Going for Gold: just the start

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

Birkbeck currently holds an Athena Swan Bronze award

Birkbeck currently holds an Athena Swan Bronze award

On Wednesday 5 March, Professor Tom Welton, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and formerly Head of the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London, shared his story of achieving an Athena Swan Gold award for his department, and the journey that his faculty continues to move along. Athena Swan awards, awarded by the Equality Challenge Unit, recognise commitment from universities to combatting the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.

Identify a starting point

When Professor Welton took up post as Head of the Chemistry Department at Imperial his advisory board asked him what he wanted to achieve. He replied that he wanted “to make his department the best chemistry department in Europe”. In order to understand how he could achieve this, he then asked his staff: “If you had just walked into the best chemistry department in Europe, how would you know?” They told him that it would be the place where the brightest and the best researchers wanted to work; the brightest and the best students wanted to study; and the biggest and the best funding bodies wanted to fund research.

Immediately, Professor Welton knew that the Department was not living up to his vision for it. He says this was clear to him because having one female professor out of 20 within the department does not show the brightest and the best, unless you believe that by nature men are 20 times better at chemistry than women.

Find out where your pipeline is leaking

Universities have, in the past, shirked responsibility for low representation of particular groups within their institutions or particular departments, saying that it is the responsibility of schools to provide a steady pipeline of talent from diverse backgrounds. However, analysis of gender diversity at Imperial showed that at undergraduate, master’s and even PhD level the gender balance held up. At post-doctoral level there was a huge fall in the number of women within the chemistry department. Therefore, said Professor Welton, we had to accept that this was our problem, and something that we were (or weren’t) doing was causing women to leave the department (and possibly the field) at this stage. This provided a focal point for where to begin and after a series of focus groups with female and male PhD students, they discovered that at the start of their doctorates women said that they wanted a career in academic research, but by their final year they said that they didn’t want the life of a post-doc, as well as identifying particular negative behaviours that they’d experience during their PhDs.

Make mistakes and learn from them

Having identified that the life of a post-doc was off-putting to many female PhD students, Professor Welton talked to his post-docs to see how their work life could be improved. Initially, this involved providing more social opportunities involving wine! However, a Malaysian student pointed out that she and other Muslims could not attend events where there was alcohol. Professor Welton recognised that you can’t create an inclusive environment in which you are inclusive to only particular groups – it has to be inclusive for all; and so evening socials with wine became “Friday Doughnuts” – an opportunity for staff to get to know each other as people, rather than ‘just’ scientists. It also has the advantage of taking place within school hours so that those with children were able to attend.

Small acts change a culture

It is through the introduction of many small acts (such as Friday doughnuts, or leaving office doors open) that a culture can be changed, believes Professor Welton. He set out to achieve the best chemistry department in Europe by creating an inclusive environment, not to win an Athena Swan Gold award. However, he stressed that Athena Swan and business objectives are not in opposition to one another.

Using performance metrics

While acknowledging that there are mixed opinions about the role of metrics in diversity work, Professor Welton demonstrated how he has been able to use them to good effect. When asked “What do I need to do to be promoted?” he can point to the metrics of those that are operating at the level that the individual is aiming for (publications, citations etc). By having this information available for staff in the department it also enables Professor Welton to identify people that should be encouraged to apply for promotions, or those that are narrowly missing hitting the necessary numbers, so that their workload can be assessed and ways to help them achieve promotion are identified.

Professor Welton’s final message was “Good management for diversity is good management full stop.”

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Achieving career aspirations as the economy improves

careers&employability_bbk_400x1000This post was contributed by Mohsin Aboobaker, Birkbeck’s Careers and Employability Manager.


A lot has been written in the last week about the increasing number of graduate opportunities for 2015 with bullish predictions of an increase as large as 18% higher than in 2014. This is good news and alludes to an improving economy. The financial services sector is like to be at the head of the opportunities offered to graduates with figures indicating that recruitment will be up by 42% through the summer.

There has been much debate over the last few months as to whether, while the number of opportunities increases, the right calibre of graduates is available. Often, forward thinking businesses and organisations work quickly to ‘snap-up’ the right profiles but similarly, the Association of Graduate Recruiters also identified that 23% of employers did not manage to fill their vacancies in 2013 and this trend continued in to 2014 which of course may mean more of the same for the coming year.

What has become increasingly clear over a period of 18-24 months is that businesses are no longer just interested in academic backgrounds and much is made of the right ‘personality fit’. More value has to be added and this is explored through student employability, attitude and passion. Equally, students and graduates have become much more interested in finding the ‘right type’ of company pertaining to a list of criteria. Mission and values are becoming a big part of the search process, so too the culture of the organisations and whether these synergise with expectations.

The start-up industry has also disrupted the landscape for graduates. The opportunity to be involved at the incubator stage of a business is becoming increasingly popular, due to the benefits that come with these types of opportunities; flexible working, equity options and being able to have a key influence in the direction of the business, to name a few.

There is a long-standing connection between study and career development, however the way in which students are able to manage their aspirations boil down to circumstances. In the case of Birkbeck students, being able to develop your career while studying usually means being able to dictate the direction their careers will take. The key tool of our Careers and Employability Service helps graduates restructure their local environment and their self-development so that it best suits and works for them to make them more employable.

Our unique offer of studying in the evening while working during the day allows for a greater flexibility of options post-study. It also ensures that the level of employability among Birkbeck students is far more interesting – our students have a variety of backgrounds as well as life experience.

Though there is not a universal definition of employability, there is an understanding of its process and how it can benefit graduates in their search for a career. For Birkbeck and our students, employability is not just about the requirement of key skills for a particular career or job, but is also about the application of a mix of personal qualities and beliefs, understandings, skilful practices and the ability to reflect productively on experiences and to bring these qualities to a career.

