Imperial College London

Departments recognised for women-friendly work practices give advice on how to win a Silver SWAN

Collecting the Athena awards

Last year's winners reflect on their awards, acknowledging good employment practises for women in science and encourage other departments to apply this year - <em>News</em>

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Thursday 11 February 2010
By John-Paul Jones

As Imperial’s departments prepare submissions for this year’s Athena SWAN Awards, recognising good employment practices and working environments for women, last year’s award winners reflect on their Athena SWAN status and offer advice on how the College can achieve further success in the scheme.

Launched in 2005 the SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) awards are given for a period of three years in recognition of demonstrated commitment by an institution or department to recruit, retain and advance women academics. In September last year the College’s Departments of Physics, Chemistry, NHLI and Chemical Engineering and Chemical Technology all collected Silver Awards, while Imperial as a whole was awarded a Bronze award.

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Winning institutional Silver is the next goal at College level. To achieve this the College needs to have a substantial number of departments holding Silver Awards. Every Department is now expected to apply for a Silver Award. The College's Academic Opportunities Committee is championing this policy and supporting all the applications.

Professor Dot Griffiths, of Imperial College Business School and Chair of the College’s Academic Opportunities Committee, explains why Imperial wants to build on last year’s success. She says: “Our view as a College has been that anything we do to improve the employment situation of women is also going to benefit the employment situation of men, so we’ve embraced the Athena Awards as being a way to improve working at Imperial for all of our academic staff.”

She adds: “They’re an excellent signal to the outside world about things we take seriously at Imperial College London and they’re one way to get an external benchmark of the employment practices we have here.”

Rector Sir Keith O’Nions says: "These awards are a really important signal that Imperial wants to be a good employer for both men and women, and my congratulations go to last year's award-winning departments. I hope we will see more Silver Awards coming to Imperial in the next round, since I know there are many imaginative schemes to promote equality out there that deserve to be recognised.”

He adds: “Individuals with talent and a passion for their subject are at the heart of Imperial's success and, as we face more challenging times, our ability to recruit and retain the best will become ever more vital. We can't afford to let ability go to waste, and these awards are a great way of demonstrating that we don't intend to."

Speaking of the benefits of her department’s success in the Athena scheme in 2009, Professor Claire Lloyd of the National Heart and Lung Institute says: “Having won the Silver award last year we can use that when we recruit staff to let them know that there’s a level of commitment towards, not only trying to retain the best scientists, but to making the Department an enjoyable place to work.”

One activity the NHLI was recognised for was its support for postdoctoral career development, through committees and a dedicated day, which help early career stage researchers during the often daunting transition to a full career in academia.

Other examples from successful departments of actions which promote equality include the Department of Chemistry’s drive to make all existing good practice employment policies clearer and more accessible. The Department of Physics carried out a wide-ranging survey of staff with responses informing its action plan to maintain and develop a good employment environment, while the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemical Technology’s activities included supporting flexible working arrangements for staff with families.

Professor Jo Haigh, Head of the Department of Physics, says that taking part in the Athena exercise was helpful in itself: “We discovered all sorts of things we didn’t know about staff satisfaction and some of the procedures and practices in which we’re involved. Once people start being consulted and once you start reacting to their opinions, the whole department becomes a nicer place to live.”

Asked to give advice to departments considering applying for a SWAN award, Professor Lloyd says: “It’s vital that the exercise is done as a dual application between an academic staff member and someone from the research support staff.”

The submission requires data around the makeup of a department’s student and staff body and Professor Tom Welton, Head of the Chemistry advises: “A tip is to get all of the numerical data first, because it takes longer than you’d guess.”

Departments looking for more information on making an Athena Award submission can contact Professor Dot Griffiths or visit the College’s Athena SWAN webpages: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/hr/equality/academicwomen/awards/silverswan.