Imperial has commissioned a bold new piece of independent research to examine issues of gender equality and institutional culture.
Earlier this year, 30 of Imperial’s finest athletes put on a thrilling display as women’s rugby headlined the Varsity sports series for the first time.
On field, it was every bit the spectacle that was hoped for. Yet, the event is likely to be remembered for the wrong reasons, namely, organisational failings, sexist behaviour among elements of the crowd and poor treatment of the athletes.
Following an immediate investigation by the College which upheld many of the complaints made by the athletes, the Provost’s Board requested that the Vice-Provost (Education), in conjunction with the Equality and Diversity team and the student body, commission an external academic expert to undertake a study on gender equality and to advise the College and Imperial College Union on how to address sexism in the College.
Whilst catalysed by issues related to sexism in sport, the research will go beyond this to explore Imperial’s organisational culture – the basic assumptions and values that guide life in organisations, which may often be unconscious but which impact upon behaviour.
Ultimately, the aim is to produce an internal report for the College and the Union to use, with recommendations for addressing problematic aspects of institutional culture (especially in relation to gender) for staff and students. The research will also produce a paper for external publication and a methodological framework tool for the assessment of institutional culture, which can be used more widely.
“I’ve been totally clear from the outset that as a research-focused institution we are commissioning rigorous, high quality research and as such we’re committed to open publication,” says Professor Debra Humphris Vice-Provost (Education). “The nature of this research is that it will hold a mirror up to ourselves as an institution and provide us with that critical eye. Then we have to own the actions, solutions and the way forward.”
Imperial’s Provost, Professor James Stirling, added: “This is the first time any UK higher education institute has commissioned such a comprehensive study of this kind. It is a demonstration of our commitment to equality and eradicating sexism but also an opportunity to set the agenda across the sector.”
For this ambitious task, Debra turned to one of the country’s leading academics on the topic of gender equality in higher education, Dr Alison Phipps, Director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. The Centre delivers interdisciplinary teaching and research and draws together over 100 PhD students studying gender-related topics across the university.
Dr Phipps (pictured, left) has conducted extensive work with the National Union of Students (NUS) into 'lad cultures' in higher education and the links to sexual harassment and violence, which contributed to an impact case study for REF 2014.
For Alison, the Imperial commission also represents a return to earlier work. As part of her PhD at the University of Cambridge she focused on issues surrounding women in science, engineering and technology.
“I looked at all the initiatives aimed at getting women into these areas from the 1970s and 1980s, tracing two waves of grassroots activity as well as government-driven schemes and activities focused on the business case for inclusion and equality. It was an audit process really, much like what we’re doing here at Imperial.”
While Alison is clearly no stranger to research commissions, she admits to being surprised when Debra reached out to her about the possibility of working together with Imperial.
“It felt like a decisive move, perhaps characteristic of Imperial in the sense of it being a place where things get done; there seems to be a mind-set of wanting to own this and tackle it. Imperial as an institution is showing immense courage and foresight and setting an example for other universities.”
To support the research, a steering group will be established at the College, comprising students and staff, and chaired by Martin Lupton, Head of the Undergraduate School of Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine.
Method in the making
The research will assess and understand institutional culture and its impacts on gender equality drawing on a number of methods. This will include analysis of documents, mission statements and strategy; key College and Union policies and procedures; as well as social events and external-facing publicity material. This will be followed by more observational style research, with in-depth interviews with academic and support staff, senior manager and students. There will also be focus groups with staff and members of student societies – both sporting and others including the Feminist Society.
Much of the data collection will be conducted by the project’s full time Research Fellow, Dr Liz McDonnell, who like Alison is based at Sussex, and has particular expertise and years of experience in research methology.
‘We want this to be collaborative, helpful and constructive,” Liz says. “We’re not here as the ‘gender police,’ to decree bad deeds and good deeds, it’s about trying to understand things through an institutional framework. When you look at gender issues in complete isolation as a separate entity, you miss out on a lot of different levels of understanding that you can get with a more holistic approach like this.”
Liz stresses that confidentiality and anonymity will be key considerations both during the study itself and in the write up of the data, so that everyone who participates in the project will be protected. “That’s simply implicit in what we do,” she says.
Engine for change
Alison hopes that the results of the study will encourage a new way of thinking in the College which is more conducive to addressing equality issues at their source rather than creating ‘bolt-on’ schemes to deal with the effects after they arise.
The long term aspiration is for lessons learned from the Imperial review to serve as a template for similar institutions and faculties in the UK – and ultimately the entire sector.
“In truth, many institutions look for an easy way to say that they are dealing with this problem, then swiftly move on. There are lots of quick fixes out there,” says Alison. “With this work we can point to what a serious piece of research should look like. I believe people will sit up and take note.”
Alison is also known for her work exploring the marketization of higher education and the impact this has on values and practices in the sector. It’s her belief that issues of gender have to be viewed through this prism.
Yet, Alison says that needn’t be a brake on institutions’ ambitions to be world leading as well as bastions for equality.
“I don’t see why you can’t have a culture that incorporates striving for excellence that is also inclusive of difference and the different ways in which excellence can manifest.”
Above all, Alison and Liz seem genuinely excited at the opportunity to be doing something truly unique and are looking forward to getting to know the many members of our diverse community.
If you are interested in potentially participating in the research, Email Liz at E.J.Mcdonnell@sussex.ac.uk for more information.
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