This week has been both busy and interesting with my first Council meeting as Chief Executive. At the start of the week I had the pleasure of meeting the finalists in the Biotechnology and Environmental Young Entrepreneur Scheme and hearing some of them give their pitches. The questioning by the panels was really tough and certainly equal to, or greater than, any grilling by venture capital firms in the real world.

I was also really encouraged by the diversity of the teams, which represents progress in comparison to the statistics reported on diversity within universities published by HESA earlier in the year. Approximately 20% of all professors are female, across all disciplines, although they make up over 40% of all academic staff and with the figures also showing less diversity in terms of ethnicity. I believe the issue of diversity is of great importance; most recently this meant giving a talk to the BBSRC Human Resources (HR) Network, made up of HR professionals from a number of BBSRC strategically funded institutes, on the importance of diversity. This opportunity also allowed me to find out what the institutes were doing to progress Athena SWAN accreditation.

So why should we be concerned about diversity in science? As scientists of course we should be open to all viewpoints, but diversity of approach is becoming increasingly important as we collaborate more both within, and without, our own institutions and cultures. In addition science is losing out if we effectively don’t tap into the capabilities of a large portion and range of scientists.

Much has been written about the barriers for women to progress further in academia, for example a Nature special edition earlier this year, but I want to focus on two areas where women can take some ownership, the first being networking.

Research suggests that women do not use networking strategically. The reasons usually given include networking being seen as self-promotion, and therefore for many women it is not a priority activity. However networking is much more than self-promotion – it enables you to gain information about new scientific opportunities early, meet new collaborators and learn about what is happening at a senior level within an institution and outside it.  Networking allows you to use your contacts for the benefit of your team, for example recommending them for new positions and promoting their work. This form of networking should be a priority activity for any scientist.

The second area is sponsorship. Sponsoring is different to mentoring, as a recent discussion paper from Professor Louise Morley pointed out. It is important for women as well as men to have sponsors. These senior people can recommend you for committee membership, point out opportunities and put you forward for new positions. Recently the HR lead of a venture capital firm told me that when she asked the CEOs of their companies (mostly male) for names for non-executive director roles, the names she got back were nearly always male. It was only when she prompted for female names that she got some and indeed these were also very good candidates. So this is about equality of opportunity and making sure your name (whether you are male or female) is in the pool – obviously the best candidate for the job should be appointed, but one needs to be on the long list to start with to have any chance at all.

The statistics indicate we still have a way to go but initiatives like Project Juno in physics and the Athena SWAN accreditation  have demonstrated a positive impact. It is important to continue this momentum, enabling more women to aspire to, and attain, senior roles in academia.

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