Category: Bright ideas

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.


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.”


Springboard course: is it for me?

In this guest post, Anna Cupani, who is the Stakeholder Engagement Manager at Imperial’s Data Science Institute, writes about her experience of the Springboard Women’s Development Programme

Anna Cupani

I first heard about Springboard from a friend who had taken the course back in 2015. She was coming to the end of her post-doc and figuring out what to do afterwards. In our chats she mentioned how the course helped her to reconsider her career and to look at her values and strengths in a new light. So, when another colleague forwarded a reminder about the course last September, encouraging me to apply, I did not need much convincing.

Then, a week or so before the first training day, an article appeared in the Times Higher which contained some serious criticism of the course. It reported how some academics had dropped out of the training, put off by inappropriate the advice that women had to smarten up to boost their careers.

The last thing I needed was to be told that the way to a fulfilling career was paved with expensive shoes to make me look more authoritative, or a chic handbag so my manager knows that I mean business. It sounded bizarre that a development course would encourage women to conform to the most hackneyed of stereotypes. With this article at the back of my mind, I approached the first day of training with a critical mind. But I was also very curious and I hadn’t forgotten what my friend had told me. I am a scientist after all: so let’s look at the evidence!

And the evidence is that there was no significant discussion of shoes or handbags. Instead I am glad to report that the course is well worth attending! But you need to know why you’re there to make the most of it.

You will spend four days over four months in group activities with women from departments all around College – women of different ages, backgrounds and education. You will also be encouraged to undertake some activities on your own in between the training sessions, either to prepare for them or to mull over what’s been discussed during the training. How much time you dedicate to this ‘homework’ is up to you. You may set aside a few hours every week for self-reflection or just rush through the chapters of the training book the evening before because you forgot it under a pile of documents when you moved to your new flat (true story!).

If you expect Springboard to tell you how to get a tenure track job, or how to increase your success in grant applications, or how to get a pay rise, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. It’s not there to give you a precise set of instructions to complete your next project.

What the course does deliver (if you do the work) is an opportunity for reflection on your career and on your life through discussion with others in a structured way. You’ll be guided to look at your past choices, how they shaped your present situation, how they reflect your values and goals, and how to make the changes you feel you’re ready to make. You’ll practice giving and receiving advice and feedback, and you’ll get the opportunity to be a mentor and a mentee. Enacting simple real-life situations like a difficult conversation with your manager can be much more challenging than you imagine, and it’s incredible how helpful such a rehearsal can be. Half way through the course you may realise that you do not want to become an academic after all; or you may understand how to make your grant applications more impactful; or you may just go and ask for that pay rise because you can now talk more confidently about your achievements.

You will not learn the secret recipe to tackle gender inequality in the workplace, but you might come out of Springboard with a stronger determination to do something about it and a good network to help you. Which is a great starting point.

Pirate the Code of Conduct…

There are hundreds of research groups at Imperial College and hundreds of different ways of running a research group. But how many of those groups have a code of conduct?

One that does is run by Professor Chris Jackson from the Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering. Chris is perhaps better known as the guy who abseils into active volcanoes, but not only has he developed a code of conduct for his group, he has also posted it online.

You can see the document here – and comment if you wish (Chris would be glad of the feedback).

Since it’s published under a CC-BY license, you are free to adopt and adapt it for your own group. Indeed, as Chris readily acknowledges, his group’s code of conduct is based on similar documents from other universities and other labs at Imperial – including those run by Sam Krevor and Ben Britton.

This seems to me an excellent way for groups to start a conversation about the standards of performance and behaviour that they want to have when working at Imperial. Chris’s document covers inclusivity, mental health, open science, conference attendance, working hours, email etiquette and advice on engaging with social media.

Of course many groups work well without needing to have a code written down. But the advantage of an open published document is that it empowers all group members to be engaged in setting standards of conduct. It’s also a good way of advertising the values of your group to the outside world – and to anyone thinking of applying to join it.

Although the code is written for a research group, there is no good reason elements couldn’t be adapted for groups that are doing things other than research.

It’s great to find such initiatives happening at Imperial – and, like any good researcher, I’m glad to be able to share the discovery.