Blog posts

March 2021 update

I see I have broken my promise. Having restarted this blog with the intention of posting regularly, I have not managed to write anything for over a month. The problem is one that afflicts many of us at Imperial: too much work and too little time.

February and March are particularly busy months for me since this is when I am co-convening the Science Communication course that is offered to students in Life Sciences. It’s a fun course that allows us to explore a range of topics with input from seasoned professionals including journalists, writers and filmmakers, but it takes quite a bit of time to plan and deliver. Many of this year’s topics, such as science in the media, scientific advice, and scholarly publication, were inflected with the issues raised by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The course has to be intercalated with my duties as Assistant Provost (EDI). Over the past few weeks this has involved a lot of committee work: the Race Equality Charter Self-Assessment Team, the Athena SWAN self-assessment team, the College Athena SWAN Committee, the REF Equality Committee, the Disability Action Committee, the History and Legacy Group, and the EDI Strategy Group, President’s Board and Provost’s Board. Naturally, views on the value of committee work vary across academia. Relatively few involve decision-making, but the discussion and sharing of information can be very worthwhile. With so many plates spinning, it’s important to keep in touch with people. It’s also important to carve out time for strategic thinking and planning and unfortunately that’s not been possible over the past month.

Women at Imperial week banner for 2021
Women at Imperial week banner for 2021

In early March, we also had this year’s Women at Imperial Week. The stand-out event for me was the discussion chaired by Dr Red Elmahdi in which Profs Helen Ward, Wendy Barclay and Azra Ghani recounted their experiences of leading research into Covid-19 over the past twelve months. They also had the chance to reflect on their personal journeys through academia, which continue to present an array of challenges. A recording of the meeting should be available soon on the College YouTube channel. (I’ll update the link here when they are posted).


Equality and difference (of opinion)

Last week I finished reading Ian Dunt’s book, ‘How to  be a Liberal’, a history of the development of liberal thought all the way from Descartes to present day arguments about justice and equality. It is a terrific read, which I am still digesting.

I may return to it at greater length later. The chapters on Belonging and Identity are particularly worthwhile. They touch on the struggles we still have today in dealing with the tensions that arise between thinking of people as individuals and the assumptions we make about them arising from our very human tendencies to associate into different groups.

But for this quick post I just wanted to pull out some of the thoughts of John Stuart Mill and his lover, partner and eventual wife, Harriet Taylor, two of the most influential voices on liberalism from the 19th Century. Their words touch on the importance of seeking out difference to enhance our understanding of the world:

Extract from Ian Dunt's book 'How to be a Liberal'

In particular, they emphasise the value of testing ideas in debate with those who disagree with us, something that we struggle with in the age of social media:

Extract from Ian Dunt's book 'How to be a Liberal'

And finally, they point to the important quality required if one is to engage creatively with people who see the world differently from us – empathy:

Extract from Ian Dunt's book 'How to be a Liberal'

How many of us have the commitment and the empathy to put ourselves  in the position of another? I like to think that I try, but it can be very hard work. The temptation to fall back into the comforting membership of the group, whether it is shaped by politics, religion, gender, culture, ethnicity, profession or organisational hierarchy, is always there.

EDI comms – a restart

Communication, communication, communication. You might think that with staff briefings, news articles, social media feeds, an ever-expanding website, emails and regular newsletters, there was no shortage of communication at Imperial.

Phone box in the countryside
Communication – especially valuable when you are remote

And you’d be right. But despite the profusion of information channels, it is hard to keep track of everything that is going on. That can lead to frustrated communications within our community, especially if people feel caught unawares by new initiatives or activities.

The original purpose of starting this blog was to open another channel of communication to keep people in the loop about the various EDI activities that are going on across the College. But given that the last entry was dated June 2020, I have been neglecting my duty.

As an excuse for my failure, I can of course plead the many demands of living under Covid-19, which has disrupted all our lives, at work and at home. I have been feeling its effects more and more of late, particularly in a growing sense of the detachment from the pulse and variety of life on campus. When every activity is reduced to an interaction with a computer screen, a deadening monotony sets in.

