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.

Imperial College: A courageous look at institutional culture

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Professor James Stirling, the Provost at Imperial presented on the topic Institutional culture and its impact on gender equality at an Athena SWAN event hosted by Cambridge in May. In his presentation he candidly reported on a research report A review of Imperial College’s institutional culture and its impact on gender equality , available on the Imperial website. 

The importance of this work is not to be under-estimated, and the transparent approach adopted by Imperial is to be lauded. The impetus for this frank and fearless examination of Imperial culture was a result of what James Stirling described as ‘laddish, blokeish, stupid misogynistic behaviour’ by male Imperial students at a women’s rugby match. As he describes, ‘we thought it was about sexism among students’ but it turned out to be much more than that.

Much of what is written in the report will ring true for research intensive Australian universities and research institutes. Institutions that, like Imperial, pride themselves on their excellence, will be interested in the key finding of the research, that ‘how we drive for excellence has unintended negative consequences’. And as the Provost noted, ‘we are not alone in this’.

The researchers, led by Dr Alison Phipps from the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Sussex, observed;

‘that excellence was considered to be a primary shaping value externally and internally and this had served the College well in many ways but their data suggested that this dominant focus had a negative impact on wellbeing and social equity. They argued that the competitive, individualistic pursuit of research excellence often comes at the expense of other values, which are not held in parity.’

As reported by the Provost in his presentation, the focus on excellence, while positive in many respects includes ‘a negative impact on wellbeing and social equity, including:

  • Lack of community spirit
  • Lack of willingness to speak up
  • Negative perceptions of those that admit needing support

In effect, ‘the Imperial culture intersects and exacerbates equality and diversity issues in ways which undermine the capacity of all staff and students to thrive.'

The Provost’s Board has identified three key themes for action, alongside ongoing inquiry. These themes for action are:

  • Our competitive culture and drive for excellence may result in undue pressure and stress;
  • Individuals feeling unable or uncomfortable about speaking or participating – feeling that we genuinely do not want to to hear what they have to say;
  • Our institutional culture favours a particular type (“white-alpha-male”) and we are not really open to difference or change. 

Interestingly, Imperial undertakes an all staff survey which is benchmarked against 27 other UK universities. On this survey, Imperial is above the sector average on items such as 'I am confident to speak out…' It is on the basis of this data that the Provost can confidently say ‘we are not alone’ in facing these challenges. As he explains, ‘we are going into the red zone’ exploring the experiences of the minority of staff who mark strongly disagree on these survey items. Even if this is only 10%, at Imperial that represents 800 staff. 'We must do better'.

This report makes for fascinating reading and will be of interest to Australian universities embarking on the Athena SWAN journey. A culture of excellence that is not accompanied by other values may unintentionally serve to constrain the building of more gender equitable, diverse and inclusive cultures. Universities may need to conduct their own frank and fearless inquiry.

To finish with the words of the Provost

“We strongly believe that Imperial is only a world-class institution because of our talented, diverse community. We want everyone at the College to feel supported, respected, and able to excel. That is why we are committed to ensuring gender equality and eradicating sexist behaviour wherever we can, at all levels.”

Imperial Collge has an institutional silver award. For more information on Athena SWAN at Imperial click here