About 18 months ago, Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, unilaterally raised the bar for Medical Schools wanting to apply to future rounds of funding through the Biomedical Research Centre scheme, demanding (in essence) that they obtain an Athena Swan Silver Award if they wanted their future applications to be successful. Since then, various – possibly many – people including myself, have been talking to key individuals in the Research Councils and trying to put pressure on funders generally, asking them to stipulate that funding will only follow good practice on the Equality and Diversity front (see, for instance, the letter Angela McLean, Paul Harvey and I published in Nature in the autumn of 2011). At the time of Sally Davies’ announcement I wrote a blogpost openly calling for other funders to ‘get tough’. Now there is some movement in the right direction.
Last week RCUK put out a statement laying out their own explicit expectations for Equality and Diversity. This is a statement covering the work of all 7 UK Research Councils and so it covers funding across all academic fields. For this reason, it is impossible to set a categorical requirement of something as specific as an Athena Swan award: to date these particular awards only cover STEM departments, although the scheme’s ‘owners’, the Equality Challenge Unit, are piloting an extension to cover Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. This pilot project is ongoing so, as yet, an equivalent award to Athena Swan in non-STEM subjects does not exist and RCUK could not use this as a basis for ‘accreditation’ across all research councils even if they wanted to.
However, formal accreditation would have its drawbacks, a point made very clear at a consultation event organised by RCUK that I attended in the autumn. For instance, supposing a really bright early career female researcher wants to apply to hold a fellowship in a department with a lousy E+D record simply because the science is first-rate, should they be prevented because the department doesn’t hold some explicit accreditation? If this were the case, the individual would be disadvantaged because of a department’s failing. Furthermore, the most obvious benchmarking, that of Athena Swan, is really concerned with gender and not the other diversity aspects. So, a department could be good around gender but never have considered the position for BME’s (black or minority ethnic if you don’t know the jargon) for instance, or transgender applicants. So, the RCUK statement simply names participation in Athena Swan (as well as involvement with other similar schemes such as Stonewall) as something that would provide solid evidence that an organisation is adopting good practice around diversity, but such participation is not (as with the Department of Health) an absolute requirement.
Is this sufficient? Time will tell whether this statement makes any difference or has any teeth in reality. The punchline is to be found in the final three bullet points of the statement, in which it says:
- review the overall effectiveness of the approach at a Departmental / Institutional level through its Audit and Assurance Programme
- discuss equality and diversity at Institutional visits
- reserve the right to introduce more formal accreditation requirements for grant funding should significant improvement not be evidenced.
So, the question will remain open for some time to come as to what action RCUK might actually take if they are not satisfied that a department or institution is doing sufficient, and whether ultimately funding will be put at risk for such an organisation. The statement is a step in the right direction, but only if organisations really believe that sanctions are just around the corner and that it is in their own self-interest to get their act together and do something concrete to improve the working environment for everyone are women/minorities likely really to feel the benefit.
Of course, even without the threat of funding being cut off, it should be manifest that it really is in an organisation’s best interests to broaden the diversity of its workplace. Losing talent carelessly by excluding minorities, be they what they may, is stupid. Self-interest, as well as the moral high ground, undoubtedly ought to come into play when trying to find the best individuals to fill any role, not just looking for a clone of the person who filled that post before. I hope this message is filtering through the corridors of academic power. I can at least feel a little smug that personally I am part of an organisation that is well aware of the importance of sorting itself out on the E+D front, and is making good strides. For instance, it is heartening to see that the University of Cambridge has maintained its position as 11th in the 2013 Stonewall Workplace Equality Index just released, remaining the highest placed HEI in the index.
The RCUK statement has a further impact that perhaps as a scientist I am only just beginning to appreciate. Because the number of women in the sciences is so obviously dismal, particularly in subjects like my own of physics or in engineering, significant effort and attention has been applied to the problem for some years. Not so in the Arts and Humanities. The numbers of female undergraduates may be equal to or exceed the numbers of males, but the percentage of women in the higher reaches of academia are little better than in the sciences. Furthermore, the atmosphere in Philosophy, for instance, is obviously pretty toxic according to the Report prepared jointly by the British Philosophical Association and the Society of Women in Philosophy UK last year which I discussed in an earlier post. In the absence of an Athena Swan lookalike for such subjects, the RCUK statement may be particularly important in focussing the minds of non-STEM colleagues. I will be watching this space with great interest.