Athena SWAN Silver and the School of Biosciences

This article was published in the May edition of the Nutrition Society Gazette. I have been actively involved in the School of Biosciences application for the renewal of our Athena SWAN Silver award in 2014 and have recently joined the Athena SWAN pool of assessors. Promoting the work of women within the School is something I want to strongly support an actively engage with. It is a priority for our School management and we have an exciting action plan to roll out over the year ahead.


Celebrating Women in Nutrition: Athena SWAN and the University of Nottingham

 What is Athena SWAN?

The Athena SWAN Charter recognises and celebrates good employment practice for women working in science, engineering and technology in higher education. Institutions seeking Athena SWAN awards sign up to address the the six key elements of the Charter, which are:

  1. To address gender inequalities; this requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organization
  2. To tackle the unequal representation of women in science; this requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organization
  3. The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications; the organization needs to address this
  4. The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organization will address
  5. The organization will recognize that the system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organization recognizes
  6. There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science; the organization will recognise this.

 Athena SWAN at Nottingham

The University of Nottingham was successful in applying for an Athena SWAN Silver in 2012, but the School of Biosciences, paved the way by attaining a Silver award in 2009, which was renewed in 2013. The Division of Nutritional Sciences, home to all of the taught nutrition degrees offered by Nottingham, is one of five academic divisions in Biosciences and comprises academic staff, technicians and associated support staff, contract researchers and postgraduate student (around 50 people in all).  A majority of staff in the Division are women and we have strong contingent of early career staff. Managing workloads without compromising ‘real life’ is therefore a high priority for many of us who have young families and so the issues covered by the Athena SWAN charter are of major significance. It is also fair to say that nutrition is very much a female discipline. More than half of our staff and 90% of our students are women. As a group we are very effective at promoting the discipline to young people, engaging widely with social media and being involved in outreach activities in primary and secondary schools that aim to inspire children and promote science as a career for everyone. One of the great challenges is to maintain the careers of the young women we inspire once they attain graduate and postgraduate qualifications.

 Nottingham University has had a Women in Science Engineering and Technology Group (WinSET) since 2005 and the individual Schools of the University have their own Champion and a project officer provides dedicated support for WinSET activities. These include working with University management to develop action plans and policies that promote equality and diversity and the role of women in science, and high profile debates and keynote lectures from successful women in science engineering and technology. The activities of WinSET and the development of institution-wide policies were an important factor in Nottingham becoming one of only four universities to achieve institutional Athena SWAN silver.

 How does it make a difference?

The activities highlighted above are very much the key PR headlines for the University, which don’t explain how being a Silver School impacts on a day-to-day basis. When we received our Silver award in 2009, there was very much the feeling that the award reflected what we already did and continue to do. Our staff have long benefitted from a healthy culture of equal opportunity policies that included both formal and informal flexible working arrangements and family friendly policies. For example, we have a core hours policy for meetings that means time is allowed for parents to get children to and from school (no meetings outside the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. window). Our School has very supportive senior management where women across all job families (academic, technical, administrative) are increasingly represented in senior positions (members of our management team, School Manager, key committee chairs, senior tutors, course leaders). Excellent contributions are recognized, regardless of gender and there are many examples in the School of short-term contracts being converted to longer or permanent contracts to ensure that early career researchers and teachers are able to establish themselves and develop their academic careers with a secure financial footing. Similarly opportunities are given to take on senior responsibilities and leadership roles, entirely on merit and with a view to promotion and career progression. We provide active support for the development of women’s careers, with mentoring for promotion and career development and investment in external coaching to promote leadership and self-efficacy. Mentors are also available for staff who are returning from long breaks from work, including maternity leave, to provide support during the transition period.

 In addition to the mentoring support that is available, women at early stages of their careers can also apply for the University funded Anne McLaren Fellowships scheme, which provides three years of funding leading to a tenured position for outstanding early career female researchers in science, technology, engineering and medicine. Recognizing women in science and the significance of the obstacles to retention and sustainability of careers in science is very much part of the ethos within our School.  For many years we have encouraged people to get involved in activities that promote debate and policy change, such as WinSET and, more recently, ScienceGrrl. The latter is a national grassroots network that celebrates and supports women in science. Academics and postgraduate students in Nutritional Sciences are currently taking a lead on establishing our local Nottingham ScienceGrrl Chapter.  

 Working in the Division of Nutritional Sciences is not an unrealistic idyll. We are typical of academics everywhere and finding a healthy work-life balance remains a major concern for us. The ways of working that have been recognized by Athena SWAN show that we are making good progress and have equality of opportunity firmly on our agenda. The pipeline of women in science is still leaking for us, but we have a strong awareness of where the leak is, how it develops and are now trying hard to stem the flow.  

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