24 hours until the start of my 5,000km journey….

Robert Hargreaves, an undergraduate in BSc Psychology with Neuroscience, is doing a 5000km bike ride in aid of the world’s first Toddler Lab currently being built on campus. Robert shares his feelings as he prepares to embark on his journey. Please support Robert as he undertakes his fundraising bike ride.

I leave Paris and head through Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany into Denmark. Once I reach Skagen, I’ll take a ferry over to Gothenburg and then head up through Oslo all the way to the top of Norway, along the Lofoten Islands to just above Narvik. Well within the Arctic Circle, the trail heads East through Lapland until I reach Finland and the Gulf of Bothnia, where the home run starts from the top to the bottom of Sweden, through Copenhagen and finally on to Berlin.

It will be an amazing experience taking in the Eiffel Tower, Dutch canals, Danish ports and peninsulas, Norwegian fjords, glaciers and untouched countryside. There will be lots of interesting people to meet and maybe even a few saunas along the route that will help with any aches and pains I may incur.

I think the solitude will take its toll; the climate will be tough, supermarkets sparse.  I will mainly be wild camping, but I’ve got Kandel, Dennett, Eryn Saks, Pinker, Blakemore and Plomin audiobooks to keep me company, so going into the final year of the bachelors it’s a great opportunity for learning, meditation and self-reflection.

We have some great professors and lecturers at Birkbeck who are teaching us about developmental neuroscience and psychology from the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development. They covered a lot of research from the BabyLab, so it inspired me to get involved and help raise money for them to enable them to buy more equipment for the new ToddlerLab centre.

Although this is going to be difficult, I have some experience.  In 2017 I cycled 6,000km in 100 days for BEAT the UKs eating disorder charity and the Body Dysmorphic Foundation, so I’m using the same kit and anything I’ve had to buy or consume is entirely self-funded and 100% of any donation or gift aid will go directly to help Toddlers with Neurological problems.

I will be posting photos of the journey, the people I meet, some beautiful sights, landmarks and maybe even a few wolves and bears along the way. The Birkbeck owl mascot will be coming along for the ride, and will pop up across eight countries and might even call in at some other universities along the way!

Please follow the social media feed, send messages of support along the route and, if you’re able to, donate to ToddlerLab.

You can follow Robert’s journey on Instagram and Twitter, with the hashtag #RobsBikeRide


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Astrea’s Women in Leadership Agenda panel gave me hope

Kayleigh Woods Harley from Birkbeck’s Strategic Programmes Directorate discusses the Astrea network’s recent International Women’s Day event, and what it means to take a collaborative approach to tackling gender inequality.

One month on from International Women’s Day, what, if anything, am I hoping for? LinkedIn Editor Felicity Menzies commented that “the one change I’d like to see in the workplace is a shift from fixing women to fixing the system.” It echoed my thoughts exactly on the reasons why we needed a cross-College panel event on the Women in Leadership Agenda. The big question is: how can the system be fixed? It’s a huge question that no one in any industry I’ve come across has sufficiently answered.

As a grassroots initiative, Astrea is a professional development initiative for women working in professional services and support roles. Managed and run by nine women who volunteer their time away from their normal jobs in External Relations, the library, project management, student advice, admissions, administering schools and departments, dealing with student complaints, and all manner of other roles, Astrea is grounded in the Birkbeck ethos of striving for better, of goodwill. But its existence alone does not equal gender parity.

The gender pay gap is a worthy subject within the world of gender equality but of course it is merely a symptom of underlying discrimination and unconscious bias within organisational structures. It affords us a picture of what may be happening under the surface. According to the gender pay gap report 2018, Birkbeck’s women earn only 90p for every £1 that men earn doing jobs of equal value. Women only occupy 45.2% of the highest paid jobs in the College. This is expected to make Birkbeck one of the better examples in the higher education sector (last year Birkbeck had the 11th lowest gap out of 135 HE institutions), but there is still a long way to go, and it is this last leg of the journey which is the hardest to travail. And it by no means tells us anything about the ethnic pay gap, the disability pay gap, and many other types of pay inequality. (Birkbeck has recently published its latest Equal Pay Audit.)

