Athena Swan

Athena Swan promotes and supports the diversity of all staff in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and aims to address gender, race and sexual orientation inequalities and imbalance in these disciplines and, in particular, the under-representation of certain groups in senior roles.

Friday, 19 December 2014

In the news - not the REF!

For those in post-REF recovery, you will be pleased to know that is the last mention of it in this blog post! Somewhat lost in the build-up, however, was a string of items about the ups and downs of being a temporary researcher (PhD student/post doc), in addition to the usual selection of thoughts on gender diversity at work.

In the States, concern that the lack of permanent positions is driving post docs out of research was broached from several angles. This article in the THE argues that fewer post docs should be available, but better paid, so that they are reserved for people actually intending to go into research careers instead of becoming a 'holding pattern.' The Science Careers blog was alive with articles, including this one on a new report from the
U.S. National Academies, called 'The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited', summarising clear concerns about the current research training process and ways to mitigate them, echoing the arguments in the THE article (fewer, better paid positions for those most likely to enter research careers). Science Careers also interviewed the chair of the report,

Gregory Petsko, and reflected on the numbers of doctorates and post docs in the States, released as part of the National Science Foundation's report 'Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2013.'

Meanwhile, the Royal Society released a report on doctoral training to help students and their mentors manage career expectations, not necessarily in academia. The group's chair, Athene Donald, discussed the results on both the Royal Society's blog In verba and on her own blog at Occam's Typewriter. In Australia, a new article in the Journal of Further and Higher Education reflected on efforts to develop an early career mentor programme, which simultaneously created new opportunities and added to the pressures felt by the mentees.

Concerns were also raised about how to make science a desirable career choice, whatever path you ultimately travel. The Science Careers blog argued that academia needs to focus more on the novel and creative aspects that (usually) get us into science in the first place instead of the increasingly hypercompetitive and unstable careers market, focussed only on the relentless need to write papers and grants. A later post discussed a new report, which concluded that fewer women and minorities in the States were interested in a research career at the start of their PhDs, and dropped much faster than for white men over the course of their degrees. Since this effect was observed even when controlled for research productivity, self-confidence, or how the scientists describe their relationship with their adviser, solving these problems is not as simple as increasing the numbers of underrepresented groups in the PhD pool.

Academia generally came in for a beating, with a paper published in Learning and Teaching considering the effects of management tactics to quantify individual outputs, is creating an increasingly insecure work environment and ultimately replacing collegiality with competition. The Guardian went one step further, arguing the increasing struggle for research funding is leading to a bullying culture, which universities and HR departments were not taking seriously enough.

Finally, there were several stories from the business world. The NY Times reported on the growing trend of women choosing to leave their jobs behind after having children. While many of the reasons given were personal, employment policies in the States, such as paid maternity leave and flexible working arrangements, were felt to be considerably behind those in Europe, even if European policies came with their own drawbacks. Two articles considered the roles of men in promoting gender equality at work, one accusing male tech workers of giving only lip service to their efforts, while the other highlighted programmes that are making a difference.

On which note, a happy Christmas break to you all, and see you in the new year!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

In the news - Best Way for Professors to Get Good Student Evaluations? Be Male.

For those who think the coming generation are automatically less biased than their elders, this new study suggests otherwise - the same person teaching an online course to two groups of students, but identifying as male to one group and female to the other, got radically different reviews at the end of the course, and whether that person was actually male or female. As the author indicates, it was based on a very small sample, but reaches the same conclusions as larger studies on the matter. 

The results were astonishing. Students gave professors they thought were male much higher evaluations across the board than they did professors they thought were female, regardless of what gender the professors actually were. When they told students they were men, both the male and female professors got a bump in ratings. When they told the students they were women, they took a hit in ratings. Because everything else was the same about them, this difference has to be the result of gender bias. 

Read more here.

Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture

This award is made to support the promotion of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award is awarded annually for an outstanding contribution to any area of science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). The medal is of silver gilt and is accompanied by a grant of £30,000. The recipient of the award is expected to spend a proportion of the grant on implementing a project to raise the profile of women in STEM in their host institution and/or field of expertise in the UK. There are no restrictions on the age of nominees, though it is anticipated that the award will be made to an individual in mid-career, with a maximum of 20 years post PhD or equivalent. The winner is also called upon to deliver a lecture at the Society.
Nominations and more details:

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

In the news - Advice for my younger self: it’s OK to clock off

In an age where technology blurs the lines of work, rest and play, it is even more important to set boundaries you are happy with when it comes to your personal life and career ambitions.
I don’t regret my approach to work as it has helped me to get where I am today, but I do feel my efforts were often misplaced and misguided. It really isn’t about the number of hours you work or how many holidays you don’t take.
It’s about being effective and managing expectations. And while I really wanted to avoid using clich├ęs, there is no better way to sum up my advice than saying “start as you mean to go on”. It is so much harder to change your approach once a way of working has become a way of life.

Read more here.

In the news - Equality, diversity and inclusion

The Science Council, the umbrella organisation for UK learned and professional societies, recently signed a Declaration to promote equality, diversity and inclusion amongst its members. The Geological Society of London is amongst them, and has now appointed a diversity champion (Tricia Henton) to establish a current baseline and drive good practice in the future. This month's Soapbox in the Geoscientist magazine introduces Tricia and outlines her plans for the next year - as well as inviting feedback from the wider Fellowship.

We are aware that the Society has very little baseline data against which to measure success. We were surprised to find that a group of professional institutions and major geosciences employers all collect substantially more information from members and employees than we do, allowing them to monitor their progress more easily. So, one of the first changes we propose is to put in place effective diversity monitoring - a legal requirement in the public, and standard practice in large parts of the private, sector (subject, of course, to the requirements of data security and confidentiality). 
Good communications are vital to promoting change. We want all of you, the Fellowship and stakeholders, to contribute your views on how well we currently present ourselves.  Do we foster the feeling of being an ‘inclusive’ Society? Do we cater for and adequately support differences of gender, ethnicity, age, sexual preference and physical ability? Our Vice President for Regional Groups has already volunteered to provide feedback from them. Many of their members are employed by a wide range of companies and public sector bodies whose experience will be helpful and relevant.

Read more here.

Monday, 8 December 2014

In the news - Boardroom Quotas Won't Help Women

One of the many ideas put forth for raising the proportion of underrepresented groups is a quota system, or the mandatory hiring of one group over another. Aside from emphasising characteristics most would consider irrelevant to their ability to do the job (gender, skin colour, nationality, etc.), and taking away the ability of an employer to hire the best candidate for the position, there is a very strong risk that people hired under these rules will be viewed as 'less able' by their colleagues (a criticism frequently levelled at affirmative action programmes in the States). With Germany now passing a law that at least 30% of non-executive boardrooms must be female after 2016, concerns are being raised that it will backfire spectacularly - and other countries should pay heed.

Germany’s coalition government adopted a draft law two weeks ago requiring corporations to allocate at least 30 percent of supervisory board positions to women, starting in 2016. The bill will go to Parliament on Thursday and is widely expected to pass.
Yet those cheering this decision as a major coup should hold the schnapps. Although the quota may somewhat improve corporate diversity in Europe’s leading economy, there is little reason to think it will make any real difference for German women.

Carrie Lukas, NY Times, 7 December 2014
Read more here.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

In the news - weekend round-up

The weekend usually brings a bevvy of op-ed articles and interesting links, so instead of individual posts, I will start corralling them here in a weekly compendium.

For those approaching (or considering) a lectureship in the UK, this report from AGCAS identifies the key traits and experiences current academics look for when hiring new colleagues. Unsurprisingly, research experience and a strong publication record top the list, but the range of responses to topics as diverse as mobility, outreach work and teaching experience are all important to keep in mind when planning your career trajectory.

