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Women in Science – Supporting and developing great talent

12 Mar, 2015


“Be bold”, “be confident” and “be yourself” – just some of the positive advice that came out of the Wellcome Trust’s Women in Science event last week. Co-hosted with Aberdeen Asset Management, the event brought together current and future leaders from science, media, finance and industry to share their experiences, explore existing challenges, and propose novel ideas to improve workplace diversity and retention of talent. Hannah Laurence reports on some of the main themes, messages and initiatives discussed at the event…

At the Wellcome Trust we seek to support our grantholders as best as we can. Results from our career tracker survey have indicated that a lack of mentoring, career support and role models may be factors contributing to the number of women leaving science earlier in their careers than men.

It is widely recognised that women are underrepresented in the top tiers of organisations – not only in scientific research, but across a range of sectors, including the media, finance and the corporate world. As part of our wider aim to attract and retain talented individuals within research, the Women in Science event was designed to bring together professionals, from an array of backgrounds, in surroundings that stimulated open and frank discussions around the topics of diversity, talent management and career progression. As well as listening to experiences from within the research sector, sharing and learning from other areas, such as industry, can contribute towards our wider aim of attracting and retaining talented researchers.

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A “leaky pipe”

The day began with thought-provoking introductory remarks from Governor of the Wellcome Trust, Professor Dame Kay Davies, and Aberdeen Asset Management’s Chief Investment Officer, Anne Richards. They both noted that while career opportunities for women have certainly improved over the years, the pace of change has been slower than anticipated (or hoped for). Stark figures showing the “leaky pipe” of women in science set the scene for subsequent discussions. How do we attract women into STEM careers? – and importantly, what needs to change in order to keep them?

With nods of strong agreement that more needs to be done to even-out the gender balance and increase diversity, it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty, and explore which strategies could actually make a difference. Throughout the event, speakers and audience members tackled tough questions around improving the gender balance (especially in senior roles), and how organisations, institutions and companies can benefit from diversity.

While all of the contributors and participants agreed that the challenges are complex, there was still room for some healthy debate around the way the issues are articulated, and the solutions put forth to help solve them.

Forging paths

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Speakers on the first panel shared their personal tips on confidence building and career progression. Professor Carol Robinson, recommended media training, and also said that assertiveness training can help people be clearer in communication and find their voices. Pfizer’s Dr Ruth McKernan emphasised the need to have the confidence to be yourself at work. She also spoke about the importance of pursuing a career you feel passionate about.

Professor Jane Clarke astutely pointed out “if you have a leaking pipe, you don’t blame the water” – a sentiment echoed later on in the day by Kathryn Koch at Goldman Sachs, who reflected: “we focus a bit too much on ‘fixing’ the women. Stop trying to fix women, and fix management.”

The speakers, despite their varied backgrounds, agreed that being a successful leader is not about changing yourself to match other people’s expectations – nor is it about emulating other successful colleagues. As Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, Wellcome Trust Governor (and next Chair otemplate pic2f the Trust), stated: “There is no template”.

The theme of confidence was woven throughout the day, although there was recognition that confidence can only get you so far. In order for bright, talented individuals to succeed, there must be structures and systems in place to ensure that working environments reflect and embrace diversity.

What can funders and shareholders do?

With representatives from the Science Museum Group, Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust, BBSRC and Aberdeen Asset Management on the panel, the question of what grant-making bodies and shareholders can do to improve the situation was explored.

The panel touched upon recruitment practices and discussed the pros and cons of a range of ideas, including setting quotas; anonymising applications; unconscious bias training for interview panels and linking compensation to diversity matters. They also looked at funding and the issue of retaining talented individuals – regardless of gender. Dr Jim Smith, MRC, talked about the importance of supporting not just women, but families.

The BBSRC’s Jackie Hunter discussed how they are going out to talk to the institutions where there are largest discrepancies in diversity to find out why this is the case. She also reminded us that we should all hold ourselves accountable for our actions when we see behaviour that is not helping diversity.

Professor Dame Kay Davies and the Wellcome Trust’s Ted Smith also touched on the Trust’s flexible support that is available for researchers at all career stages. This includes enhanced maternity and paternity leave provision for researchers, acknowledging the impact of caring responsibilities beyond the period of time formally away from work.

Learning from others

Professor Eleftheria Zeggini from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute gave us a whistlestop tour of the “Sex in Science” programme she leads at the Sanger Institute. This initiative is helping to create a more supportive environment for employees and their families, with positive results so far. One of the creative steps they have taken is to create an onsite nursery, which helps to provide extra flexibility for individuals working at the Sanger Institute.

C0111921 'Women in Science' eventThe University of York’s Chemistry department has made great progress since 2004, when they took the step to base their approaches on hard evidence, rather than anecdotes and hearsay. Professor Paul Walton shared his take on the successful initiatives implemented. A key component has been to introduce a policy that allows any researcher to work part-time, with a guarantee that they can return to full-time employment at any point in the future.

Despite initial reservations from the university from a finance perspective, it transpired that instead of increasing costs, it actually saved money in the long term. Both men and women took up the opportunity to be more flexible, with the additional (and unforeseen) effect of helping to de-stigmatise part-time working.

Cultural change cannot happen overnight of course, and Professor Walton explained it has taken the department around ten years to see a discernible and measureable impact. Adding his thoughts on an earlier question about engaging men with the issues, his observation was that when language switched from being focused on women to being about ‘fairness’, men were much more eager to engage with the issues.

Sponsors vs Mentors

“A mentor is someone you can talk to, a sponsor is someone who will talk about you when you’re not in the room” said Kathryn Koch, addressing a question as to the distinction between the terms.

Both roles had been mentioned at various times during discussions, and while there was widespread support for mentors – “a mentor will hold up a mirror to you; it’s tough love but invaluable” said Dr Gill Samuels – the notion of sponsors split the room.

Professor Jane Clarke was adamant that sponsors – people who help to promote you to others – are akin to “the old boys’ network”, which should be broken down rather than encouraged. Others disagreed; taking the view that assigning sponsors in leadership or decision-making roles to individuals earlier on in their careers could be an effective tool for promoting diversity.

Embracing diversity

aone 5We heard the case for having wide diversity in the workplace throughout the day and there is no doubt that those in the room understood the importance and benefits of it. Despite this we also heard that many organisations may still struggle with how to push the topic up the agenda and make changes in sensible and practical ways.

Speakers from both industry and the financial sector set out the clear business case for a diverse workforce, with creativity, innovation and competitive advantages all being noted. Focussing on the business need for diversity has helped them to introduce initiatives to attract and retain talented people.

Diversity within the workplace has many benefits to the overall success of organisations. As Professor Dame Anne Johnson and others pointed out, diversity is not solely a matter of gender- we can all benefit from a mix of ideas, approaches, and experience.

At the end of an energising day, the message was clear – everyone needs to be involved and accountable for what we, and our organisations, can change in order to help talented individuals achieve their full potential – and judging by the atmosphere at the event, there is no shortage of ideas or enthusiasm to make changes for the better.

You can find out more about the way that the Wellcome Trust supports flexible research careers and read about our Career Re-entry Fellowships. If you’d like to see what advice attendees of the Women in Science event offered others in the field, take a look at our blog post celebrating International Women’s Day 2015.

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