SIUOxford: Promoting Gender Equality in Research and Innovation

Author: Miguel Ramirez Hernandez Edited by: Emil Fristed

Diversity is essential for maximizing creativity and innovation in science. [1,2]  But we are far from having equal representation of males and females in many academic disciplines. Males are particularly over-represented in leadership, academic, and research positions across the “STEMM” subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM). [3] To engage with this issue, the SIU team in Oxford, St Anne’s College and OxFEST recently hosted the event “Promoting Gender Equality in Research & Innovation”.

The event started with an introduction and welcome by Ms Helen King, who is the Principal at St Anne’s College, and the first police officer ever appointed to head an Oxbridge College. Throughout her career, she has had the opportunity to be part of multiple diverse teams. During her welcome note, she encouraged us to believe that the strongest teams have people from widely different academic, social and knowledge backgrounds, who all offer a range of skills and personalities.

Following Ms King, our panel of speakers discussed three different topics pertaining to gender equality in STEMM disciplines.

Professor Helen Christian

The Status and Future of Women in STEMM: The progress objectives and challenges of Athena SWAN and Oxford strategy to empower women in STEMM

Professor Helen Christian is a University Lecturer and Deputy Head of Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics (DPAG). She also serves as the Director of Graduate Studies and academic lead for the Athena SWAN charter. During the event, Prof Christian spoke about her role in the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) Charter.

The aims of Athena SWAN were summarized as follows:

·        To promote career progression for all research and support staff in higher education, both within STEMM subjects, and the arts and humanities.

·        To promote better work-life balance for all research and support staff in higher education.

Professor Christian began her presentation by mentioning that despite gender balance being equal for undergraduate students, graduate and postdoctoral researchers, far fewer females achieve promotion to permanent professorial positions; in the UK, roughly 11% of all professors across the sciences are women. Thus, changes in career support and development for females are necessary. This is the reason programs such as Athena SWAN Charter exist. But, are they actually working?

With this question, Professor Helen Christian brought up some of the findings from a recent article that evaluated the impact of Athena SWAN Charter in Oxford.

The article, “Advancing gender equality through the Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science: an exploratory study of women’s and men’s perceptions”, surveyed academics and support staff at the University of Oxford on their general opinions and views of Athena SWAN charter effectiveness. [4] The study suggested that implementation of the Athena SWAN Charter resulted in positive outcomes overall; both women and men said that the program has brought structural and cultural changes to their departments including:

·        Appreciation of parental responsibilities of both men and women.

·        Appreciation of care support responsibilities for older relatives.

·        Better career support for women.

·        Individuals better able to challenge bias and discrimination when they see it.

·        Transparency on decision-making processes.

The study argues that the incentive for positive change may have been caused by linking the Athena SWAN Charter with government research funding. For example, applicants for Biomedical Research Centre funding from the the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) are required to be recipients of at least the Athena Swan Silver award (awarded to institutions for proven commitment to promoting gender equality). The Research Councils UK also requests evidence that institutions take actions to address equality and diversity. However, as mentioned by Prof Christian, these funding-driven incentives are not enough for the implementation of true change on longstanding gender imbalance issues.

She noted that even though the aims of the Athena SWAN Charter are unarguable positive, real changes in culture are still limited. In reality, some of the underlying problems of gender imbalance and discrimination are well prevalent. Thus, we must recognise that programs such as Athena SWAN, even when implemented successfully, are not enough.

Another challenge for Athena SWAN, is that the effectuation of such programs is burdensome, requiring vast amounts of time for data collection, processing, reviewing and management. In the case of DPAG in Oxford, this is done by volunteers without compensation. Evidently, additional programs that are formally staffed and targeting cultural change are needed.

Dr Kate Hibbert

Gender in the Global Research Landscape: Analysis of research performance through a gender lens across 20 years, 12 geographies, and 27 subject areas

The second panellist of the evening was Dr Kate Hibbert. She serves as the Market Intelligence Manager at Elsevier, one of the largest publishing companies of scientific research. Dr Hibbert spoke about a recent study done by Elsevier regarding gender in the global research landscape. [3]

The study focused on determining the current state of gender diversity in research, as reflected by published research outputs. The study evaluated research performance based on gender, quantity and quality of publications.  Social aspects of research such as leadership, collaboration and research mobility were also analysed.

