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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Birkbeck shortlisted for University of the Year Award


This post was contributed by Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck.

Nearly 200 years since George Birkbeck established our institution to provide education to working Londoners, I am able to announce the excellent news that Birkbeck has been shortlisted for the Times Higher Education University of the Year Award. Following closely on the heels of this year’s National Student Survey, where our students voted us number one for overall student satisfaction in London, our new academic year is getting off to a good start.

The University of the Year Award is based on the 2012/13 academic year. Even by Birkbeck standards, that was quite a year for us as we saw a 45% downturn in our core part-time undergraduate degree enrolments following the major changes to the funding of universities in England. The award entry focuses on this crisis, and says:

“The College knew it had to adapt quickly or face an extremely uncertain and unstable future. By autumn 2013, Birkbeck had achieved unimagined and unanticipated success with a 335% increase in acceptances recorded by UCAS, the biggest growth in the sector. Survival was secured by the rapid expansion of a new Birkbeck proposition – a three-year, intensive, evening-taught degree, made available through UCAS. A well-conceived academic proposition and powerful marketing of a distinctive message through the unfamiliar UCAS pipeline generated soaring demand. Clear leadership, energetic cross-College advocacy and a whole institution determination to succeed ensured students arrived in the classroom in record numbers. Birkbeck was saved and a flexible, potentially sector-changing style of higher education has arrived.”

You can read more about our University of the Year submission on our news section. The winner will be announced on 27 November, and in the meantime please voice your support for Birkbeck in the comments section below, or at #unioftheyear on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Mrs. Waac

This post was contributed by Dr Kate McLoughlin, Reader in Modern Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities.

(c) Birkbeck, University of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI was recently interviewed by a journalist from BBC Radio London 94.9 about Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan (right), a remarkable Birkbeck pioneer. Gwynne-Vaughan was born Helen Fraser in 1879, a Scottish aristocrat, and spent her childhood in various exotic locales where her step-father acted as British Consul: Corsica, Stockholm, Oporto, Algiers. Frustrated by the constraints imposed on Victorian girls, Helen battled with her mother to be allowed to study science at university. She passed the Oxford Entrance Exam but Oxford was better known for humanities and, in any case, did not award women degrees.  So Helen read botany at King’s College, London, and, at the age of 30, became head of the botany department at Birkbeck -– the youngest candidate for the post and the only woman.  She married the previous head of department.

When war broke out in 1914, Helen wanted to work in a mobile hospital ‘on a really dangerous front’. In 1917, she was invited to become co-Director of the newly-formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps – –the so-called WAACs. In France, she was a firm but sympathetic leader of the ‘Tommettes’. The French called her ‘Mrs. Waac’ and the servicewomen called her ‘Remember’ as she began so many of her speeches to them with that word. In 1918, she was appointed head of the Women’s Royal Air Force and a year later made a Dame.

After the First World War, Helen returned to Birkbeck and became its first woman professor of botany in 1921. Her research was into fungi, and specifically its reproducibility. A fungus found only in Aberdeenshire – where she had had her coming-out ball was named Rhynia gwynne-vaughanii in her honour. In the Second World War, she led the Auxiliary Territorial Service and was made a Dame for a second time – this time a Dame Grand Cross. She died in 1967, aged 88.

Birkbeck owns a gorgeous portrait of Helen Gwynne-Vaughan in her red and gold doctoral gown by Philip de László (see above). The interview with BBC Radio London will be broadcast in November, to coincide with Armistice Day commemorations, and a longer version will be posted on the website.

Biographical source: Molly Izzard, A Heroine in Her Time: A Life of Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan 1879-1967 (London: Macmillan, 1969).


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