Astrea continues to receive College funding to host 6+ internal events each year. Yet there has never, until now, been an event open to all staff: women, men, professional service and academic staff. Judging by the range of women and men in the audience, there is a desire across Birkbeck to engage with the problem and seek ways of overcoming inequality, including at management level.

Kicking off the panel event on 8 March, the College Secretary, Keith Harrison, confessed that there was much more that Birkbeck could do to attain gender equality. This theme was picked up by the panel members themselves, expertly chaired by Birkbeck’s own Communications Manager Bryony Merritt, comprising two academics and two UK politics-affiliated people: Jane Holgate, Professor of Work and Employment Relations at Leeds University Business School; Luke Holland, a communications consultant who recently worked for the Labour party; Birkbeck’s own Professor of Geography, Rosie Cox; and Deborah Day, a senior civil servant who also champions women’s digital skills. While all acknowledged that workplaces had changed for the better during their careers, they also pointed out that there is still a considerable distance to be travelled and all had a different take on how that should be achieved.

Deborah offered some stark views on the world of technology. While women comprise half the British workforce, technology, the bedrock of our daily lives, is predominantly a male industry. Technology firms are just not recruiting enough women. This results in products and services that are inherently designed to disadvantage women, creating a worldwide digital gender divide.

Jane has worked in male-dominated industries throughout her career. She began in the heavy-drinking macho culture of the print industry and is now one of only 9 female professors (out of 100) in her faculty. Actively involved in trade unions and conducting research into their historical development, Jane sees grassroots networks as the most valuable asset for making a difference to individual women’s lives, especially when considering intersectionality.

Luke, being the only male representative on the panel, offered his perspective on Labour’s achievements in getting true representation in Labour’s elected members. Luke advocates men and women making a strong case for equality in their workplace, raising awareness and calling out injustices where they are seen. It also requires mentoring, monitoring and accountability. The Welsh Labour party has legislated for its goal of becoming a “feminist government”. Even if it is a goal that is doomed to failure, it should be pledged anyway, because equality should be a guiding mission for all organisations.

As an expert on gender and work, and co-founder of the research centre Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality, Rosie had some positive things to say about Birkbeck’s internationally-recognised research on gender and its guiding mission. But she pointed out that there are many things the College can do to improve: it’s not about “fixing the women,” it’s not about a deficit model, and it’s certainly not about simply ticking boxes for Athena Swan. She called on leaders to recognise that good intentions are simply where the hard work really starts; the next step is to push for real change, even if that change is disruptive. It is important to take an intersectional approach, since white middle-class women have recently begun to see benefits but their BAME counterparts are still being left behind. Rosie also highlighted the benefits of equality at all levels. She argued that if an organisation is not promoting staff based on merit alone, then the chances are it is discriminating against all manner of characteristics, whether protected or not. This would include discrimination against unconventional people, or those who do not conform to Western standards of attractiveness, male or female. At heart, the equality agenda is about building an organisation that is utterly fair, that serves everyone’s interests, even if they don’t think so.

The depth of the discussion on the panel, carefully managed by Bryony, reassured me that I am not alone in believing that real change is not yet upon us, but also hope that things may be changing. Momentum, awareness-raising and a shift in attitudes are all contributing to the demand for change, and recent reporting on Birkbeck’s equality pay measures shows that there is ongoing investigation into the causes of the pay gaps and potential solutions to them. It simply remains for us all to maintain pressure in our workplace to ensure that it results in positive actions.

If you attended the Women in Leadership Agenda panel event, please leave us a comment and let us know what you thought.

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The Digital Transformation Project (DTP): termly update  

There is a lot going on in the digital transformation project. Jane Van de Ban, Birkbeck’s Digital Content Manager, provides this summary of activity over the past term.

What are we doing?
We are upgrading the Birkbeck school/department web presence, to provide entirely new, refreshed content, including new images, and improved navigation. With five school sites, 18 department sites, 21 microsites and over 32,000 content items – pages, images, files, events and news stories – all of which need to be reviewed and upgraded – this is a huge undertaking.  

