Women@Imperial Week – your comments

Women@Imperial Week is an annual opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of women staff and students. It is also an chance to renew our focus on the remaining gender inequality challenges at the College.

This year, as part of the photographic exhibition that was the centre-piece of our events programme, we included a new feature: a suggestions board inviting people to post their experiences as a woman at Imperial and asking what they would do to improve things if they could step into the President’s shoes for a day.

You can read full list of comments here. Exercises of this kind are of course no substitute for the more systematic surveys of students and staff at the College. But the comments throw a useful spotlight on a number of issues and are being taken seriously – they have been shared with the President and the Provost.

Women@Imperial week suggestion boards
Women@Imperial week suggestion boards

In this post I wanted to briefly summarise some of the issues raised and mention some of the ongoing work that is attempting to address them.

Women@Imperial week took place during the recent UCU industrial action and the pensions dispute was clearly uppermost in some people’s minds, with several commenters asking for a fair deal to end the strike. The College’s public responses and the wider consultation on pay and benefits are available for people to read. As you will have heard, there is now agreement between UCU and UUK to try to work out an acceptable and evidence-based solution. I wish them luck. 

“Thanks Imperial for giving me a platform to develop further my passion for mentorship and raising awareness of issues women face.”

Other commenters raised the broader issue of the gender pay gap, asking the College to publish its data. This work was already in hand (as required by law) and Imperial’s gender pay gap information has now been made public. Alongside the data you will find an analysis of the underlying reasons and information on measures being taken to address them. (For comparative data on other universities and employers, consult the government’s gender pay gap web-site). The root cause of the pay gap is the relative lack of women in more senior positions (an issue that was also raised on the suggestion board), and will obviously take time to address. But it is a positive move that employers now have to be open about where they are. Data transparency generates useful pressure.

“I was told to ‘think like a man’ as the sole advice from senior leadership when going for a promotion interview.”

The most upsetting comments received were those that spoke about experiences of bullying and sexual harassment. We know from surveys of staff and students that this remains a serious issue at Imperial and elsewhere in higher education, and we are determined to tackle it. In March a new working group was formed, chaired by myself, and specifically tasked with reforming our policies and procedures for dealing effectively, sensitively and credibly with any report of sexual harassment. We aim to bring our review and proposals to Provost’s board as soon as practicable for approval and implementation.

“Encourage more women to take up important positions in the university.”

Several women mentioned incidents of ‘micro-aggressions’ – remarks revealing that stereotyping is alive and well in the minds of some in our community. Women have been called weak, or asked why they are not at home with their children, or informed that they were only recruited to fill a quota. Such comments will dismay many and should be contested wherever possible. Through the developing Active Bystander program (which started in the Faculty of Engineering), we hope that those who give voice to their prejudicial assumptions will in future be more likely to encounter a robust challenge.

“I have been labelled as ‘difficult’ and ‘intimidating’, just for being a strong and charismatic woman.”

Allied to this theme, a couple of comments suggested that initiatives such as Women@Imperial week are unnecessary – or even unfair – given the equalities enshrined by law. I disagree. That view seems to me to be uninformed by the lived experience of women at the College. I hope we are progressing to the point where such initiatives will be redundant, but regrettably we are some still distance away.

To close, I simply want to quote one of the most provocative and ambitious comments: “I would build a toilet for women at the top floor of the Business School!!! Women can make it to the top as well!!!”

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