Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

Envisaging a more gender equitable workplace; #TomWeltonTour

Professor Tom Welton presenting in Australia as part of the SAGE tour.

Professor Tom Welton presenting in Australia as part of the SAGE tour.

Professor Tom Welton is Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London. Tom was Head of the Chemistry Department from August 2007 to December 2014, during which time the Department achieved an Athena Swan Gold Award. Tom has been on a SAGE sponsored tour of Australia sharing his expertise and insights under the banner of Going for Gold: Just the beginning

Tom Welton’s tour has been enthusiastically received by a higher education and research sector keen to learn from a Department and Institution well progressed on the Athena SWAN pathway. Institutions looking at the year ahead, which for many will involve data collection and analysis, compiling action plans and finalising institutional applications, are keen to receive guidance. We are so keenly tweeting the received wisdom that Tom’s tour has been trending in the top ten twitter hashtags in Australia this week (go Sydney!).

So what did we get? What did Tom Welton, with his humorous and self-deprecating style, deliver? When I look back over my notes, and read the tweets of others I am struck by the rich array of personal, collegial, departmental and institutional actions he described. But it was also so much more than a collection of great and practical ideas and actions. Stepping back a little, I think the magic of what Tom has done is to paint a picture of what a successful (gender and diversity) inclusive department looks and feels like. This is a gift. It will be easy to become mired down by the data and the task ahead this year, so an optimistic vision of the future and a bit of excitement about what is achievable will go a long way.

In the remainder of this blog I will highlight what for me were some of the outstanding elements gleaned from Tom’s presentations of a Department firmly on its equality and inclusion journey. 


Tom did not take credit for the Department’s success in achieving a gold award, however it is abundantly clear that his departmental leadership, and now his successor’s leadership remain critical to the change process. I've focussed on a few critical characteristics.

  • Creating a compelling purpose and rationale for action

 With the assistance of a new and diverse advisory board the Department created a shared understanding of what being the best Chemistry Department in Europe would look like. As Tom noted, the lack of diversity in the professoriate (1 woman, 20 men all white) did not jell with this aspiration. ‘If the professoriate is so distorted then we can’t possibly have the best and brightest.’ This rationale links equality with excellence, rather than relying on a 'right thing to do' argument which Tom notes has been ineffective as a catalyst for action.

  •  The importance of the leader in setting the tone and culture.

Tom spoke about himself as an ‘inclusion champion’ and he both engaged in and role modelled this every day, including via his staff emails and his inclusive interactions as he entered and left the building. He did unconscious bias training and checked for his own bias. He tackled poor behaviour, having the difficult conversations this requires. This critical matching of words with actions on the part of leaders is integral to building inclusive cultures.

  •  A focus on good management

‘As Tom explained, 'Good management for diversity is good management’. As the Royal Society of Chemistry Good Practice in University Science Departments report puts it, ‘Both men and women benefit from good practice; however, women in particular are adversely affected by bad practice’ (Dickinson, McWhinnie & Fox 2008). Tom gave many examples of good management practices and how they had good diversity outcomes, including, induction and welcome, recruitment, promotion, consultative processes, and development of staff.

Focus on development

Tom turned the table somewhat with his statement, ‘it’s not about individuals earning a promotion but about the department investing for success’. This seemingly simple statement recognises the importance of colleagues and departments in creating what is often seen as the success, or not, of the individual. Their strategic focus is to appoint the very best chemists and to support them to reach their full potential. This included a range of actions, beginning with the induction process and the opportunity given to each new staff member to present their research aspirations in order to identify collaborators. 

The department identified people through their data, looking at length of time at a particular grade before achieving promotion, in order to identify readiness and put in place what each person needs to succeed. This data based approach recognises that there are individuals who are less likely to put themselves forward for promotion, and begins to tackle biases in the ‘shoulder tapping’ processes that often underpin development opportunities and promotion. 'This stops women from waiting too long." They took the mystery out of promotion through the provision of realistic metrics for the next stage based on the current performance of people at that level. Every staff member has a genuine development plan for their next role and is provided with timely support and mentoring.

'Investing in success' requires a responsiveness to people's individual circumstances, for example providing appropriate supports during and on the return to work from parental leave. There is no point allowing people to struggle, as the success of the individual is the success of the department.

