Ready, SET, Go! – Advancing Women Scientists

Along with other higher education institutions across the UK, we are concerned that young women are not being attracted to, or retained in, science careers. A review in 2010 indicated that we had fewer women as students and academics in science, engineering and technology (SET) subjects than the average across the sector. Arising from this review, which was retrospective to 2005, we developed a concrete, targeted and timebound action plan to redress this imbalance. This plan, Transitions, focuses on four areas: increasing female students taking science subjects, moving female scientists at doctoral level into research/teaching careers, advancing women into senior academic positions; and enhancing the organisational culture to support women’s career progression in science.

The Vice-Chancellor (VC) takes a keen interest in women’s inclusion and progression in SET subjects, and has established a central co-ordinating group to push this agenda across the 11 science Schools. This group is chaired by the Dean of Engineering and Physical Sciences and reports every 4-6 weeks to the University Management Board (chaired by the Vice-Chancellor). The VC also receives feedback on progress from the Director of Human Resources and the Director of the Gender Initiative, both of whom are members of the central co-ordinating group and play an active role in delivering the 2010-2013 Transitions plan.  The Director for the Gender Initiative has met with each of the SET Heads of School to discuss their School plans for advancing SET women.

Each of the University’s 11 SET Schools has at least one ‘champion’ responsible for advancing gender equality in their area. This group of champions holds monthly meetings chaired by a SET female Head of School. Feedback from each of the meetings is provided to the University’s co-ordinating group. The networking among champions has led those with similar interests and challenges to collaborate in groups of two or three, sharing examples of good practice and reviewing each other’s efforts and achievements. This programme is resourced locally through Schools and centrally through the financial and administrative support given to the Gender Initiative and the Equal Opportunities Unit. Actions and activities are communicated through School meetings, networks, and meetings of senior managers. The process and achievements are widely disseminated in the University’s monthly newsletter, front page of website, and through School communications activities.

Being a SET gender equality ‘champion’ at School level has provided a new route to managerial and administrative experience for women holding these posts. Champions have been co-opted to their School Management Board by virtue of this responsibility, thereby opening other opportunities for career progression. In the period from the review (which began in 2009) onwards, four individual women associated with the project have enjoyed a higher university-wide profile and gained promotion. One has become a Head of School, one a Professor, one has made the transition to Senior Lecturer and the fourth has gained significant standing with senior management and across the organisation.

In addition to supporting individual women, the Transitions plan addresses the challenges confronting women in science in a systemic fashion. For example, in December 2010 the Gender Initiative produced a benchmark report on women’s under-representation on University committees containing recommendations for action. Informal consultation with senior managers on this report has already had a beneficial effect in alerting Deans to the need for gender balance on committees – and resulted in their nomination of increased numbers of women to committees within their respective remits.

Actively working to promote women in SET has helped develop culture change within the University, evident via the significant engagement of Heads of School and the increasing female success rates in promotions particularly at professorial and Head of School levels. It has also resulted in a very significant enhancement of the University’s equal opportunities culture, reflected in the latest round of academic promotions in 2010 where four out of five professors appointed were women and the number of female Heads of School increased from one to three. It has also brought external recognition for these efforts through winning a total of five silver and three bronze awards from Athena SWAN in 2009-10.

The strong commitment from senior management, publicly endorsed by the Vice-Chancellor, makes this agenda sustainable.  Supporting its delivery, significant personnel and financial resources have been invested in the project.

The importance of networks and how networking can create a critical mass of advocates for equality in the workplace is the main individual learning lesson to be derived from the scheme. From an organisational perspective, the learning is that creative solutions can be found for equal opportunity problems.