Science funding, the law, and the next REF

This post was contributed by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Assistant Dean for Strategy (Equalities) in Birkbeck’s School of Science.

Birkbeck currently holds an Athena Swan Bronze award

Birkbeck currently holds an Athena Swan Bronze award

Athena SWAN is currently a hot topic of conversation at the top tables in higher education across the UK.

Minds have been focused by money and the announcement by Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies in 2011 that National Institute for Health Research’s (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centres/Biomedical Research Units funding will require a minimum silver Athena SWAN award from 2015.

A full legal duty on all higher education institutions to mainstream equality across their work came in under the Equality Act 2010. In 2014, the government published a report on Women in STEM showing that women were still badly under-represented at professorial levels in academia across every scientific discipline. Research Councils UK also set out a ‘statement of expectations for equality and diversity’. Underpinned by the legislation, the NIHR position is likely to broaden to other research councils.

Since the evaluation of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008, many funding bodies worked to improve the management and support of equality and diversity. As a result many HE institutions developed effective strategies to support women and diversity in their research so that by the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF): ‘the proportion of staff submitted with individual circumstances that had impacted on their research productivity has risen from 12% in RAE 2008 to 29% in REF 2014.’ (This includes, for example, women who have taken a period of maternity leave during the assessment period). The REF 2014 Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel  published their report on 23 January 2015 and it states that steps to embed: ‘broader cultural change in promoting and supporting equality and diversity across their institutions’ will have a place in the next REF.

In addition to three compelling arguments (research funding, legal obligation, and the next REF), Athena SWAN presents an opportunity to improve the lives of a significant proportion of staff to achieve even higher levels of research performance. Our aim is to make Birkbeck a great place where great people do great research and to become a beacon that attracts the best people from all over the world because of our approach to equality.

An Athena SWAN award can only be obtained following a submission to the Equality Challenge Unit. Awards of Bronze, Silver and Gold are given to departments depending on how far advanced they are in identifying problem areas and implementing initiatives to address these. It requires full, open and transparent submission of data (both quantitative and qualitative) and a strategic approach to making systemic changes to improve the progression of women’s careers. Unlike the REF, where one makes the best case possible, this is about reflection of where we are on the foothills, and what we think we can do to reach the summit (i.e. the Gold award).

Birkbeck’s Bronze Award runs out in April 2015. It means that the College’s Athena SWAN self-assessment team (SAT) have a lot of work to do in a short time. The SAT will ask for information and data as well as suggestions from all staff, to help in the reflection of where we, as a School of Science and in our respective departments, might do things better. The SAT will treat information in confidence. Events too are being planned and the SAT hope that staff will attend these events and prioritise this important area of work.

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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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