Our objectives are to:  

  • review all the content, topic by topic and piece by piece  
  • decide what needs to be retained and upgraded
  • consider how best to present this information online, via workshops with subject experts from across the Birkbeck community
  • ensure that all content:
    • fulfils user needs  
    • meets our digital standards  
    • is fully optimised, to ensure that Google and other search engines index it properly 
  • build appropriate wayfinding pages, comprised of high-quality images and signpost text, to improve navigation across the Birkbeck site. 

Welcome to our expanded project team
Due to pressing technical issues with our content management system (CMS), Plone, we need to deliver this project by the start of the 2019-20 academic year. To help us deliver this ambitious project, our team has grown, with freelance editors and web staff from all of our schools working alongside us for a few days each month.  

So, a special welcome to Ollie Chinyere (Arts), Yossie Olaleye and Aaliyah Archer (BEI), Louise Ross and Matt Wicks (Law), Pauline Jones (Science) and Antonio Terzini (SSHP) and our freelance editors, Rebecca Slegg and Denise Drake.  

Improving access to MPhil/PhD funding information
At our launch workshop, subject experts told us the following about MPhil/PhD funding: 

MPhil/PhD funding is hugely complex and requires knowledge of different funders’ priorities and processes, as well as the conditions attendant on them.  

Funding is not static – it is awarded throughout the recruitment cycle. So, we need a flexible web solution that allows us to add and withdraw funding throughout the year.  

Information on funding needs to be easy to understand for both prospective students and academics, as the latter need to provide specialist information on the full range of MPhil/PhD funding available. 

Based on this workshop, we have developed a bespoke MPhil/PhD funding resource (on our development site) and shared it with subject experts across the College, who gave us extensive and helpful feedback, mostly related to the layout of the new wayfinding page. We have now revised and updated the content and aim to get final sign-off in January, after which we will schedule the go-live. 

Rationalising application information for MPhil/PhD applicants
As with funding information, you will find application information for prospective MPhil/PhD research students scattered across the Birkbeck website. The objective is to make it as easy as possible for users to read and follow our advice before applying.

At the workshop, the prospective MPhil/PhD research students need to explore potential supervisors and ideally, contact them and start writing a research proposal before applying. Although this advice is provided across our website, departments still receive ‘cold’ applications, which require a lot of administrative and academic support. We also learned that the application process is similar across schools – the most striking differences relate to funding.  

In response to the workshop, we have consolidated and improved our MPhil/PhD application advice on our online prospectus and on our central How to Apply pages, which will help improve the application process (we will, of course, test the changes with users). This information also dovetails with the improved MPhil/PhD funding information.  

The application information is now live and, early in the New Year, we will unpublish redundant, duplicate department pages and redirect users to our new, consolidated information. This will make it much easier for academics and prospective MPhil/PhD research students to find information.  

Telling the public about our research projects
In all the years that we have talked to schools/departments about their web presence, one message has come out loud and clear: the absolute centrality and importance of research. Yet, if you explore our department pages, it’s difficult to find much information about research.  

Around 160 funded research projects are currently underway at Birkbeck but learning about them is very challenging: the majority don’t have any presence on the Birkbeck website, and the only comprehensive list is a spreadsheet maintained by the Research Office.   

Yet, our subject experts told us that: 

We need to publicise the full range of our funded research projects.  

The audiences for this information range from the general public to corporations looking to invest their Corporate Social Responsibility fund, businesses keen to invest in new ideas and tools, potential academic collaborators, and REF panels.  

We need to provide more than just a summary of each project.  

With this and other findings, we have started to develop web pages for every funded research project at Birkbeck, using a standard template. In the New Year, we will engage with researchers to take this project forward, with a view to publishing these new pages in 2019.  

Other DTP projects
Other work that is ongoing includes: 

Improved search: the ITS Web Team have been busy implementing our new, much improved search tool, which will make it far easier to find relevant information on our website. This is due to go live in the first half of 2019, following a rethink of the implementation to reduce reliance on the College’s current CMS. 

