Blog posts

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.

 

Superior: the return of race science

I thought I would have time over the summer to post more regularly, but I see from the calendar that summer has gone. September is already half-finished and the start of term is hoving into view. The only way I am going to be able to post more often is to post more briefly, so here goes.

The imminent arrival of October means that an event that we have been planning for some time is almost upon us. At lunchtime on October 9th we will be hosting journalist, broadcaster and science writer Angela Saini to talk about her new bookSuperior: The Return of Race Science.

Advert for Angelan Saini's talk

This is Angela’s second visit to Imperial. She came a couple of years ago to talk about her previous book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story.

Superior dissects the historical and political roots of race, why scientists can’t seem to look beyond it, and the disturbing ways in which scientific racism still exists today. It is a deeply researched and beautifully written book – I reviewed it for the Cosmic Shambles Blog.

As well as being a great writer, Angela is a great speaker and I can highly recommend her talk. Reserve your free seat by clicking on the Evenbrite link on this page.

For those who can’t make it to the South Kensington campus on the day, we will be live-streaming Angela’s talk using Panopto. This link will go live a few minutes before the talk is due to start. Please make sure to catch it live as we are not able to record the talk.

Angela’s talk is one of a number of events that will be happening to mark Black History Month and is part of our ongoing efforts to highlight and discuss important issues of equality, diversity and inclusion at the College – and in particular to apply for the Race Equality Charter award.

 

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.

 

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.”

 

EDI – new year update 2019

Is it too late to wish everyone a happy new year for 2019? I hope not.

To my embarrassment I see that the last entry on this blog was at the beginning of the Autumn term. In my defence it was a busy period, with teaching duties, an intense effort on the Athena SWAN application in the Department of Life Sciences, and work on several fronts across the EDI agenda.

In October, the College’s new EDI Strategy document was published. We were delighted on launch day to welcome Chi Onwurah, Labour MP and alumna of Imperial, to talk about the importance of diversity in STEM. If you missed her personal and insightful talk, you can watch it here.

Another significant event that took place in the Autumn was the second meeting of the College’s working group on sexual harassment. Having received, digested and discussed the report and recommendations of an external review that was conducted over the summer, the group is now working to revise our policies and procedures for dealing with incidents of sexual harassment to ensure that they are truly fit for purpose. These will be examined at an upcoming meeting of the working group with the aim of having clear proposals to present to Provost’s board later in the Spring.

Chi Onwurah MP speaks on diversity in STEM (Oct 2018)
Chi Onwurah MP speaks on diversity in STEM (Oct 2018)

Autumn also saw the inaugural meeting of the Race Equality Charter Self-Assessment Team (REC SAT). This group will be taking a long look at the experience of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff and students at the College. The surveys of staff and students that are the required first step in this process were completed in November and December. We got over 1500 responses from staff and over 500 from students and these are now being analysed. We are very grateful to all who participated in the survey. The data will help us to identify those topics we need to explore in more depth in focus groups. They will also inform our action plan to tackle structural barriers that may be preventing BAME staff and students from making the most of the opportunities on offer at Imperial.

Six departments across the College (Bioengineering, Life Sciences, NHLI, Physics, School of Public Health, Surgery and Cancer) submitted applications for Athena SWAN awards in November, an unusually high number. My congratulations to all those who worked so hard to meet the deadline. I now know from personal experience of working on the Life Sciences application the scale of the effort required.

That scale is increasingly a concern across the higher education sector and is something now being considered in a review by AdvanceHE, the body that runs the Athena SWAN award scheme. Imperial will certainly be providing input. We got our first chance to do so in early December when Professor Athene Donald from Cambridge University – a member of the review team – came to Imperial to run a focus group session. Staff involved in preparing Athena SWAN submissions were able to share their experiences – good and bad – of the scheme. While it has certainly helped to raise the profile of gender equality, it is less clear that Athena SWAN is as effective as in could be in producing change on the ground.

And so to the new year. Already in January, the second meeting of the REC SAT has been held – to have an initial discussion of the results of the staff survey and get insights from a colleague from UCL with experience of using the REC to implement. I have also chaired what I think may be the last of the planning meetings for this year’s Women@Imperial week. We have a great roster of events planned that we will share with you very soon.

Last week the NHLI held their Athena Lecture: “How can we celebrate and support diversity in STEM: a younger perspective”. There were in fact three excellent presentations on the importance of gender equality, race equality and neurodiversity from Jess Wade, Faith Uwadiae, and Siena Castellon respectively. Each spoke with knowledge and passion, unafraid to challenge and provoke the audience. The video (available here) is well worth watching.

I’m very grateful to Prof Sarah Rankin for organising the lecture. In line with the aims of the EDI strategy, we need to have an ongoing programme of such events to keep the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion at the forefront of everyone’s mind at Imperial.

Who built Physics?

Who built physics? The answer to this question given by theoretical physicist Prof. Alessandro Strumia in a recent presentation at CERN is men. Men built physics. 

In a sense Strumia is correct, but not for the reasons he presented. Strumia tried to suggest the dominance of men in the discipline is due to innate differences which make them better equipped to meet the intellectual demands of the subject. His argument depended on cherry-picking the data and ignoring the historical or sociological contexts in which physics has developed and which have conferred long-standing advantages on male physicists. 

