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and a diploma in Employment Law, however the Birkbeck MSc appealed to her as it combined organisational psychology, HR and business – all of which she was interested in deepening her knowledge of at this stage in her career.

While Sarah had prepared herself for a very busy two years upon enrolling, it took her some time to adjust to balancing her multiple commitments.

“It was harder than I thought it would be. I had to give up a lot of my spare time to reading academic papers, writing assignments and doing my research project,” she said.

“I really enjoyed studying but the hardest part was my eight-year-old daughter pushing notes under the door of my study asking me to go to the park with her. I was very lucky that my husband was really supportive and gave me the time I needed to study. Studying alongside a full time job is a big commitment but it was worth it.”

This week, Sarah joined more than 200 fellow postgraduate students from the college’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics at a formal afternoon ceremony held in Senate House. She was joined on the day by her husband, Phil Mason, and her daughter, Tegwen.

She said: “I’m really pleased with this accomplishment. I started off with several goals; get a distinction, learn some useful stuff and hit specific revenue goals for the business.  It was a lot of hard work, but I did achieve them.

“In reality, the grade is much less important than the learning and for some people it’s more about finding a good balance of study, work and life.  For me, having a focus of getting a good grade did push me to make sure I put enough time in to get the most from the course, so I learnt loads.  And I think it’s fine to be a geek!”

Moving forward, Sarah plans to continue growing her consultancy, and further applying the frameworks, theories and evidence-based approach to practice which she learned at Birkbeck.

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