Pretending you’re not doing what you’re doing doesn’t help…

This was said by Professor Tom Welton at the Athena SWAN lecture last night as he was describing the journey to the Athena SWAN gold award at the Chemistry Department of Imperial College. He talked about the ability to ‘look in the mirror’ to not only identify where working practices need to improve , but also to identify the things that are done really well.

He talked a lot about the post-graduate, post-doctoral and professorial levels at Imperial and how these originally reflected the male dominated nature of chemistry as a discipline. Ten years ago they had  a ratio of one female professor to nineteen men but have since managed  to acheive seven female professors through a different way of looking at talent pools and recruitment. The ‘leaky pipeline’ analogy is one that is used frequently to describe the reasons why women leave STEMM subjects and/or do not achieve promotion or positions of responsibility in the same way that men do, and by examining the points where the leaks occur, Imperial has also managed to make a difference to  the flow of women leaving  the department after they had achieved their doctorate.

The issues for the SoE will inevitably be  different because the starting points are different to that of Imperial,  but one thing that occured to me whilst he was speaking and which is partly due to my own experience of trying to complete a doctorate whilst working full-time, was that of how many women have achieved post-graduate qualifications in the SoE compared to men in the last few years. What is the ratio of new staff coming in with a Masters level qualification, and are they more or less likely to go on to do a doctorate? How many people do not complete their doctorate, what is the ratio of women to men, and why do we think this is? Is there a correlation between the experience people have whilst doing their Masters and the liklihood of them going on to doctoral level? If there is an imbalance, what can we do about the support given to colleagues studying for post-graduate qualifcations in order to make it the norm that people will be successful rather than not? Such questions will need to added to the survey questions….

By encouraging colleagues in the SoE to study whilst they work, how exactly are we supporting them? Are we pretending that we’re giving post-graduate study equal status to other parts of our workload, or is the reality that other duties ‘trump’ an individual’s time to study and write – a call to a meeting, marking, or covering absence perhaps? How can we support individuals to preserve some semblance of work/life balance whilst undertaking post-graduate study without feeling guilty or defensive of taking legimate study time? I’d welcome your thoughts on this….


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  1. A comment on Tom’s talk was that the only thing he mentioned that the university would have put some ‘real’ funds into was a ‘Have Your Say’ helpline. This was so the university could pick up examples of low level unacceptable behaviour or bullying before they became grievances, or a culture that made people want to leave. An independent organization with experience in workplace relations received the calls and then reported back on what they were hearing, at a general level, so that individuals or even departments would not necessarily be identifiable.

    This seemed to me to be a good idea. What do others think?

    However, I would have really liked to hear more about actual working conditions. What I hear some younger researchers saying is that their employment is so insecure that they can’t see themselves ever being able to buy a home, or start a family; or the hours such that if they did have a family they wouldn’t see them. Developing a long term plan requires real commitment from senior managers to give people secure contracts, rather than the rush to zero hour contracts that we are seeing in the HE sector.

    • I agree. There wasn’t much in the form of concrete suggestions. I guess the ‘Have Your Say’ type initiative is for the UoB to implement – it would be difficult to have a system that was just for the SoE. We can however, talk about the need for something like this to be in place in our submission if we are picking that up as a need through our data collection.

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