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Primary Care Health Sciences Athena Swan self-assessment team receiving flowers
Some of the Primary Care Health Sciences Athena Swan self-assessment team receive flowers to thank them for their work on the successful Athena Swan Gold application. From left to right Kathryn Ungerer, Sue Ziebland, Clare Wickings, Head of Department Richard Hobbs, Nicola Small and Catherine Pope hold yellow bouquets.

With the fantastic news of the first Athena Swan Gold award at the University of Oxford, we took a moment to speak to the outgoing Athena Swan Champion Prof Sue Ziebland in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences to discuss their achievement, how they got there, and advice they have for future gold departments.

You applied for Gold first in 2017, but were awarded silver – how did that affect the way you approached Athena Swan and EDI work in general in the department?

The main thing it did was tell us that what we were doing was good, but that at that point, it had not been sustained long enough to meet the standard for a Gold award. We had been tracking progress for 5 years at that time but didn’t have longer term data to demonstrate sustained improvement. One of our responses was to set up a data monitoring sub-group. We thought we had come a long way in 2017, but I can see that we’ve come so much further now and can clearly demonstrate that.

The other thing that made a huge difference was appointing a dedicated member of Professional Services staff whose role includes driving the Athena Swan/staff culture and development agenda. We were able to recruit Kathryn Ungerer who has been key to our success. We had heard concerns from other departments where the bulk of Athena Swan and EDI/culture work seemed to fall to early career female researchers, which could conflict with their own career development. In Primary Care, the main effort has been made by senior academics (male and female) and administrators and those with allocated time in their role. In this way we have tried to ensure that the Athena Swan work did not exacerbate existing inequalities.

Can you share a bit with us a few of the key things you have worked on over the last few years that led to you being in a position to go for a Gold award?

Though it wasn’t the best format, the structure of the older Athena Swan applications (asking us to review in detail specific parts of departmental culture, such as PDR’s, promotion, and workload) gave us a framework on which to focus our efforts. A key piece of work we did for Gold was an in-depth review of workload which formed a centrepiece of our action plan and provided a good model for other actions. 

We took the opportunity to be honest and identify the areas where we had a long way to go. This helped us to see where our efforts were most needed and also allowed us to demonstrate the greatest impact over the years. For example, when we submitted our first application in 2012, we had few senior women in the department and no female professors, whereas now we have several and many more women on senior track.

When it was a requirement to have a Silver level award for some NIHR funding schemes, there was some cynicism around whether the commitment was to EDI or obtaining research funding. By not being prepared to stick at Silver but having the greater ambition for Gold, we were able to demonstrate that our commitment was to continuous improvement, rather than coasting once we reached the Silver threshold.

There are many documented examples of how we have made real progress. For example, in the proportion of students with at least one female doctoral supervisor, the promotion successes (now achieved equally among full time and part time staff) and  the frequency with which PDRs are reported as helpful. It has been really gratifying to see the fruits of our AS actions, translated into improved career opportunities and a more inclusive and supportive working environment for all.

What is the thing you are most proud of as a department?

Aside from what I’ve mentioned above, we have really developed our formal support for early and mid career researchers, including their stated priorities for support in writing grant applications and fellowships and in leadership training. When Covid-19 hit, it was wonderful to have existing wellbeing work and networks to build on with dedicated staff. I think the continuation of this work during the pandemic is something of which we should be proud.

I’ve always been impressed by how many people have contributed to this work. We made an early decision that Athena Swan should not be seen as an initiative that was only about women, so we called the working group the ‘Better Workplace’ group to emphasise this. Everyone in the department is expected to chip in to good citizenship initiatives in some way. We have multiple working groups from across the department including the early/mid-career group, the DPhil group, return to onsite working, workload, PDR groups and many more. Even up to the day of submission I was hearing about fantastic ‘grassroots’ initiatives - people just working out what needed to be done and doing it - which I see as a sign of a healthy culture and environment. 

Now you have a Gold award – what’s next?

We have a great action plan that we’re looking forward to carrying out. We definitely need to celebrate, and we have a departmental conference coming up on Wednesday 29 March 29, so that's a great opportunity to do so. I hope that the award will encourage people to think of new ‘Better workplace’ actions and activities.  I’m sure we won’t rest on our laurels, the action plan should develop and stay dynamic. I’m delighted that taking this forward is new Chair Prof James Sheppard who has been committed to this work since we started, first as a working group lead and then Deputy Chair.

What advice would you give a department that is considering applying for a gold award, or is hoping to in the future?

Having good knowledge of your key data going back to (or even before) your earliest awards will be key to demonstrating a sustained improvement. The underlying expectation for Gold, which are now clear in a way they weren’t in 2017, is that you need to show data for longer than one 5 year award cycle. Reading other Gold applications is very useful. Also getting advice from those who have sat on the awards committee is really valuable, such as Katherine Corr, Jennifer Chapin and others across the University.

If you are a Gold level department, the chances are there is a lot going on and you will need a bit of help to identify and refine your application narrative. A critical friend or several critical friends are key here to keep it sharp, keep you on track, and help you to decide on what to focus on. I think it could have been very easy to stray into general culture issues and not kept the lens on gender and inspectional inequalities.

Give yourself as much time as possible, we had a rough draft ready about 6 months in advance of the application and spent a long time shaping, polishing, and refining the narrative to fit within the tiny word count. Departments making an application are likely to be skilled at research and data presentation e.g. in running focus groups, interpreting data, and designing a good survey or an infographic. Drawing on these skills at the right moment can engage a wider group and make a real difference to the sense of involvement, ownership and celebration when the award is made.

Read more about Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences’s Athena Swan and Better Workplace activity including their successful Gold application

Explore the MSD Athena SWAN webpages and toolkit, which includes Athena Swan, data, consultation and general EDI resources for departments.

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