I can’t do much about that, but I can at least try to return to my purpose here. So, let me commit to at least a weekly post – well, maybe fortnightly – to let people know what is going on across a range of EDI matters at the College. A blog post might still mainly be a one-way flow of information, but I hope it signals an openness to conversation. I retain my faith in the necessity of people talking to people as the best way to change the world.

To keep things manageable, I will try to keep these posts short. For this week, let me just remind you that February is LBGT History month. The roster of events lined up by Imperial600 and the students’ union is already well under way but there are still things you can sign up for.

And coming up from 8-12th March will be Women@Imperial Week 2021. The programme is being finalised and will be advertised this coming week.

Combating racism at Imperial

Eradicating the impact of racism at Imperial requires us all to play our part, write Kani Kamara [Head, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Centre] and Stephen Curry [Assistant Provost  (EDI)]

As we join the scientific community to address the deadly threat of the coronavirus pandemic, events in America in the past week have made us starkly aware that humanity faces another enormous challenge. They have brought to the fore the racism faced by black people, not just internationally but also here in the UK.

Black Lives Matter protesters in the US
Black Lives Matter protest in the US (photo by Daniel X. O’Neil, shared under a CC-BY licence)

While anyone who saw the footage of the killing of George Floyd or the police violence meted out to protestors will have been horrified, it is clear from the reactions of many of our black staff and students that these events have resonated especially strongly with them. They have spoken out eloquently and powerfully. The news from across the Atlantic stirs such visceral responses because it is yet another reminder of how racism affects black communities – and other ethnic minorities – in Britain every day.

The concern isn’t just fear of racist mistreatment by the police, although black people are far more likely than whites to be stopped and searched in London, or to die in police custody. Such incidents affect only a minority of black people. Rather, it is the cumulative effect of less visible stresses of stereotyping – the micro-aggressions (“Where are you really from?”), the promotions denied, the anxieties of racial harassment – that nevertheless accumulate in the statistics for education, health or employment. Anyone who cares to seek out the numbers will see that life in Britain is still permeated by racial inequality.

The statistics for Imperial College, currently being unearthed and examined for the first time by our Race Equality Charter (REC) self-assessment team, show us that as an institution we too are permeated by racial inequality. Progress is being made, but across the board – in student admissions, professorial appointments, in the career progression of professional and technical staff, and in surveys of staff and student experiences of life on our campuses  – a story of under-representation and unfairness is told and retold.

We are resolved to be clear-sighted about the scale of the challenge that we face and our REC submission, due in January 2021, will be accompanied by a concrete plan of action.

But of course there is no need to wait until then to take action. And nor should we expect Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic members of our community to bear the heavy responsibility of combating racism at Imperial. As our EDI Strategy makes plain, this is a task for all of us.

For white people, who are clearly in the majority at Imperial, it can be difficult to know how best to help. In part this is because we are unlikely ever to have experienced being racialised. That is our ‘white privilege’. We may well have other troubles and traumas in life, but racism is not one of them. Many white people may feel unsure or uncomfortable in broaching the topic of racism, but we can learn to become active allies to black staff and students and other people of colour.

To help with that, our EDI Centre has put together a webpage with guidance and resources to help people understand how to be a white ally. As well as practical suggestions, it has a reading list of articles and books and links to videos. We hope this will be useful to anyone keen to join the fight against racism but uncertain where to start.

These are steps forward. We know we still have a long way to travel. We have been brutally reminded of just how urgent this work is. Our commitment to inclusion and respect at Imperial remains undimmed and extends to all staff and students who carry the burden of inequality. But we will only lift that burden if each and every one of us knows how to stretch out a helping hand.


Changing culture and changing minds

A lot of the work to promote equality, diversity and inclusion at Imperial is about looking at our processes but it will also demand changes to our institutional culture. 

There are of course many positive aspects to the culture at Imperial already – we have lots of smart, highly-motivated and thoughtful staff and students in the College community. Even so, we know from looking at the demographics and from survey data that there is more to do to improve diversity and to try to ensure that everyone here has a true sense of belonging. 