Large data sets of publishing information across a number of years were collected and analysed from the Elsevier owned Scopus database. Firstly, the gender of the authors was determined using gender naming dictionaries. Author genders were compared over two different five-year periods to get a sense of progress through time. Data from 27 disciplines and across 12 different regions was analysed.

Some of the highlights from the study revealed the following:

·        The proportion of women among researchers is increasing in all 12 regions over the times studied.

·        Citation impact by work is very similar between women and men authors.

·        Articles are downloaded at equal rates for women and men.

·        Among researchers, women are less internationally mobile than men.

·        Women make up at least 40% of researchers in nine out of the twelve regions.

·        Women tend to be more represented in medical and biological sciences, and less so in the physical sciences.

These were only the highlights, and Dr. Hibbert invited us to read the full report.

Tom Ilube CBE

The third panellist of the evening was Tom Ilube CBE, a technology entrepreneur and educational philanthropist. Among many roles, he is the founder of the African Science Academy, a girls science and technology school based in Ghana. This is an all-girls science and technology academy, where girls from many countries across Africa attend to train in A-levels science and technology courses.

In his insightful talk, Tom explained the similarities between being a successful entrepreneur, and founding and running a charity,. In both cases, every complex problem and idea must be simplified. He summarised his philosophy of the key skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur or philanthropist with the acronym FAST:

·        Failure: One must become excellent at failing. Prepare and be ready to fail, because those who are not ready to fail will not succeed. Starting a charity or a new company will require lots of failing.

·        Ambition: One needs to have a big ambition. Ambition is essential to be able to get out of bed even on the worst days.

·        Storytelling: Successful entrepreneurs are excellent storytellers. This is a skill developed by practice and relates entirely to the way we communicate. The story should come in multiple versions lasting 30 seconds, 5 minutes, and 30 minutes (for pitching to different audiences). In every good story there needs to be a hero and a significant villain. Lastly, the story needs a happy-ever-after, where the actions of the hero have everlasting benefits.

·        Tai Chi: The last letter in the FAST acronym involves a more abstract concept. Tai Chi is a martial art that emphasizes being focused and aware of the environment. For example, in combat it relates to using opponents as leverage. In charity and entrepreneurship, this can be translated as: How can I get this person/organization to act as leverage for me?

Combining some of the FAST components, Tom mentioned that a story such as “More women in STEMM will benefit the British economy and businesses across the country; therefore,we should all participate on the promotion of women in STEMM”, is a better story than “We need to end inequality in STEMM because it is the fair thing to do”. Each participating individual is seen as the hero of the story, to the benefit of the whole country.

To finalize, Tom described the success of the African Science Academy by telling the story of several girls from Africa who attended the school. Some girls, who otherwise would not have received an education, have gone on to study in prestigious universities globally in many disciplines in technology and science, including those where females have been historically under-represented, such as Physics and Mechanical Engineering. He reiterated that, when trying to make a difference, we must focus on the perception of our stories; for example, when thinking “Education-charity-Africa”, we should move from “young kids getting free books” to “the smartest girls you know will study mechanical engineering”.

You can change a continent like Africa, but only if you do it one girl at a time.”

The event concluded with a dynamic Q&A session, where the audience engaged with the speakers on issues surrounding gender equality in STEMM subjects. The Q&A was followed by informal networking, where the discussions continued over beverages and nibbles.


1. National Institutes of Health. The Science of Diversity.

2.Hewlett, S.A., M. Marshall, and L. Sherbin, How diversity can drive innovation. Harvard business review, 2013. 91(12): p. 30-30.

3. Elsevier. Gender in the Global Research Landscape.

4. Ovseiko, P.V., et al., Advancing gender equality through the Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science: an exploratory study of women’s and men’s perceptions. Health research policy and systems, 2017. 15(1): p. 12.