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This item originally appeared in Oxford Magazine, Noughth Week, Trinity Term, 2015, pp. 3-4

We live and breathe organisational culture every day, but paradoxically it is hard to describe until somebody challenges or reveals it through research. With support from the Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Fund and the University’s Equality and Diversity Unit, we – a group of researchers and practitioners under the leadership of Dean of Medicine and Head of Division, Professor Alastair Buchan and Associate Head of Division (Development, Impact and Equality) Professor Dame Kay Davies – set out to explore the culture of the Medical Sciences Division, the largest of the four divisions of the University. Our particular aim was to understand how to create a more supportive and inclusive culture for all staff in the Division, including academic, research, administrative, professional, and other support staff.

In order to capture how staff in the Medical Sciences Division experience its culture, we established a collaboration with Dr Linda Pololi, Director of the United States’ National Initiative on Gender, Culture and Leadership in Medicine (C-Change) at Brandeis University ( and adapted their survey instrument to the UK context. The survey asked about career advancement and leadership aspirations, engagement and vitality, values and practices, ethics and morale, relationships, diversity, work-life integration, and institutional change efforts. We administered the survey in Trinity 2014, and received 2,407 responses — a 63% response rate.

In Michaelmas 2014, Dr Pololi presented the results of the survey and provided a comparison with the results previously obtained from a nationally representative sample of US medical schools to over 200 staff in three sessions held at the John Radcliffe, Old Road, and South Parks Road Campuses. The presentations generated good discussions and highlighted several key areas of achievement and concern in a comparative perspective. One of the most striking differences between Oxford and the US was in the perceptions of institutional change efforts for staff support and diversity.

On the one hand, we were pleased to see that in comparison with US medical schools, Oxford staff perceived a greater effort in the Medical Sciences Division to improve support for employees through the initiation of policy and programmatic change. Namely, large proportions of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that in the past year the Medical Sciences Division has significantly strengthened its mentoring programmes, attempted to humanise its policies and practices, instituted family-friendly policies, invested more fully in the success of staff, is responding more to input from staff, and is open to change.

On the other hand, we were concerned to see that in comparison with US medical schools, Oxford staff perceived lesser effort in the Medical Sciences Division to recruit and advance female and, especially, black and minority ethnic (BME) staff. Whereas approximately two thirds of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that within the past year there has been an effort in the Medical Sciences Division for women to occupy positions of leadership, approximately only one fifth of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that there has been a similar effort to have BME staff in positions of leadership.

Currently, women and minority ethnic groups are well represented in middle leadership positions providing visible role models, but this is less true of senior leadership positions. This not only deprives medical sciences of their perspectives, creativity and leadership styles, but also presents a problem for the education and training of the next generation of women and minority ethnic clinician and scientist leaders. Moreover, fair representation and wider participation is imperative for the legitimisation of and public support for science, including allocation of public resources.

Underrepresentation of women and BME clinicians and scientists in senior leadership roles is hard to tackle. It is due in part to the historic late entry of women and BME clinicians and scientists into medical sciences (and particularly some traditionally male-dominated areas), and in part to the historic lack of role models in academia for future women and BME leaders and the lack of good part-time positions at more senior levels. But it can also be attributed to inertia and the culturally-engrained “glass ceiling” preventing all but a few exceptional women and BME clinicians and scientists from advancing to leadership positions.

The first steps toward change are always the hardest, and the Medical Sciences Division has already made great strides by electing a more gender and ethnically diverse Medical Sciences Board. As of May 2015, all departments within the Medical Sciences Division have achieved Athena SWAN awards in recognition of their commitment to advancing women’s careers. Departments have been implementing their action plans to improve further their support for female staff, and despite the fact that these action plans were aimed at supporting women, the actions implemented, such as mentoring, family-friendly policies and career development programmes, involved both women and men and will therefore improve the working environment for everyone. So, we believe that to a large degree the positive change in the perceptions of staff support in the past year are as a result of the Athena SWAN activities.

While we expect that most of our departments will receive a Silver Athena SWAN award by 2016, what will really demonstrate Oxford’s distinctiveness and competitive advantage is the ability to build on the success of these Athena SWAN activities to develop departmental and divisional action plans, which support and advance staff in the Medical Sciences Division on a continuous basis. This is required not only because of moral imperatives, but also in order to recruit and retain the best staff in today’s globally competitive academia.

Although, currently, Oxford is ranked in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings’ no. 1 for Clinical, Pre-Clinical and Health subjects (, we know from the C-Change Survey that US medical schools are perceived to be doing more in terms of recruiting and advancing women and under-represented minorities. If we are to ensure the continued pre-eminence of Oxford medical sciences globally, we will need to create a culture that is more inclusive and equitable in terms of appointing and advancing more women and BME leaders. This applies equally to the departments, the divisions, the colleges, and to the central University.

The Social Sciences Division is now taking its first steps towards creating a more supportive and inclusive culture. From Michaelmas 2015, the number of female Heads of Department in the Division will be greater than the number of male Heads of Department. Following on from the Medical Sciences Division, the Division has also run the C-Change survey, the first time Brandeis University has used it in a social sciences context. The survey, which received a 66% response rate, was administered in Michaelmas 2014, and will enable comparisons to be drawn with the Medical Sciences Division. During Trinity 2015, the Division is conducting a study in collaboration with a team from the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes University to identify issues relating to the representation and career progression of women in academic roles across the social sciences at Oxford. The study will be informed by, and will supplement, the C-Change survey data, and the results of both projects will be presented in two sessions to be held at the end of Trinity 2015. This work will support departments in the Division in preparing applications to the Gender Equality Charter Mark, a national scheme which expands the scope and aims of the Athena SWAN Charter to the arts, humanities and social sciences, and which is expected to launch later this year.

In closing, it is important to stress that we are in the beginning of an exciting culture change journey with some significant milestones yet to be achieved. For example, in over 800 years, we are yet to see the appointment of the first female or black or minority ethnic Vice-Chancellor.

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