BBC Radio4 web-page advertising the radio programme mentioned in the post

Improved processes can take us so far, but the culture of the place is key to helping people to feel that they are appreciated and understood. Culture is a hard thing to change. Partly that is because it is a hard thing to define. But it’s also because work to promote EDI inevitably takes place at the interface between what is desirable and what is possible. As any physicist or engineer will tell you, at interfaces there is always friction – and resistance. 

In my first two years as Assistant Provost for EDI, I have met people who have told me that “women and minorities get all the breaks these days”; that “you will never achieve gender equality”; that “we shouldn’t be wasting money on diversity”; or that “girls just don’t like physics”.  In each case I have tried to counter, but it isn’t easy and I haven’t always been successful. 

Even when there is agreement on where we should get to, there can be different perspectives – disagreements even – on how best or how fast get there.

Disagreements are difficult. Few of us seek them out, and many of us try hard to avoid them. But avoiding difficult problems is usually a good way to exacerbate them. So what is the best way to face up to disagreement, particularly if you are trying to change someone’s mind?

One way forward is to develop a better understanding of human behaviour and of strategies that have been shown to work. A fascinating BBC radio documentary presented by Margaret Heffernan addresses these challenges head-on.

In ‘Can I change your mind?’ Heffernan, who gave this year’s Athena Lecture at Imperial, explores the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of how we can easily become entrenched in our views. But she also talks to people who have shown that how carefully structured interactions can open minds and sometimes change them. I can recommend it highly. If we are going to make changes to the culture at Imperial, we will all probably need to think more carefully about how we interact with people who don’t share our experiences or our point of view. 


P.S. While on the subject of radio programmes and understanding difference, might I also recommend the recent episode of Desert Island discs, which featured the black American actor, Wendell Pierce? Pierce is currently starring in Death of a Salesman in London’s west end (a production I am determined to see) but is probably best know for his portrayal as Detective Bunk Moreland in ‘The Wire’. Desert Island discs can be a bit hit or miss – some subjects use the opportunity for grand-standing; but Pierce was extremely candid about the racism he experienced in his childhood in St Louis (his first choice of disc was not one I could have predicted!) and about the tension he feels between his higher aspirations and his human foibles.


Superior: the return of race science

I thought I would have time over the summer to post more regularly, but I see from the calendar that summer has gone. September is already half-finished and the start of term is hoving into view. The only way I am going to be able to post more often is to post more briefly, so here goes.

The imminent arrival of October means that an event that we have been planning for some time is almost upon us. At lunchtime on October 9th we will be hosting journalist, broadcaster and science writer Angela Saini to talk about her new bookSuperior: The Return of Race Science.

Advert for Angelan Saini's talk

This is Angela’s second visit to Imperial. She came a couple of years ago to talk about her previous book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story.

Superior dissects the historical and political roots of race, why scientists can’t seem to look beyond it, and the disturbing ways in which scientific racism still exists today. It is a deeply researched and beautifully written book – I reviewed it for the Cosmic Shambles Blog.

As well as being a great writer, Angela is a great speaker and I can highly recommend her talk. Reserve your free seat by clicking on the Evenbrite link on this page.

For those who can’t make it to the South Kensington campus on the day, we will be live-streaming Angela’s talk using Panopto. This link will go live a few minutes before the talk is due to start. Please make sure to catch it live as we are not able to record the talk.

Angela’s talk is one of a number of events that will be happening to mark Black History Month and is part of our ongoing efforts to highlight and discuss important issues of equality, diversity and inclusion at the College – and in particular to apply for the Race Equality Charter award.


Workload allocation models – the pros and cons

Earlier today I convened a workshop to discuss different approaches to workload allocation models (WAMs). The workshop had been organised at the suggestion of the College Athena SWAN committee, in part to look at how important departmental roles are allocated across the university – a question that is part of the Athena SWAN application process. But it was also an opportunity to take a broader look at how staff contributions are monitored, allocated and recognised.

