Leadership from the Top

What will it take for true equality to occur, not just in academic science but in employment anywhere? One key aspect is that people at the top not just ‘talk the talk’ but ‘walk the walk’. So, when talking about family friendly policies it is important that leaders show they mean it. Some years ago I attended an event at the House of Lords where various people spoke about what their own company was doing. Examples included flexible working, teleworking, job shares and many obvious examples of this sort. But what struck me was the story of the CEO of some large company – at this distance in time I cannot remember which – who left work early each Friday so he could go and meet his children from school. I am not applauding him because as a man he did this. I am applauding him because as a CEO he was making a very positive statement that this was an activity he valued and that he recognized others in his company would value it too. In other words, that it was OK to care about your family, and make arrangements – with your line manager, perhaps, about hours of work – to ensure that (within reason) caring responsibilities could be catered for. If the boss does this it carries a very powerful message.

Having recently attended a meeting with my own VC with the Daphne Jackson Trust about returner fellowships, I know how much he cares about these matters. Here is a man who is prepared to lead from the top and make a cash commitment if that is what it takes. This week, at his termly meetings with heads of departments he invited me to come to talk about how important it is for departments to be proactive about equality issues and, when I had finished my brief overview last night, reinforced it with his own hard-hitting words.  Both the upcoming REF, with apparently stringent requirements going to be imposed on those making decisions about entries on the equality front, plus the potential moves by a variety of funders to ask departments and universities (see here and here for my exhortations on this front; there are interesting and interested noises coming from several funders)  to show their commitment to equality through Athena Swan, it is no longer sufficient for departments to look the other way. Nor is it sufficient for the person at the top simply to say they care about these things: they must demonstrate this commitment too.

There are many ways that leadership of an organisation can make a difference by quite small actions. That is why the Athena Swan Charter is so important by requiring this commitment from the senior management; the actions it requires for individual departments to take can have significant impact on women and men too, by creating a more inclusive culture. Timing of meetings, for instance, can shift the balance for some from attending these under duress and fretting about whether someone else has remembered to pick up the children from school, to making accomplishing both activities straightforward. Monitoring whether there is a greater drop-out of women than men at each stage from first year undergraduates to professorial appointments and promotions can highlight where the system is causing problems.

Finding out what people feel was at the heart of the ASSET survey, whose report is celebrated with an event at the Royal Society today.  Those universities and departments who had significant numbers of responses completed can use the responses to evaluate what is going right and wrong locally. More targeted questionnaires and monitoring can then be used to inform what policy and practice changes are needed, because every insititution will have its own culture and its own successes and failures. But, no longer can people bury their heads and say this doesn’t matter; if funding does indeed become pervasively dependent on a minimum sort of demonstration of ‘best practice’ it will force the issue. About time one might say.  There are too many examples I come across of less than ideal procedures, sometimes one suspects deliberately so, more often just due to a lack of awareness.

At the Heads of Department meeting I attended, I referred to the poor advice some women receive about how to handle career breaks. A particular case history was put forward by someone else of a case for promotion he had seen where everyone was very enthusiastic about some woman, and yet her publication record was surprisingly thin. By pressing the department it was possible to extract the fact that she had actually had more than one child during the past few years and yet this nowhere appeared explicitly. It makes a nonsense of judging people if all the facts are not present; and extended time away from the job doing something as natural and important as having a baby should not be obscured. No one is being served well if heads of departments (or others) give the advice – as they obviously still frequently do – that it’s best not to mention the inconvenient production of a baby rather than a Nature paper or two. These messages need to be said over and over again until our culture changes to recognize that 24/7 working is neither ultimately productive nor beneficial and that life beyond the lab is also of importance. (I will have more to say about this in the context of the REF in a couple of weeks).

Families matter and, despite the pressure cooker life that is academia, work-life balance matters too. Recently I was encouraging a senior male member from the Management Committee of another university not to feel embarrassed that he couldn’t give a talk on a Saturday because he had a prior commitment to his young son. The more men feel able to say this, the more women will too. The more academic life is full of people who believe other people matter, the more smart people will not want to leave science for the wrong reasons, driven out by an inimical culture. This will benefit women, but it will benefit many men too.


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12 Responses to Leadership from the Top

  1. Tom Hartley (@tom_hartley) says:

    So much to agree with here, and a classic example of a situation where measures to promote equality end up benefiting everyone. We found a whole lot of these when we examined our department’s procedures for our original Athena Swan application.