Academic staff profiles: redeveloping staff profiles was set as a project priority by the Web Working Group and we commissioned new designs and extensive user testing and consultation with staff across Birkbeck. Pending final consultation relating to KEF and business services, the new profiles will be built and then populated with information by the DTP content team. The plan is that academics will maintain their profiles via My Birkbeck for Staff.  

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Astrea’s Cabinet of Curiosities

Sandra Bekvalac, Student Casework and Engagement Officer, reports on a recent event from Astrea, Birkbeck’s network for women working in professional and support roles. The event explored the value of building your personal brand. 

What do these items have in common: a brooch of a dancing cabbage; a satsuma; books; a necklace with a butterfly wing in it; a canvas tote; a scarab?

Other than they aren’t cats and therefore have no chance of going viral on the internet.

The answer is that they were all on display in Room B04, in the Malet Street Building on Thursday 29 November, at Astrea’s networking event hosted by career coach Anna Gordon. You, our lovely members, pulled these very personal and precious objects from your bags and pockets. Some of you even allowed us to touch them. We were amused and inspired by them in equal measure. For the objects were more than just objects. They were slices of yourselves. A cabinet of curiosities full of physical representations of your values, your purpose, and your ideal selves.

If this sounds ethereal and deep, it’s because personal branding is, as it turns out, both ethereal and deep. I didn’t know this before Anna’s talk. In fact, I thought branding was incredibly shallow, meant for things and not people. I was one of the people Anna mentioned in her presentation who think of ‘branding’ as a dirty word. I’ve realised that my dislike of branding was all a horrible misunderstanding. Branding isn’t about objects and sales, though it can help you sell yourself to employers more effectively. It’s not just about value, but values, and honesty.

As part of building our brands, we talked a lot about authenticity. What makes a brand authentic? What does authentic mean? As a Film Studies Masters student a few years back I remember grappling with the various meanings of the word, and whether it mattered. What I learned from Anna, is that it just means honesty. In order to brand yourself effectively, you need to know who you are, and what you believe in. In other words, branding can be about soul-searching.

So there we were, in room B04, looking into the dark and uncomfortable parts of our souls. I don’t know about you, but I learned some stuff about me that depressed me a bit. I learned that what keeps me up at night is worry, and that I do the work that I do because it pays the bills. From the groans I could hear from around the room while I was completing the soul-searching worksheet Anna had given us, my guess is that some of you were similarly depressed. But I also learned some things that made me smile and helped me see myself, and my work, differently. I learned that I am happiest when I’m writing. Anything. Emails. Shopping lists. Blog posts. That I long for what I long for because I want to leave a tangible mark on our planet, and not just a scar caused by climate change. I also learned that I am happy when I’m learning new things. By the end of the worksheet, I was getting excited about learning all this new stuff about me and about branding in general.

All of this could be just information. But in B04 with Anna Gordon this stuff transubstantiated. It became more than just stuff. Like the objects in the list, it became stuff I could use to build my brand: what makes me who I am, what marks me out and makes me special to employers, what I stand for.

Thank you Anna, for so many valuable life lessons all crammed into two hours on a Thursday!

The last thing I learned was that working on your personal brand can be empowering. Anna’s session helped me, and I think many of the other attendees, to articulate who we are and want to be and to communicate this to those around us. Which brings me to one really good reason to build a unique and consistent brand, which Anna also briefly touched upon in her talk. Branding facilitates communication, which helps us connect to one another better, be it through social media or in a room talking about objects that represent us and our values.

Connections are the whole point of everything we do at Astrea. Good connections don’t just mean improved career opportunities. Good relationships with Colleagues make us feel valued and part of Birkbeck’s mission, which can make us happier in our current roles.

The event on 29 November was very well attended. It was especially nice to see so many brand (no pun intended!) new faces. If you’ve never been to an event, for whatever reason, give it a go! Networks are cabinets of curiosities. You might find opportunities for learning you didn’t expect and meet some lovely new people. And as if that isn’t enough, there’s always free coffee and cookies!

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