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.

Simply Good Practice: A Mantra for Gold

This blog is based on a presentation by Professor Sara Mole at the Cambridge Athena SWAN event in May 2017. Titled Leading the way by simply good practice – cultural change at a departmental level, it reflects on the  MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at University College London, journey towards achieving an Athena SWAN Gold in 2016.

It follows on from the previous blog Imperial College: A courageous look at institutional culture. Both presentations address concerns around an exclusive focus on excellence. This department has used Athena SWAN  to drive a process of culture change underpinned by the idea that:

Aiming for fairness & excellence = aiming for Gold

A number of factors have contributed to their success according to Sara, including an explicit focus on cultural change processes as highlighted in the slide below. Key steps (1-4), as highlighted include establishing a sense of urgency, forming a powerful steering group, creating a vision (and mantra) and communicating this widely.  This provides the foundation for an iterative process of continual improvement (steps 5-8).

One of the key features of their work is the adoption of the mantra #simplygoodpractice (check out the lively twitter feed). The simplicity of this combined with the focus on good practice benefitting all, minimise resistances. It also provides a handy guide. As Sara explained, 'we use it to inform and assess everything we do. Ask: is it good practice? If no, then fix or improve'.

Some ‘Beacon’ activities described by Sara:

Recruitment to group leader position was targeted. The initial changing of the advertisement wording did not deliver a better pool of applicants, however actively encouraging talented female postdocs to apply (for example at conferences) bore fruit with a gender mix of 3 women and 2 men in recent group leader appointments.

There is a strong focus on providing 60 % female LMCB trained future group leaders (reflecting the more than 60% women at postdoc level) with the intention of ensuring success both within and externally to UCL. Assistance includes career timelines, support with fellowship writing and interview practice.

There is also a strong focus on providing identifiable role models (often just a step ahead) as a long-term strategy to address unconscious bias and make gender balance a norm for the next generation. This includes  seminar series, committees, meetings, panels, awards, websites etc. Quoting Sara:

"To prevent unconscious gender bias the next generation has to be presented with positive female role models. For our LMCB seminar series we were inviting around 25% female speakers, which is below the % females in the pool we are selecting from. We decided to use positive action to address this and select 50:50 speakers by requiring nominations to be a male and female speaker. This resulted in 50:50 speakers…. In the second year we dropped the ball. So to help people we provide a list of potential female speakers from the UK and Europe in Molecular and Cell Biology, which got us quickly back to 50:50!"

There are some emerging themes from my UK trip that are present in both departmental and institutional Athena SWAN work:  

  • The focus on cultures. Excellence, in this case paired with fairness
  • The need to establish a vision
  • Being in it for the long haul- as it says on their website, ‘We expect to be making improvements over many years to come’
  • Focus on careers of Phds and Postdocs
  • Know your pool

I'll explore this further in future blogs.