    One of the biggest problems is the nature of short-term contracts which are detrimental for family life and which so many of our scientists have to live with year in, year out.


    Greater long-term stability for experienced productive people is also important for equality and for family life. We’re world leaders in terms of productivity, but the vast majority of the people who contribute to this output (PhD qualified scientists working in Universities) don’t know if they’ll have to move, emigrate, or whether they’ll have a job at all in a year or two years time.

    People at the top also need to stand up for more mid-career stability in my view. I cannot believe we cannot do better.

  2. Thank you for this. I agree entirely. The Senior Management Team at UCL proclaim a comittment to gender equality, yet their weekly meeting is at 8.30 AM, despite a recent gender equality report recommending that all meetings are held in family friendly hours. There is no need to spell out the message that this sends to women or indeed men with caring responsibilities. Oddly enough, there are only two women on an SMT of 18. If only all senior managers were willing to lead from the top.

  3. Tom Hartley says:

    I think this blog post from Prof Anthony Finkelstein, Dean of Engineering at UCL is enlightening here.


    Here is the most relevant passage on family life:

    “Very few people are so naturally gifted that they can compete for academic positions at leading research universities on the basis of their talent alone. All the early career academics I know work exceptionally hard. They have put in many hours beyond the requirements of their post-doctoral and current positions in order to get where they are and move beyond it. Dedication is called for and there are few substitutes. This is the price of global competitiveness. There are consequences for those with young families, regardless of the progressive policies adopted by many institutions. If you are in this situation it is possible to enjoy early career success but it takes a strong and mutually supportive partnership and exceptional organisational skills to juggle work and domestic responsibilities. In short, if you want to be a successful academic your spouse or partner must want it too.”

    On one hand I applaud Prof Finkelstein for giving the honest and accurate advice on the current state of academic careers. But should we accept the status quo, or ought people at the top be trying to change it? The academic career structure and working culture is not conducive to a balanced family life but it was not handed down to us on tablets of stone from God, it is largely determined by senior scientists in their role as policy makers and advisors to government and funding bodies.

    Is the career structure and culture we’ve created optimal. Far from it in my view.


    Athene’s comments are mainly concerned with the working culture, but we must also address the career structure. Is it really necessary for anyone who wants a stable long-term job a scientist has to become an academic PI or leave to work in industry? I think we should build a more stable structure with longer-term security for people who’ve proved themselves as productive scientists to carry on doing what they do best.

    I am glad to see that David Willetts agrees:

    “Researchers should be able to have useful and fulfilling academic careers without becoming professors, as well as careers beyond academia. That is why I recognise the issue of – shall we say – a pyramid in HE with a very broad base and a very narrow tip.”

    I really think that short-term contracts (and associated problems with maternity) do more do deter women from continuing in science than even the cultural factors mentioned – in fact, short-termism and competition are the driving force behind the cultual problems too. Their contribution to our international success are overestimated in my view. And to be frank, they aren’t very nice for anyone except perhaps a few alpha males with too much testosterone.

  4. Our department filled out the survey – is there any way for us to see the data from individual institutions, or is it all in the aggregate? (Mind you, we ended up getting Silver, so we can’t have come across too badly.)

    • Jenny, the answer is ‘it depends’. If the numbers across your institution were high enough, then additional breakdowns by smaller units will be available to whoever your main contact is (HR or PVC with responsibilities probably). If such local information is available the person in your department who sent out the survey should have them ie chief administrator or head of department. In which case, someone ought to be digesting the figures to see what it says about the local practices and culture.

  5. cromercrox says:

    In my opinion, for what it’s worth (move along now, nothing to see here) the gap between walking the walk and talking the talk is filled by managerial inertia. Here’s one example – meetings. Lots of people seem to spend a lot of time at meetings, some of which will be at family-unfriendly hours (coinciding with the School Run for example.) Managers should ask themselves whether the meetings they attend or chair are really necessary. Some regular meetings I’ve attended started years ago as temporary measures and have become fixed. Other meetings once had some value but have outlived their usefulness. Meetings have the potential to be an immense waste of everyone’s time: consider, an hour-long meeting of eight people consumes eight person-hours, or a whole day’s work. The point of his seeming digression is that one route to flexible working, and to more family-friendly hours, might lie in a cold, hard look at working practices which in themselves don’t seem family-unfriendly, but which suck a great deal of time out of peoples’ lives for little appreciable return.