Screenshot of the event in the College diary

The workshop was structured to provide an overview from Prof. Alan Armstrong (HoD, Chemistry), who had researched workload allocation models as part of the thesis he wrote for his MBA, and perspectives from three other departments at Imperial. These came from Prof. Nick Voulvoulis (Centre for Envt. Policy), Prof. Deborah Ashby (HoD, School of Public Health) and Mrs Anusha Sri-Pathmanathan (Head of Faculty Operations and Dept. Operations Manager, Chem. Eng.). The slides from these talks (and my brief introduction) can be downloaded from this link.

Following the presentations, the speakers were joined on stage for a panel discussion by Dr. Bob Forsyth (DUGS, Physics), which gave the assembled audience an opportunity to dig further into some of the key issues that had been raised.

Alan recommended an influential 2008 study of WAMs by Lucinda Barrett and Peter Barrett which identified three distinct types:

  • Informal– the HoD collects information, consults with staff and allocated duties
  • Partial– usually only covers teaching and departmental duties as it is assumes that academics are already incentivised to undertake their research; as a result, total workloads are not recognised
  • Comprehensive– teaching, research and departmental duties are all counted and used to determine allocations. This is the most data-intensive approach and can be hard to manage

In his 2015 survey of practices at Imperial, Alan found a couple of departments that took an informal approach and several that had partial WAMs (though still used different relative weightings of teaching and research activities). None took the comprehensive approach, though Alan did identify one instance of that at a northern UK research-intensive university.

As well as thinking through some of the technical details of WAMs, Alan identified a number of cultural features that are critical to successful implementation. These are a transformational rather than a transactional approach to leadership, which demonstrates understanding of the demands on staff and a visible commitment to equity; and consultation with staff in establishing and monitoring the process, which in turn requires a commitment to transparency.

In applying the lessons he learned through his research to the Chemistry department, Alan adopted a partial WAM. This takes account of UG and masters teaching, adds weight to new teaching activities and recognises departmental activities like committee membership. Some voluntary activities are also included (such as public engagement) but these may be capped to ensure that staff effort is well aligned with departmental priorities. Research and PhD student supervision are not included in the model. Each activity included has a tariff in hours, which was determined using insights provided by an anonymous survey of staff.

The results of the WAM are published in full, non-anonymously at the end of the academic year. Staff have the opportunity to comment and to correct any errors, after which a final, revised version is published.

Alan readily conceded that the Chemistry WAM is “far from perfect”. There remain challenges in trying to accommodate task preferences, ensuring a fair distribution of less popular activities and achieving the flexibility needed to manage changes in personal and institutional circumstances (e.g. parental leave; the curriculum review). The task of collecting the data is non-trivial and he has yet to arrive at a position where the tool can be used proactively by all staff in the department who are responsible for organising teaching.

Nick Voulvoulis then outlined the work that he has led to develop a WAM for CEP. The initial motivation for doing so came from their Athena SWAN committee who were keen to know if there were any gender inequalities in task allocation that needed to be addressed. The WAM has been created to address possible misconceptions about workloads, and to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and equity.

In some respects, the CEP scheme leans more towards the comprehensive end of the spectrum since it takes account of research, teaching and administration, for which a schedule of tariffs has been developed in consultation with academic staff. Research activity is estimated based on numbers of papers or book chapters published, as well as numbers of student and funded staff managed by the PI. At present the CEP WAM is not designed as an allocation tool – though it does support the HoD’s decision making; rather it is primarily to inform staff about their comparative contributions in the department.

Deborah Ashby does not yet have a WAM in the School of Public Health but has had experiences of different approaches at three other universities. She pointed out the particular challenges for departments in the Faculty of Medicine. Unlike other departments at Imperial, they have no control over UG admissions, which are done at faculty level; and some of their academics are balancing clinical work on top of regular academic roles. Deborah is interested to develop a WAM to help with managing and supporting staff – and to boost the profile of teaching. But she recognises the challenges both in collecting accurate data on what people are doing and in agreeing tariffs or weightings appropriate to each type of activity. This latter task is complicated by the extension of teaching to the online world – the SPH will be offering an online Masters in Public Health from this Autumn.