Fortunately others have been quick to point out the deficiencies of Strumia’s case. In a short twitter thread Prof David Smith (University of York) has provided a handy summary of the evidence that counters Strumia’s polemic:

Our own Dr Jess Wade, who presented a more rigorous take on gender imbalances in physics at the same CERN meeting, has responded in typically robust fashion. A large swathe of the particle physics community has also weighed in both to express their anger at Strumia’s ill-conceived remarks and to bat away his claims with yet more evidence. The funniest skewering of Strumia came from physicist Jon Butterworth who cast the incident as CERN’s latest particle discovery:

“The Strumion. A very small particle which interacts by misleading conference organisers and insulting its audience based on shabby analysis of cherry-picked data?”

Perhaps Strumia is an outlier – one of those temporary blips that appears in the noise of atom-smashing experiments (that he himself is so keen on analysing) but vanishes once sufficient data have been gathered to generate a decent signal-to-noise ratio? Perhaps. But the episode is a reminder that the case for gender equality in STEM, however well grounded, keeps needing to be remade – by men and women.

If you’re interested in equipping yourself to make that case – should an Alessandrio Strumia one day cross your path – you could do worse that start with Angela Saini’s book, Inferior, a cool and balanced look at how scientists like Strumia have been getting women wrong all these years.

 

 

For your summer reading and listening pleasure – and curiosity

Term is well and truly over. The undergraduates have dispersed to home and holidays, and for a brief spell (at least for academic staff) attention can turn to other things such as research. But hopefully everyone will have the chance to take break of some sort and time for a little summer reading. Let me therefore be so bold as to make a couple of suggestions of books, articles and podcasts that might illuminate some of the trickier issues of equality, diversity and inclusion.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon, public health leader and one of my favourite authors once wrote: “people talking to people is still the way that norms and standards change.” Gawande was writing (in a truly superb New Yorker article) about how ideas spread in medical practice, but it’s a phrase that has stayed with me and one that also applies to the boundaries that arise because of gender, race, sexuality, disability, class or any other aspect of human experience.

Those boundaries can be hard to navigate, which is why the first-hand perspectives of people from minority groups are so valuable. With that in mind, let me humbly point you to a few pieces that have caught my attention in recent months.

First up, one of my favourite reads from last year was Angela Saini’s Inferior: How science got women wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the story. I reviewed it for the Guardian and was delighted when Angela came to talk about the book at Imperial last autumn.

Also last Autumn and also at Imperial, I first came across Akala, a rapper, author, poet, and political activist, who had been invited to speak about black history by the students’ Caribbean society. He gave a fantastic lecture, brimming with charisma and ideas, and has since published his first book, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, which was reviewed by historian David Olusoga. I haven’t yet read it myself but it’s on my summer list. You can get a sense of the themes of the book and its author from this really thoughtful interview with journalist James O’Brien. There’s a podcast you can download or you can watch the YouTube video below:

Finally, The Economist magazine recently ran a series of articles discussing transgender identity. It was stimulated in part by the opening of a government consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The consultation is seeking views on how to reform the processes by which trans people can legally change their gender. This is an important but sensitive issue that has been debated at length and with considerable heat on social media. For me the value in the Economist’s approach was that it was open to different voices from both sides of the argument, which touches on issues of the rights of women and trans people. A particularly helpful feature of the series is that in the second week the contributors had a chance to respond to what each of them had written in the first week. It is clear that this remains difficult territory – there seems little prospect of a consensus at the moment – but reading all the articles gave a good sense of the dimensions of the debate.

I am sure there are many other great and important reads on all these various topics. For now I’m sticking to the principle that “less is more”, but if you have suggestions please feel free to email me or to leave a comment.

LGBT in STEM Day

In case you missed it, yesterday was the very first international day of  LGBTQ+ people in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM). The 5th July date was chosen for the geekiest of reasons: it can be written as 5/07 or 7/05 (depending on which side of the Atlantic your are on); in nanometres these are the wavelengths of the colours green and red that feature in rainbow symbol adopted to represent the LGBTQ+ community.

The College celebrated the day by adding rainbow icons to its social media feeds and posted profiles of four of our staff members from our own LGBTQ+ community. Laurence’s profile is below, but thanks also to Giulia, Dan and Ji Young for sharing their experiences; and to Ben, who wrote about why the day matters to him.

In Nature a moving article by Dr. Jon Freeman, a gay assistant professor at Stanford, described his experiences of isolation with academia and the importance to him of discovering senior LGBTQ+ colleagues who understood what he was going through and gave him hope.

“Just being able to talk science with a more senior researcher who was ‘like me’ was a powerful signal that I had a place in the scientific community.”

The importance of such contacts cannot be under-estimated. So I hope all staff and postgraduate students are aware that the Imperial600 network is open to them. Along with Imperial600, the EDI Centre at the College will be working over the coming months to train a network of allies – non-LGBTQ+ staff who have volunteered to offer understanding and support to LGBTQ+ colleagues. I had my first training session at the LSE earlier this week.

And finally, Imperial will once again be participating in the Pride in London march tomorrow – watch out for us if you’re in town tomorrow.

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.