Much has been made recently of mentoring schemes and other formal career development tools, particularly for early career researchers, but sometimes smaller efforts by those higher up the food chain can have a disproportionately large impact on others. Athene Donald, a professor of physics at Cambridge, blogs (and tweets) regularly about supporting women's careers in academia, much of which is also broadly applicable to all working in research or university environments. Her latest post, entitled 'On sponsorship and kindness', offers sound advice to all those who provide feedback - be that job applications, reviewing papers or students you supervise.

The business world - another hyper-competitive industry - provides ample fodder this week for advice, whether you are striving to climb the greasy pole of success or already up there. We start with an interview with Jacqueline Gold, the boss of Ann Summers who has grown the business through thick and thin over 33 years. Her chief advice for those following in her footsteps? “You can be tenacious, you can have courage, you can be passionate but you don’t need to be aggressive. We tend to associate these strong people with power and influence with aggressiveness and that just isn’t the case.”

Not every business women is so enamoured with her career path. A new study of Harvard Business School graduates has found that male and female graduates overwhelmingly want high-achieving careers, even after they start families, but women's expectations are more often mismatched with what actually happens, both at work and at home. One letter to the editor in response indicates just how great this gulf can be.

Not everything is up to the employee, no matter how determined s/he is. Unconscious bias is constantly cited as a chief obstacle to women obtaining employment parity with men, yet this study demonstrates how efforts to reduce this bias (which we all have - male and female) can backfire spectacularly. In essence, when we are told something happens a lot, we are more inclined to do the same thing because it becomes the social norm - even something as 'obviously' wrong as stealing petrified wood from a national monument.

Finally, the benefits of accommodating the range of skills and experiences people bring to a project are emphasised in this article, along with steps those in leadership positions can take to promote such efforts, whatever their seniority - no passing the buck to those higher up the food chain! With universities, like businesses, increasingly operating on a global stage, it will only become more important to value this diversity, rather than force people into the existing model.

Friday, 5 December 2014

In the news - There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia

As the university considers staff attitudes to mental health issues in conjunction with Time to Change, it is worth considering that many of these problems stretch back to experiences or attitudes encountered while a student - particularly those at higher levels. This article from the Guardian Higher Education Network debates some of the issues from someone who completed a PhD and now works to support those going through the process.

Among the people I do know who have done PhDs, I have seen depression, sleep issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harming, and suicide attempts. I have seen how issues with mental health can go on to affect physical health. During my PhD I noticed changes to my skin, and changes in my menstrual cycle which persist to this day.
Who else is supposed to help you? Your supervisor? "A blemish on my career," is how one academic referred to their experience of supervising a student who developed mental health difficulties during their studies.
Mental health problems are often not perceived to be anything to do with supervisory inadequacies. It is important to remember that academics who are PhD supervisors did not make it to their current rank because of their exceptional supervising skill. They got to that position by being an excellent researcher, and winning some cash.
Clearly, you can't budget for empathy. Today, I say that we should not accept this.
It is not OK for PhD students to become so affected by their studies that they kill themselves.
It is not OK for PhD students to maintain the culture of working yourself to the point of illness.
It is not OK for academics to wash their hands of the situation.

Read more here.

In the news: Yes, let's discuss lad culture – but don't let university leaders off the hook