Anusha Sri-Pathmanathan prefaced her account of Chem Eng’s approach to WAMs with a discussion of the cultural review that the department had undertaken a couple of years ago. This helped to articulate a shared vision of a department rooted in fairness, transparency, flexibility and consultation, where people should enjoy participating and collaborating.

Their model is a mix of informal and partial approaches. Teaching loads are monitored to ensure that everyone is involved and the distribution is fair. But research is not part of the WAM (though information on research activity is monitored and provided to the HoD) and the sharing of administrative tasks is considered separately. Anusha maintains a matrix of contributions (e.g. roles such as DUGS, committee chairs) but they do not have associated tariffs. The Chem Eng approach has other dimensions. There is a Rewards and Recognition Committee which meets three times a year to decide on bronze, silver and gold awards for PDRAs and PTO staff for long-service or for particularly valuable contributions. In addition, various project teams have been established to build more of a team spirit within the department, as well as making it greener and more sociable. As Anusha concluded, this integrated approach is working well in the department: no one is asking for a more comprehensive WAM.

My thanks to all the speakers and to the audience for a great discussion of an important but knotty topic. The challenges vary from department to department, depending on size and discipline. There was unanimity that, whether one opted for informal, partial or comprehensive models for workload allocation, transparency and consultation with staff are key to success. Leadership that pays close attention to fostering a healthy departmental culture is clearly also critical.


Measuring the climate – LGBT+ and physical sciences

Guest post by Dr Ben Britton, Dept. of Materials

Last week marked the launch of the “Exploring the Workplace for LGBT+ Physical Scientists” report, a survey of the lived experiences of 1445 UK-based LGBT+ researchers commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), and the Institute of Physics (IOP). This report is a timely and important assessment of the “status quo” in the physical sciences. It provides critical data to understand the current climate that will enable us to develop evidence-based policies for creating a more inclusive culture.

Striking for me, as a cis gender* gay male working in the physical sciences, is that on the whole the climate is better than expected – but perhaps I’m the cynical type! In any case it is important to bear in mind that the LGBT+ community is heterogenous. This is reflected in the report which reveals that there are significant and substantive issues remaining, especially for women, individuals who identify as trans, and those who identify as having a non-binary gender.

Figure 1: Percentage of respondent reporting their perceptions with regards to their comfort within their organisations environment by gender (excluding “comfortable” and “very comfortable”). Source Exploring the Workplace for LGBT+ Physical Scientists (2019)- Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Society of Chemistry

As a homosexual, let me rage for a moment. My use of “better than expected” needs clarifying. I’ve been following the literature in this space, and the data in the report show that in the UK only 75% of respondents agreed to feeling broadly comfortable in their working environment, which means that one in four people are feeling “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable”. These statistics become especially jarring when evaluated by gender (Figure 1). The significant variance based upon gender raises an important question for all our inclusion structures (e.g.Athena SWAN action plans): do we truly consider LGBT+ individuals (and by that extension, the intersectionality of protected characteristics)?

The extent of our challenge is highlighted further when we consider the percentage of people who have experienced exclusion, intimidating, offensive, or harassing behaviour because of their gender identity or sexual identity. Figure 2 shows that one in three trans people, and one in five women have experienced this type of behaviour in the last 12 months. The report also reveals that one in four LGBT+ individuals have considered leaving their job in the last 12 months.

Figure 2: Percentage of respondents who have experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive or harassing behaviour with respect to their sexual or gender identity, as broken down by trans status and by gender. Source: Exploring the Workplace for LGBT+ Physical Scientists (2019)- Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Society of Chemistry

The report is enriched by the inclusion of testimonials from respondents to provide context around these stark statistics:

“It is deliberate that I don’t tell people about my trans history at work. I don’t want to change the way they act towards me because some people, even if they’re not actually hostile, they will treat you differently if they know that, for instance, you used to be a woman. It does change some people’s approach.”
Transgender man, gay

The RAE, RSC and IOP are to be congratulated for the tremendous hard work and tenacity that has gone into this report, and their openness to understanding the workforce. However, the report marks just the beginning of our story. It’s where we go from now and how we as individuals working in this space take the data on-board and frame our decisions and interactions.

