Department wins Athena SWAN Bronze Department Award

The Department of Biochemistry has been awarded an Athena SWAN Bronze Department Award in the most recent round of Athena SWAN awards.

The awards recognise good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) in higher education. The Bronze Department award recognises that in addition to university-wide policies, the department is working to promote gender equality and to address challenges specific to the discipline.

The Athena SWAN Charter was launched in 2005 and is built around a number of key principles. It believes that women must be adequately represented in this traditionally male-dominated area and that science cannot reach its full potential without the involvement of the whole science community. 

The Athena SWAN process was initiated in the Biochemistry Department in January 2012. It brought together a self-assessment team comprising researchers and administrative staff at all levels to gather data and formulate strategies for the department’s action plan.

The department also carried out a confidential staff survey in May 2012 and held focus groups with female academic and research staff to explore relevant issues.

The Athena SWAN application presents the findings of this work and brings together an action plan to address the issues identified.

The findings span a range of areas – from gender ratios at different levels of researcher, to the support offered to women in the department, their representation on departmental committees and their workload.

Results from the gender ratios reflect a wider problem seen across science. Whilst there is good representation of women at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels in the department, the attrition of women researchers becomes apparent as graduate students progress to postdoctoral researchers.

The attrition becomes progressively worse with seniority of post and is linked closely with the number of women applying for posts.

As part of the action plan, the department will investigate the reasons behind the reduction in the number of women progressing into postdoctoral research at such an early stage. It also aims to increase the number of female applicants at all levels, and put in place measures to provide a supportive environment for female staff as they progress through their careers.

The application highlights other areas in which the department could do more – for example, supporting its staff at key transition points by providing networking and monitoring opportunities, and monitoring gender ratios on committees to ensure that the balance is close to that of the body it represents.

In addition, as part of the department’s commitment to provide support to women returning from maternity leave, it will introduce measures to help with the challenges of combining the tasks of returning to teaching, research, and looking after a young baby.

The department hopes that the Athena SWAN process will have wider implications beyond the primary aim of addressing gender imbalance. Some of the actions proposed extend to support for all staff independent of gender, by helping to improve the working environment.

Professor Mark Sansom, Head of Department, said that the department welcomed the opportunity to look at how it was supporting its female staff.

‘The process has enabled us to highlight problem areas and identify necessary actions. In particular, the self-assessment process has provided momentum for us to move ahead with institutional measures that will result in the necessary long term cultural changes.’

‘We believe we now have a forward-looking action plan that will be extremely beneficial to all members of the department.’

A longer term plan for the department is to gain Athena SWAN silver accreditation. The silver award will be the minimum requirement for Department of Health research funding for academic partners from 2016.





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