Last week I had the privilege of meeting many excellent women scientists at events to celebrate International Women’s Day. The evidence of the business case for diversity, let alone any other imperative, was clear in what I heard.
Instead of summarising all these events I thought it would be useful to reflect on some of the things that have resonated with me.
The pace of change remains glacial but there is commitment to change: I talked to many people about what the Research Councils are doing in regard to diversity but it was really encouraging to hear that other institutions were also committed to change or had already made significant steps. Les Borysiewicz, the VC of the University of Cambridge made some very clear commitments to the gender agenda and Paul Walton talked about how they had ‘de-stigmatised’ part-time working in Chemistry in York such that the ratio of those undertaking part-time working was 50:50 male:female.
This was made all the more significant when I heard that really fabulous scientists like Dame Janet Thornton, Dame Athene Donald and Professor Rachel McKendry all spent time working part-time but they were not always comfortable talking about that earlier in their career. They provide clear proof that you can do excellent science whilst not being full time in the lab – ideas can happen and take shape anywhere and the digital age gives us much more flexibility. So the only thing that can be stopping more people doing this – men and women – is that old fashioned, outdated perceptions of great science only occurring at the bench still persist. The evidence exists so let’s use it to make change happen.
There is a difference between sponsorship and mentoring: many people mentioned sponsorship and mentoring and it is clear these things are different. A mentor is someone who is a sounding board, who can give you options with the benefit of experience. A sponsor is an advocate for you, someone who will look out for opportunities for you to enhance your profile and hence your career. This is very different from the ‘old boys network’ sort of sponsorship. As Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook says in her book Lean In, many women are over-mentored and under-sponsored.
The importance of individuals as agents of change: although the commitment from the top is extremely important, for example Sally Davies’ mandating of Athena Swan status for NIHR BRC and BRU funding, we, as individuals, can all help to drive change. There were lots of good examples of how one can do this – whether it is speaking up when women’s views aren’t being heard, providing the evidence to show areas for improvement or acting as sponsors for individuals. At the ‘Delivering diversity: women and success’ meeting in Cambridge, each person in the room made a personal commitment via a postcard on the wall, to do one thing to make a difference to this agenda. A survey of men and women in the workplace revealed that most people had seen or been the victim of behaviour inconsistent with equality and diversity but had not done anything about it. We have to stand up and be counted when this sort of thing happens to ensure it is unacceptable in the workplace.
I also learnt that glucose reduces implicit bias – so a great excuse for munching biscuits on selection panels!
I was very pleased to see the announcement Dr Ruth McKernan as the new Chief Executive of Innovate UK this week and I am looking forward to working with her in future.