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Studying at Birkbeck with dyslexia and dyspraxia

Nazmeen Akhtar

This article was contributed by Nazmeen Akhtar, a student in the final year of Birkbeck’s BSc Social Sciences.

I hated school. I was in all the bottom sets, and struggled to understand what I was being taught. As a result I never felt engaged with my education, and when I left school at age 16 I felt that it was one of the happiest days of my life.

I didn’t know it then, but the reason that I had such difficulty with my studies was that I had undiagnosed dyslexia and dyspraxia.

After school I worked in call centres and shops. At work I also found that I struggled with certain tasks – particularly structuring my work and organising things. I ended up in an endless cycle of low-paid jobs, none of which were fulfilling me. I was fed up.

A discussion with a recruitment consultant made me realise that if I wanted to get a job that I was interested in, I would need a degree. So ten years after I had left school, I began to consider the possibility of returning to education.

Despite my previous negative experiences, once I’d decided to apply for university I just got on and did it. The nerves didn’t really kick in until I had to sit down and write my first assignment. By then I’d been for testing with the Birkbeck disability office and had received my diagnoses of dyslexia and dyspraxia.

My biggest difficulty was organising information and structuring my responses to assignment questions. However, through the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) I received a laptop so that I could work at home, in my own time. That was really important to me, as I found it very difficult to work in the library, with the distraction of having other people around. By far the most important part of the support package I received was one-to-one sessions with my support tutor. As soon as I get the handbook for a new module she sits with me and helps me plan everything – time management, structure, reading. With her help I can manage all the other elements of the course, which means that when it comes to writing the assignment I am a lot less anxious. Fellow Birkbeck student Graeme Wilkinson agrees that the support of a tutor is key. He said:  “I saw a tutor once a week and she really helped me structure my essays and make the most of my new software. My marks went up immediately, and I started getting Firsts for my pieces of coursework.”

Receiving my diagnoses was very emotional. Everything fell into place in terms of why I’d struggled so much at school, and I finally could see that those problems hadn’t been my fault. I’m now less than a year away from graduation and am predicted to receive a 2:1 or first-class honours degree. It feels amazing to be in this position and my confidence has soared as a result. The disability support at Birkbeck has been outstanding and the disability support services I have received through DSA have enabled me to overcome any barriers.

I am currently applying for an internship with an MP for next year. The internship involves one day per week studying leadership. I never would have applied for a job that involved studying before I began my degree but this is a result of being much more confident now in my ability to learn and to achieve.

I can say with absolute confidence that finding out the reality about my complex study needs and being supported through the barriers they caused was the only thing which was going to help me break out of the cycle I was in. The reality of studying with complex needs is that it is not easy – but it is achievable and the end result is most definitely worth pursuing.

National Dyslexia Awareness Week runs from 3 – 9 November 2014. 

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Eric Hobsbawm, MI5 and the politics of history

This post was contributed by Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. He also writes at the Many-Headed Monster.

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most influential historians of the last century and late President of Birkbeck, was under surveillance by MI5 for at least two decades. Last Friday, the National Archives released the formerly secret files documenting how the security services monitored Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill from the 1940s onwards. To their credit, the archives have actually digitised some of the files, so you can now read the MI5 reports for yourself.

Both Hobsbawm and Hill were members of the British Communist Party and this explains why they were of such interest to MI5 during the Cold War. Indeed, they were part of the famed Communist Party Historians Group, a cluster of brilliant scholars that also included E.P. Thompson and Raphael Samuel, whose History Centre is closely tied to Birkbeck. Hobsbawm came to Birkbeck as a lecturer in 1947, a few years after the surveillance began. His communist affiliations apparently blocked his path to a post at Cambridge, the conventional destination for a historian of his calibre at the time, but he was much more welcome at Birkbeck and here he honed his craft by writing magisterial histories of revolutions, capitalism, imperialism and global conflict. However he did not limit himself to the ‘big picture’. My own love for his work began when I read his essay on ‘political shoemakers’ and he also wrote a surprising amount about modern jazz. As an MI5 officer wrote in 1962, Hobsbawm broadcast on an eclectic range of topics on the BBC: ‘Some recent talks were entitled ‘Sicilian Peasant Risings’ and ‘Robin Hood’.’

The fact that he was watched by the British security state should not be surprising. Any communist connection was enough to justify a police file during the Cold War. Hobsbawm was, however, not a compliant party man. He was, in fact, a constant source of irritation and worry for the party’s national leadership. Although several commentators have – with some justification – criticised him for remaining a member of the CP even after the extent of Stalin’s terrible crimes became known, Hobsbawm hardly towed the party line. His open criticism of Soviet aggression in Hungary in 1956 and his other public critiques led the party leaders to consider expelling him.

Ultimately, Hobsbawm’s constant involvement in radical politics made him an obvious target for MI5. Would he still be monitored if he were alive today? Perhaps not. The label of ‘communist’ is not such a security bugbear as it once was. Yet it is odd to find Martin Kettle suggesting that it would be unlikely any historians writing today would be worrying enough to the state to justify surveillance. There are many historians across the country whose search for justice and a better world takes them beyond the classroom and into the streets to protest against British government policies. Right here at Birkbeck, we continue to build links with community groups and networks of activists. As recently as this week, our own Dr Becky Taylor published a poignant piece on the recent history of homelessness and squatting that took the story right up to the present with the Focus E15 Mothers occupation in Newham.

We at Birkbeck take pride in offering opportunities for anyone – whether a student, an activist or even a dusty old historian – to not only build up their knowledge of the contentious issues of the day, but also to speak out about them. Birkbeckers are keen to critique conventional wisdom and express their dissent, even if it means risking the possibility of ending up in a file in the National Archives marked ‘secret’.

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