The report makes a series of strong recommendations, many of which I would like to see implemented at Imperial, an effort I would be happy to join.

But first I need to remind everyone that it is not the duty of individual members of underrepresented groups to enact change. Those with privilege and power (i.e. allies, especially senior members in our community) need to spend their social capital to fix historic wrongs, and to create and sustain a culture of inclusion. From a personal perspective, while I have a flicker of discomfort when discussing being LGBT+ at work, and outing myself again, it is even worse when straight people act as if there is nothing to address; or they talk to me in hushed tones as if being gay is something to be ashamed of.

As a College community, we can lead this change, and reaffirm our commitment towards policies and processes, as well as opening up more positive narratives around the contributions of LGBT+ people to our day-to-day lives. One step in this direction are the rainbow lanyards many people wear; with this Imperial 600 have drawn people on board, creating a LGBT+ staff network that encompasses 30% of people who identify as straight allies. In other areas, I was pleased to find that we have a great trans staff policy, and that we continue to affirm our commitment to support members of the LGBT+ community and extend this further for students.

I’m really pleased that the IOP, RSC and RAS have done the hard work here, but these institutes only cover a small fraction of the space we engage with at Imperial. Many other institutes and fields are significantly more “stuck in their ways”. This needs to change or else we will see that great scientists, technologists, medics, mathematicians, business people, as well as our professional services staff will simply leave (as described in the report). We can only hope that other institutes collect data to ensure that this does not happen, as evidenced based policy interventions to create supportive and inclusive environments require evidence.

The timeliness of this post should be noted – July 5this the international #LGBTSTEMDay – where we celebrate LGBT+ individuals in our communities. As a college we are supporting OutThinkers at the Crick (hosted by Pride in STEM, a charity for which I serve as a trustee). It’s also timely to remember that we (Imperialand Pride in STEM too) have walking groups within the London Pride (Protest) March that straight/cis, and LGBT+, people are welcome to join.

While these are two moments that can re-enthuse our commitment to our culture, we have to remember that being LGBT+ is not just a one-day adventure filled with rainbows and glitter. For many of us, the tedium of coming out will appear again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. Until we have a truly inclusive culture in STEM, many of us will continue to be harassed simply because of our inner sense of self or who we choose to have a relationship with.

Please take a moment to read the report and think about how you can do something differently.


Dr Ben Britton has previously recorded a video on “No sexuality please, we’re scientists” and can be often found on Twitter (as @bmatb).


*Cisgender or Cis: Someone whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. Non-trans is also used by some people.


Myth-busting women in STEM

Yesterday we had the ‘wash-up’ meeting of the group that plans Women@Imperial week, to review what went well, what not so well, the feedback and responses we got to the various events and what lessons we should carry forward into planning for next year. There’s a nice write-up of the week by Elizabeth Nixon on the College news site.

Overall we were pleased at the participation in the wide range of events that had been organised, whether they were wikithons, lunchtime talks, training sessions or our portraits project. We had a very positive great reaction on social media. There were some concerns about the lack of events on campuses beyond South Kensington – which is a fair point. We will aim to do better on that front next year. If you have ideas about events, please get in touch.

I tried to attend or at least pop in on as many events as I could. I was particularly impressed by the competitors and finalists of the WEinnovate competition and the buzz generated by the Lates event (apparently the organisers had some difficulty getting people to leave at the end of the evening). 

However, my personal highlight was the talk by Nadia Soliman, a PhD student in our Faculty of Medicine who used to be in the army. Nadia spoke candidly, passionately and with great insight into her contrasting experiences of how the army and academia train people for leadership positions. 

Nadia Soliman busting myths about leadership in the military and academia

Her talk (now posted on the College YouTube channel) is well worth watching. It’s only about 30 minutes long and is followed by a prolonged Q&A session which shows how well she succeeded in grabbing her audience’s attention.

Nadia, who rose to the rank of captain and did tours of duty as a bomb disposal expert in Afghanistan and Nigeria, showed how much effort the army puts into preparing people for leadership. It wants them not only to be able to recognise their own strengths and weaknesses, but to appreciate the importance of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the people in the teams that they are to command. She learned from her military training that effective leadership is not simply a matter of barking orders and demanding action, but of knowing how to get the best out of people.

