Month: July 2019

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.