It’s hard to find statistics on sexism and sexual harassment, but if you’re a woman studying or working in higher education, you’ve probably heard enough stories to last you a lifetime. As a blogger on Tenure, She Wrote writes: “Very often, women quietly tell their stories without naming their harassers.” This exchange of quiet confidences is more common than our universities, the bastions of progressive thought, would like to believe.
How about the only woman in a meeting being asked about tea and cakes or, perhaps a slight improvement, being called a “clever girl”? What about a professor saying: “Sorry about all the women in this laboratory, but at least they’re good to look at”? Women in senior positions are not exempt either – it’s not uncommon for women professors to be introduced as so-and-so’s wife. These stories are from across the UK, Europe and North America and, needless to say, they’re only the tip of the iceberg.
If universities truly intend to reform themselves, university leaders need to lead by example. Here are a few ways to get started:
  • Involve female students and staff in discussions about sexism in your university. Remember that informing them is not sufficient. Listen to what they have to say and act on it – their experience of sexism is more valid than any understanding of the issue you might have.
  • Don’t wait to act until something big has happened. If you’re hearing murmurs about sexism or other kinds of discrimination, take it seriously – you’ll stand yourself in good stead if you’re proactive about it.
  • Treat complaints about your star professor the same way you’d treat complaints about students – being a staff member, even an excellent staff member, does not excuse discriminatory and offensive behaviour.
  • Attend equality and diversity training sessions – don’t think you’re above it. You’re biased like anyone else is and these sessions can help you understand and mitigate your own biases.
Read more here.

In the news - Student wins award with unusual dance video

Art and science meet in an award-winning dance video by physics PhD student Claire Le Cras, recently presented with this year's Institute of Physics Early Career Physics Communicator Award. What's next for this promising future physicist? Finishing her PhD under the supervision of Prof Claudia Maraston and Dr Daniel Thomas, but also exploring further possibilities with the dance workshops. We look forward to seeing the results! 

A University of Portsmouth PhD student who explained the life cycle of a star using a dance video has won this year’s Early Career Physics Communicator Award.
Claire Le Cras, a third year PhD student at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, was recognised for her public engagement and outreach work by the Institute of Physics.
At the final of the competition Claire showed a short video of a dance workshop, which follows the life cycle of a massive star interpreted and performed by seven young dancers from Guernsey.

Read more here.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

In the news - Paradigms and prejudice

The Williams and Ceci Times essay does contain one patently inaccurate statement: “Our country desperately needs more talented people in [scientific] fields.” To the contrary, evidence they and their co-authors present in the Psychological Science in the Public Interest paper makes clear that concern about “leakage” of women—or, for that matter, of anybody—from the pipeline to the tenure track is decidedly, well, academic. Over 6 years at a “large state university” cited in the paper, out “of 3,245 applicants for 63 tenure-track positions in 19 STEM fields, 2.03% of male applicants were hired compared with 4.28% of females,” the authors write. And, as we have reported previously, fewer than a third of the top postdocs at ultraprestigious UC San Francisco make it onto the tenure track. For the great majority of early-career scientists of either gender to have any hope of earning a living, they must “leak” into lines of endeavor other than academic science.

So, notwithstanding the squawking from the blogosphere, the data indicate that able women who set out to make academic careers today in math-intensive fields of science have as good a chance of succeeding as men, keeping in mind that the chances don’t appear great for anyone of either gender. A vast oversupply of scientists has created fierce competition for the very few available academic posts. Many people, it appears, decline to make the life choices—specifically the single-minded expenditure of time and devotion—needed for those jobs. There is, of course, no guarantee that women won’t encounter men with sexist attitudes in the scientific world; they very likely will. Clearly, though, the objective barriers that blocked the way for past generations of scientifically talented women are, if the hiring and promotion data are to be believed, objectively gone. It’s likely, therefore, that we're confronting a new reality that requires and deserves a new paradigm to describe it.

Read more here.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Undergraduate Women in Physics Conference

Undergraduate Women in Physics Conference, 19 - 22 March 2015

The University of Oxford is very pleased to host CUWiP UK, the first Undergraduate Women in Physics Conference in the UK, which will take place in March 2015. The application site is now open ( and closes 15 January 2015. We ask that you advertise the conference among your physics majors, encourage them to apply, and help support them to attend if they are accepted to the conference.