In academia we have gotten a lot better at leadership training over the years. But if I look back on my own career trajectory from PhD student to postdoc to group leader I can see how at many points it was left up to me to figure out management of my research group. And I often got it wrong as a result.

For sure there are many differences between life in the military and the life of an academic, but they are fewer than you might imagine. As Nadia showed, there are valuable lessons to be learned if we are prepared to listen to different perspectives and experiences from our own. As she said in her closing remarks:

“If we invest more in our people, we give our teams better capacity, better capability, if we try to work more in collaboration, […] then we as a community we will achieve more in our research and we will become greater than the sum of our parts.”


EDI – new year update 2019

Is it too late to wish everyone a happy new year for 2019? I hope not.

To my embarrassment I see that the last entry on this blog was at the beginning of the Autumn term. In my defence it was a busy period, with teaching duties, an intense effort on the Athena SWAN application in the Department of Life Sciences, and work on several fronts across the EDI agenda.

In October, the College’s new EDI Strategy document was published. We were delighted on launch day to welcome Chi Onwurah, Labour MP and alumna of Imperial, to talk about the importance of diversity in STEM. If you missed her personal and insightful talk, you can watch it here.

Another significant event that took place in the Autumn was the second meeting of the College’s working group on sexual harassment. Having received, digested and discussed the report and recommendations of an external review that was conducted over the summer, the group is now working to revise our policies and procedures for dealing with incidents of sexual harassment to ensure that they are truly fit for purpose. These will be examined at an upcoming meeting of the working group with the aim of having clear proposals to present to Provost’s board later in the Spring.

Chi Onwurah MP speaks on diversity in STEM (Oct 2018)
Chi Onwurah MP speaks on diversity in STEM (Oct 2018)

Autumn also saw the inaugural meeting of the Race Equality Charter Self-Assessment Team (REC SAT). This group will be taking a long look at the experience of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff and students at the College. The surveys of staff and students that are the required first step in this process were completed in November and December. We got over 1500 responses from staff and over 500 from students and these are now being analysed. We are very grateful to all who participated in the survey. The data will help us to identify those topics we need to explore in more depth in focus groups. They will also inform our action plan to tackle structural barriers that may be preventing BAME staff and students from making the most of the opportunities on offer at Imperial.

Six departments across the College (Bioengineering, Life Sciences, NHLI, Physics, School of Public Health, Surgery and Cancer) submitted applications for Athena SWAN awards in November, an unusually high number. My congratulations to all those who worked so hard to meet the deadline. I now know from personal experience of working on the Life Sciences application the scale of the effort required.

That scale is increasingly a concern across the higher education sector and is something now being considered in a review by AdvanceHE, the body that runs the Athena SWAN award scheme. Imperial will certainly be providing input. We got our first chance to do so in early December when Professor Athene Donald from Cambridge University – a member of the review team – came to Imperial to run a focus group session. Staff involved in preparing Athena SWAN submissions were able to share their experiences – good and bad – of the scheme. While it has certainly helped to raise the profile of gender equality, it is less clear that Athena SWAN is as effective as in could be in producing change on the ground.

And so to the new year. Already in January, the second meeting of the REC SAT has been held – to have an initial discussion of the results of the staff survey and get insights from a colleague from UCL with experience of using the REC to implement. I have also chaired what I think may be the last of the planning meetings for this year’s Women@Imperial week. We have a great roster of events planned that we will share with you very soon.

Last week the NHLI held their Athena Lecture: “How can we celebrate and support diversity in STEM: a younger perspective”. There were in fact three excellent presentations on the importance of gender equality, race equality and neurodiversity from Jess Wade, Faith Uwadiae, and Siena Castellon respectively. Each spoke with knowledge and passion, unafraid to challenge and provoke the audience. The video (available here) is well worth watching.

I’m very grateful to Prof Sarah Rankin for organising the lecture. In line with the aims of the EDI strategy, we need to have an ongoing programme of such events to keep the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion at the forefront of everyone’s mind at Imperial.