Welcoming Athena SWAN Silver

By Catherine Gater, Equality Diversity and Inclusion Programme Manager, in conversation with Charlie Weatherhogg, Human Resources Director for the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Connecting Science and a variety of teams across the Wellcome Genome Campus.

Staff at the Wellcome Genome Campus

What has been our Athena SWAN journey so far?

“In April 2020, we were awarded a Silver award for the first time. Advance HE’s Athena SWAN charter was established in 2005 to advance women’s careers in STEMM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine). Its Bronze, Silver and Gold awards celebrate good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women. In recent years, the awards have expanded to cover achieving wider diversity and inclusion. In April 2014, the Wellcome Sanger Institute became one of the first research institutes to gain an Athena SWAN Bronze award.

“Our journey with Athena SWAN has been a story of steady progress and cultural change, which inevitably takes time to take hold. When we consolidated our Bronze award in 2016, we realised that we needed to talk more about the impact of our activities if we wanted to step up to Silver. In our application, we made clearer the links between the actions we have taken and the results we have seen. All of this has required time and a lot of effort, which is why we are so pleased to see that this has been recognised with our Silver award.”

What is the main significance of the new award?

 “As an organisation, we are acutely aware that science, academia and our organisation has been under scrutiny historically, and we hold ourselves to the very highest standards. We are deeply committed to our values of equality, diversity and inclusion and these are fundamental to our work. Having held roles in a range of organisations globally, I know from personal experience that we do much more than most in demonstrating this commitment. The Silver award is an endorsement of these efforts, but of course our work does not stop here.”

What do you see as the key progress we have made since the last award?

“Since it was launched, the Athena SWAN charter itself has expanded to incorporate advances in best practice. Athena SWAN applies in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law, takes account of professional and support roles, and examines the support in place for trans staff and students. The charter now recognises work undertaken to address equality and inclusion more broadly, and not just barriers to progression that affect women.

 “Our progress has been all about understanding and then demonstrating the impact of our EDI strategy more directly. We have always been deeply committed to developing a truly inclusive environment but we are now able to make direct links between our ambitions and the work that we have delivered. We have also made the role EDI plays in our broader organisational culture clearer, and we will launch this in our Behavioural Capability Framework (BCF) this summer. The BCF will be a clear set of guidelines for all of us that will help ensure we all work together to foster a supportive and positive environment.

“One of the strengths of Athena SWAN is that it has shown us as an organisation where we are still learning, where we struggle and where we are improving. I believe that we are much better than we often think we are with this, but there will always be room to improve. Part of our learning is to understand that women face more barriers in senior science roles and that we must find ways to mitigate for this effectively. Overall, our organisation is 52 per cent female, so you would expect to see a more balanced representation in our senior scientific (Faculty) roles – we are currently around 30 per cent women.

“The success rate of women appointed across all roles has increased steadily, growing from 25 per cent in 2016 to 60 per cent in 2018. In 2017 to 2018, 71 per cent women were recruited into leadership positions, compared to an average of 45 per cent in 2012-2016. There are 44 per cent women in the highest pay band compared to 23 per cent in 2014. In recent years, women tend to gain a greater percentage of high performance ratings in the annual performance review process. Tracking this kind of data is invaluable for our organisation – it ensures we can show progress and also helps us consider how we can all work together to improve these figures further.

“In senior research roles we are seeing similar percentages of women as you do in board rooms across the globe, at around 30 per cent. Societal pressures relating to childcare, travel and dual career couples come into play as they do elsewhere and we are working hard to mitigate those where we can. As part of a dual career couple myself, I have seen how the pressures of family responsibilities can play out, especially during the early childhood years.

“Our revised approach to supporting scientific careers includes a more structured tenure review process for Faculty staff and greater transparency with our Faculty Model. Our Returners Grant of up to £30,000 is an innovative way to help any returners who are coming back from extended family leave to get back up to speed professionally. The Janet Thornton Fellowship funding programme is open each year to scientists who have had a break from research of over 12 months for any reason. We are still exploring new ways to address imbalance… It is absolutely not a talent issue!”

Charlie Weatherhogg, Human Resources Director.

Where next for our EDI focus?

“As part of our Athena SWAN application, we shared our Action Plan for the next four years. This plan is specific, time limited and tied to areas in the submission that the organisation has targeted for improvement. You can find the our Athena SWAN Action Plan online.

“Our Athena SWAN Action Plan is embedded within our EDI Strategy and we have identified key milestones over the next four years. These target gender disparity and explore areas beyond the barriers affecting women, and increasingly men, in science. We are looking to work closely with Stonewall on our LGBTQ+ strategies, to understand neurodiversity and what this means for our staff and explore engagement with our BAME communities. We are keen to raise the levels of awareness about all these areas of challenge.

“Our aim is to make sure that we take a steady pace through these areas of change and maintain clarity and focus. My biggest concern is that we move too quickly in too many areas and ultimately cause confusion. We will be setting out regular targets and backing those up with outreach and education. We know that cultural change takes years to achieve, not months.

“We are incredibly ambitious as an organisation but we will also be careful with the pace of change and take a sensible and measured approach. We have worked hard to build the foundations – now we need to manage our momentum judiciously.”

How are you addressing research culture and behaviours that cause concern?

“In January 2020, Sanger published a blog “2020 vision: supporting the people behind our science”. This outlined how good research practice is integral to our work, and reflects the organisation’s commitment to a research culture founded on honesty, integrity and respect. The guidelines will be updated in 2020 and include four themes: research ethics, integrity and reporting; respect, ethical behaviour and professional standards; training, mentoring and leadership; and research visibility and maximising scientific output.

“Our research culture links closely to our organisational culture. Part of achieving a positive research culture is recognising that the way we deliver science is just as important as what we deliver. We support sustainable, ethical research and we strive to recognise everyone’s contribution. This year we have launched an updated Code of Conduct and a detailed Behavioural Competency Framework will follow shortly. All staff are extremely clear about the behaviours that we expect to see from everyone in the organisation,  understand how good practice will be rewarded and celebrated, as well as the consequences for behaviours that do not live up to our expectations.  All of this work ensures clarity and transparency for everyone working across the organisation – these are guidelines for all of us, which have been shaped by all of us.”

What are your aspirations for the future?

“I believe that our site here at the Wellcome Genome Campus does reflect wider Cambridge society –  we are representative of where we are located, to a certain extent. My aspirations for the future are for our EDI work to take us beyond our environment and connect more deeply with all sectors of society, including our BAME communities. I personally would like to encourage people to get into science from schools in more disadvantaged areas and from there into our organisation. Our colleagues in Public Engagement and Connecting Science continue to deliver great work in this area, and our EDI activities are designed to support this.

“Ultimately, I would like to see acceptance and celebration of the skills and experience brought by as wide range of people as possible, irrespective of where they were born, their background, their caring responsibilities or areas of challenge in their lives. In my lifetime, I have seen society evolve massively to the multi-cultural society we enjoy today. The pace of change has been rapid and its impact is very positive. The wide variety of views and experiences we embrace makes our organisation, our people and our science, better. These are exciting times – long may it continue!”

Find out more

Sanger Institute Equality in Science Programme