The conference will start with a welcome reception Thursday evening, 19 March 2015, and end Sunday afternoon, 22 March. It will bring together successful female physicists and 100 undergraduate women in physics to highlight career opportunities for women in physics and the contributions of women in physics. The meeting will provide ample opportunities for interacting with fellow physicists. The conference will include the following activities:
·       Presentations by distinguished physicists on their cutting edge research and personal career paths;
·       Panels offering guidance on the graduate school application process and featuring career opportunities outside academia;
·       Workshops on effective assertiveness, how to take more control over challenging situations, careers confidence, and how to market oneself effectively.
·       A tour of ISIS, Diamond, and the Central Laser Facility at RAL and several laboratories at the Department of Physics of the University of Oxford.

Lodging and meals will be provided for participants who are accepted to the conference. Physics departments are strongly encouraged to provide support for travel for their own students. More information on CUWiP UK can be found at The deadline for applications is 15 January 2015.

Please send any questions on the CUWiP UK conference to

Professor Daniela Bortoletto
for the CUWiP UK Organising Committee

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

In the news - Tackling the UK's 'diversity deficit' in the boardroom

Academia is far from alone in the battle for greater diversity in the workforce - business boardrooms and sport are also overwhelmingly white and male. So what tactics are having an impact in these high pressure environments?

"When I was growing up my career adviser gave me two options - a nurse and a teacher," says 43-year-old Karen Blackett.
Ms Blackett, who is now the UK chief executive of global media agency MediaCom, last month became the first businesswoman to top the Powerlist 100, which champions the most influential black people in Britain.
Today she is one of the few exceptions to the current lack of ethnic diversity in British boardrooms.
She manages £1.2bn ($1.8bn) of advertising spending for companies like Procter and Gamble, Shell, Universal, RBS and Volkswagen for MediaCom, and earlier this year she was awarded the OBE.

Read more here.

Monday, 1 December 2014

In the news - What do young scientists want?

The transitional period from PhD student to permanent (academic) staff member is when many talented researchers of both genders are lost from the pipeline. So what do post-docs think needs to be done? Hundreds of Boston-area early career scientists gathered in early October to debate the matter, and the white paper summarising their concerns, goals and suggested actions was published today. Above all was the emphasis on post-doctoral roles as training positions, not lab rats. Too many supervisors still work to the idea that post docs are employed to make their supervisors look good, rather than to further the post-doc's career, which in turn boosts the profile of their supervisors. As one participant put it, 'If you’re going to call me a trainee, then train me.'

When hundreds of Boston-area postdocs and graduate scientists gathered in early October for the postdoc-organized Future of Research (FOR) Symposium, the organizers promised a consensus document that, as lead organizer Jessica Polka told Science Careers, “people can point to and say, ‘This is what the postdocs are worried about.’”
That document, “Shaping the Future of Research: a perspective from junior scientists,” has now been published at F1000Research. More a report than a manifesto, it describes the symposium’s various sessions and details surveys and comments of participants. It advocates three principles distilled from the discussions as the basis for “future activities towards scientific reform.”

Read more on the Science Careers blog.

In the news - Evolution of paleontology: Long-term gender trends in an earth-science discipline

Recent work on the gender balance of abstract submissions to the largest palaeontological conference in north America, the North American Paleontological Convention, provides very promising evidence that efforts to raise the profile and number of female contributors is making a difference. This article suggests that the number of female authors is rising, largely due to collaborations with more senior (typically male) colleagues, although efforts are still needed to get mid- and late-career women represented as keynote speakers and convenors.

The historical development of gender diversity in paleontology may be representative of similar changes across the geosciences. An analysis of the programs of the ten North American Paleontological Conventions held since 1969 shows a steady increase in the participation by women in the discipline. Notably, the proportion of male authorship on abstracts was stable while female authorship contribution increased. Much of the growth in female authorship is due to increased collaboration and recognition of student participation with junior authorship. These changes are just starting to be reflected at more senior levels; strategies need to be implemented to ensure that young female geoscientists are retained and developed.

Roy E. Plotnick, Alycia L. Stigall, Ioana Stefanescu; GSA Today, November 2014, doi:10.1130/GSATG219GW.1