Imperial College London

'Changing policies, changing lives' – 2023 Athena Swan Lecture


Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE

Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE

Advance HE CEO, Alison Johns, reflected on the progress achieved through Athena Swan at Imperial and where there is still work to be done.

The National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI) and Faculty of Medicine were delighted to co-host Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE, for the annual Athena Swan Lecture on 27 March.  

Alison began by outlining Imperial’s work in accelerating progress towards gender equality: “Imperial has been on this journey for 20 years and it shows. The consistent and sustained approach that the College has taken to advancing gender equality is demonstrated not only in the awards that you have, but also in the differences and changes you have made.” 

Alison highlighted that 23 out of 24 departments across the College have received an Athena Swan award, with over fifty per cent of these being Silver awards. In the Faculty of Medicine, Alison also noted that seven out of eight departments have a Silver award, compared to just two thirds of medical science departments nationally. 

Alison went on to summarise Imperial’s successes in four key areas: open promotion processes; inclusive recruitment; diversifying committee membership; and women in academic medicine. She remarked: “These illustrate your institutional-wide approach, and how you have complimented it with local initiatives which are specific and create that critical mass and momentum.” 

However, Alison cautioned that while great strides have been made, there is still much work to be done – in and outside of Imperial – to achieve gender equality in the medical sciences: “Women are vastly underrepresented in the professoriate. We all know there has been some progress, but the gap is still there with only a third of clinical professorial roles being taken up by women, and just over a quarter here at Imperial.” 

“Believe in yourself, find mentors, advocates, and sponsors"

Opening the floor for discussion, Alison then underlined the unique challenges that women of colour face in academia: “Black women fare the worst in terms of equality, diversity and inclusion. All the figures and statistics show that. What we need to do is see more Black women and women of colour getting into top roles, and we need to think about how we can support them to do that because the old adage “you need to see one to be one” is true.” 

After outlining some of the lessons that can be learnt from other global charter holders in Ireland, Australia, Canada and the US, Alison reflected on her own journey to becoming Chief Executive of Advance HE. She said: “Before becoming Chief Executive in 2014, I didn’t have the self-belief or confidence in myself that I could actually do this. My fear of failure was a major barrier. 

“So, my message to early-career women is to not put your barriers up yourself. We can be our own worst enemies and we can believe that the boxes we were put in are our boxes.  It’s only when you stop believing that, that the world changes.” 

This sentiment was echoed in Alison’s answer to an online question about what postdoctoral research fellows can to do to help Imperial win a Gold Athena Swan award. Alison responded: “Don’t wait for it to happen. Seek mentoring, take opportunities that are given to you, speak up and try and get on to committees. Build your networks and be active. Believe in yourself, find mentors, advocates, and sponsors, and if you can’t, go to the people who can help you find them because we all need that sometimes. It’s that hand that helps you climb out of the box to get to where you want to be.”

  • Jonathan Weber and Alison Johns
  • Athena Swan Lecture 2023
  • Athena Swan Lecture 2023
  • Athena Swan Lecture

Closing the session, Professor Jonathan Weber, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, said: “It’s brilliant to have Alison show us from the external eye where we are. It’s so valuable to see where we stand, and I really enjoyed seeing the examples of other people doing well. We should never be ashamed or embarrassed to take the best ideas from others and apply them ourselves and apply them better. I think that’s such an important lesson.  

“Thank you Advance HE for everything you have done. You have made life better in the university sector and I hope that all sectors take that message and follow it.” 

Commenting on the event, Head of NHLI, Professor Edwin Chilvers, said: “It was a great privilege for us to host such a senior member of the Advance HE team, and Alison’s Athena Lecture did not disappoint. She presented an objective assessment of the gender balance at Imperial, evidence of the growth and success of Athena around the world, and a very personal reflection of her own journey to CEO. Going for Gold has to be the ambition.” 

Watch the full 2023 Athena Swan Lecture. 


Lou Lee

Lou Lee
Faculty of Medicine Centre

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