    • stephenemoss says:

      You are so right about meetings. As head of department for some seven years I must have spent months sitting in meetings, yet looking back I struggle to think of any meaningful outputs for all those hours of earnest discussion. It is interesting though, how at first such meetings can have a certain allure. They create a sense of self-importance among the participants, the feeling that critical issues are being debated and crucial decisions being made. I suppose there must have been occasions when a meeting led to some tangible consequence, but so many simply create the illusion of activity.

      These days, our weekly lab meetings provide much more food for thought, and useful discussion, than any of those academic management meetings that I have happily left behind.

      • Austin says:

        A few years ago in Physiology News we ran what I thought was a really good article by a ‘recovering’ UK Head of Department about how to be an HoD (I think you can blame me in my editorial capacity for the title of “The HoD Delusion”). It’s on page 9 of the PDF if it doesn’t load right to the page. There is also a post by blogger Grant Jacobs with people discussing the article here.

        In the light of what Athene & Steve M said about meetings, I note that one of the 10 points was:

        ‘Minimise work that doesn’t contribute to the primary goals of your department’

      • Aleksandr says:

        I have been a postdoc for 6.5 years and know many other poocdsts of similar endurance. In my experience people in their second post-doc are generally there because they love their job and are good at it (they often work harder than 1st time poocdsts and for same money!). The only thing that might make them stale is the frustration at the lack of career progression available to them.Many would like to continue just doing research in a role, such as a ‘staff researcher’ or even scientific officer as a preference to PI or lecturer. However, just because a funding body has such posts in their staff structure, doesn’t mean that research groups/ centres are willing to create the jobs, often preferring to stick to a ‘one contract and then you are out’ policy. This avoids any discussion over the 4 year change to an open-ended contract.I like the idea of flattening the staffing structure in both ways: more small groups and more permanent experienced research staff. Research groups work better where there is continuity in the lab provided by a permanent scientific officer/ technician even when it is a small group. The larger the group the more vital these posts are, otherwise the students and younger staff do not receive the support they need, and that leads to expensive waste in the lab in time and reagents.Indeed things seem to be getting worse for researchers, with contracts getting shorter, no financial acknowledgment of experience and huge competition to get fellowships. At research staff association meetings it has been interesting to discover that the same story in all disciplines, not just biological sciences.

  6. If we look at the problems of work-life balance purely from the standpoint of the external factors: meetings, expectations and culture, we may miss something essential. We need to look also at our own drives and motivations. Just as as managers we need to ensure that policy and practice meet, as individuals we need to look at the compulsions and habits we manifest.

  7. Anthony Finkelstein: I’m not sure quite what you’re trying to imply, but if you mean PI’s tend to manifest an obsessive tendency to work 24/7 and hence impose that expectation on their teams, I think it isn’t quite accurate. Those of us who have made it to senior – and permanent – levels may indeed feel a strong desire to work ridiculously long hours to meet the targets we set ourselves, but (given that I do work long hours) I hope nevertheless it is perfectly possible to convey to students who work with me that they are entitled to holidays, families, train-spotting or whatever it is they want to do in their perfectly legitimate spare time. But, it is also the case that those who are going to thrive in academia probably also will ultimately get bitten by the bug of long hours. I think there is a difference between the self- imposed desire to keep battling away at something until it makes sense, and the expectation imposed from outside when the long hours are merely a self-defeating chore.

    Tom Your comments here and on your own blog deserve fuller consideration. But for myself I am going to defer doing that until after this coming week’s discussions with David Willetts and others, as no doubt there will be other issues that are thrown up there. However, in your quote from Willetts above, I think you are maybe reading the American meaning of professor in what he says. He may mean that it is OK to be a Lecturer rather than a professor instead of, as you are interpreting it, in a long term non-PI post. I am still not sure that, for the (scientific and general) population as a whole, having substantial numbers of permanent postdoc positions is a sustainable solution – at least not without drying up the numbers in the cohort below which will cause a different source of pain.

  8. Laurence Cox says:


    If you want to want to use an example of someone at the top “walking the walk”, you could always point to Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, who does arrange his meetings so he can take his kids to school.

    I also have a little point about your example of the woman with the thin publication record. If the university had been trying to avoid bias by anonymising information about the applicant, then to record that she had taken time off to have children would have defeated the purpose. Perhaps it is really telling us that the judgement of her colleagues should have been given more weight and less weight put on the number of papers she authored.

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