This development mindset is also evident in encouraging postdocs to undertake development activities and making their managers accountable for this, through to seeking out development opportunities for leaders, including new heads.

No clash between the research and equality agendas

As one participant noted, there is a widespread assumption that the research agenda will clash with the Athena SWAN agenda. Tom is unequivocal that this is not the case, citing the Department’s improved success in research funding and the outstanding quality of recent departmental hires as examples. 'All research metrics go up'.  In fact it is this success that has won sceptical people over.

Everything from policies to processes and daily practices

Tom gave us a sense of the scope of what is required. This is about policies, reviewing policies, asking 'is there a gender/diversity impact of this policy?', identifying and rectifying gaps, correcting non-inclusive language, and making sure policies are accessible, visible and transparent. Importantly however it is also about how policies translate through processes into practice. As he so nicely put it, ‘leaders are deluded about this’. Finding out the reality of people’s lived experience was a theme in Tom’s talk, with surveys, focus groups and genuine consultation all part of uncovering what really goes on, in order to tackle it. He also focussed a great deal on the daily practices - the importance of the socialising of staff and the day to day interactions and corridor chat.  The importance of a tea room! 

Mainstreaming into the work and identity of the department

I found it telling that, as Tom described, the only people who emerged as viable candidates to be his successor as Head of Department were members of the Athena SWAN committee. While he is quick to note that not everyone was or is on board with the journey, this nevertheless Indicates that the Department has endorsed this as a path on which they wished to continue.

Some of the practices have now become common place.   When new policy is being implemented, the question is asked what is the impact/implications of this policy on diversity? Providing support for development and promotion is now routine. Current building plans are being scrutinised, with attention to details such as toilets that are inclusive and not based on a gender binary.

The focus of change

I was delighted to hear Tom say; ‘I believe to make a significant difference we have to operate at departmental level. This is the scale we operate at’.

It was certainly clear from Tom’s presentation how much can be achieved at departmental level, although the support of Imperial College was also apparent. The departmental level work as Tom described it was marked by an agility, the cultivating of a ‘thats a good idea, let’s give it a try' attitude, the capacity to review for unintended consequences and adapt, and a willingness to tolerate mistakes or failures. In effect Tom described a process of continuous improvement, 'the importance of cumulative small things' in building an inclusive department rather than any dramatic game-changing strategies. 

The ownership of gender equality work at the local level with individual departments going for bronze, silver and gold makes sense from an organisational change perspective and jells with scholars’ understanding that it is the local workplace culture and practices that impact on people’s day to day working lives and their capacity to build successful careers. A great deal of gender inequality can be produced and/or mitigated locally might be one way of thinking about this.

Reflections on moving ahead

It is not my intention to set Tom, the Department of Chemistry or Imperial College up on a pedestal. Their journey is not our journey. It is also important to acknowledge and share the good practices that we do have. I certainly have identified outstanding examples of inclusive leadership and strong cultures of development whilst interviewing leaders as part of my sponsorship research. The visibility and valuing of excellent leadership and good practice can be enhanced through the pilot process.

As we prepare our institutional awards we need to keep an eye on the future. As Tom noted this is a journey, not a destination. As we prepare our institutional awards we can also be preparing the groundwork for future Faculty and Departmental awards. The work we do now can greatly facilitate the ongoing work.

It is also important to consider how we can apply lessons from what was achieved by a department to the institutional award process. Keeping some of the elements I have highlighted in mind leads to question such as:

  •  How might we identify and develop the leaders we will need?
  •  How can we make ‘invest in success’ central to institutional practices?
  • How can we notice and document success that challenges the assumption that equality clashes with research excellence?

Asking these questions will continually steer us away from the tick boxes and 'only 500 words' and more deeply into the culture change process that the SAGE Pilot invites us to engage in.

Dr Jennifer de Vries is both an independent gender consultant and an academic at the University of Melbourne where she is a member of the Athena SWAN self-assessment team. Jen is passionate about contributing her expertise wherever possible to ensure that the current impetus provided by Athena SWAN transforms the higher education sector.

Join the mailing list for Jen’s blog, which will have a focus on the SAGE pilot this year on her website Follow her on Twitter: @drjendevries