UK OFFICE : +44 (0)1260 273 802
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UK OFFICE : +44 (0)1260 273 802
BRUSSELS OFFICE : +32 (0)2 895 5909

Scientist
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Analysis… A strategy for diversity

17/12/15Science & Technology

BBSRC’s chief executive Professor Jackie Hunter discusses the issue of gender equality in both the UK and Europe – highlighting the importance of role models and sponsorship.

Funded by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is one of seven that work together as Research Councils UK (RCUK). It has a budget for 2014-2015 of around £509m (~€718.5m) – £459m on research and capital grants and £50m for training and fellowships; and supports around 1,600 scientists and 2,000 research students in universities and institutes across the UK.

Professor Jackie Hunter, who joined BBSRC as chief executive in October 2013, has been an outspoken advocate of gender equality throughout her career, and is striving to ensure that the gender question is taken into consideration both within her own research council and beyond. In advance of her speech at the Seventh European Gender Summit in Berlin, Germany, in November, Pan European Networks asked her about the issue of gender equality in science in both the UK and Europe, including the importance of role models, and what BBSRC is doing to ensure gender sensitivity.

Horizon 2020 is the first EU R&I framework programme to identify gender as a criterion of success – how would you assess the funding programme as it relates to gender?

The Commission has made significant progress on the issue of gender in Horizon 2020 because not only are there specific programmes around gender – such as Science with and for Society – which are very valuable, but there are also explicit questions around gender in the proposals. This means that people are thinking about this issue in a way that they haven’t necessarily done before.

Of course, it remains to be seen how successful this is going to be, but this is nevertheless a very promising start and, moreover, some of the funded programmes should now be able to acquire more data, which is crucial. We have found that having accurate and reliable data to drive a dialogue is really important, and we need to achieve this both at the European and member state levels. As such, within Horizon 2020, there is perhaps a need for an evaluation at the halfway point so that we can see where we are, and to look potentially at specific calls for proposals to include the quality of data gathering; because acquiring the data can be a significant amount of work, especially if automated systems aren’t in place (or if they are not fit for purpose). This is something that might need to be incentivised through funding programmes.

Opportunities for advancement in science careers are strongly linked to the demonstration of a good publication record, but also increasingly to success in securing research funding. What actions would you like to see research funders take to ensure objectivity and fairness in the assessment of research excellence?

This is very important and when I joined the BBSRC I asked to look at the success rates and application rates by gender, because if we don’t get women scientists applying for research funding, and being successful in those applications, then we won’t shift the gender balance at the top because they won’t have the requisite experience for their career progression. There are thus a number of things which require our attention.

First of all, you need to gather the data, and ours has demonstrated that in a number of research councils, my own included, the application rates for women are not always reflective of the eligible principal investigator (PI) population. We have therefore conducted a pilot scheme along with seven universities, within which the focus group work has been designed to find out why women are not applying. There are a number of reasons for this, it would seem, and while some of these rest with the universities, some of them are definitely things that funders can work to address.

For instance, at the BBSRC, we ask for a full CV, and that could automatically provide some foundation for bias when you are looking at people with career breaks. This could be solved by asking instead for the applicant’s six major papers, and this is something we are now discussing. At the BBSRC we will be undergoing unconscious bias training for all our assessment panels; another thing we can do – which may or may not be applicable to other funders – is to be more transparent and provide feedback for people who are unsuccessful. We also need to make sure that there is a representative gender balance on panels, even in areas like physics where that might be quite hard to achieve. Once we have the data we can use it to prompt discussion. At my research council we send a letter to the 30 top institutions that we fund each year. Last year – and this is something that is continuing – this letter contained their application and success rates by gender, which was interesting because they hadn’t seen that in aggregate before.

What particular issues affect female representation and participation in the biotech and biological sciences specifically – how does this field compare to other scientific disciplines?

It is interesting that more women than men go into the biological sciences, and the numbers even remain comparable at the PhD level, but then there is the classic drop off when it gets to reader level and above. Nevertheless, the biological sciences should perhaps be seen as being better placed to solve this issue because of the relatively high number of women at the beginning of the career path. There are issues around what could be termed ‘sponsorship’, in the sense that the majority of people in senior positions at the moment are male, and if a man is asked to put forward a name for a committee for instance, quite often they will provide a male name. If they are prompted for a woman’s they will be able to provide a perfectly eligible woman, but it is simply not the first name that comes to mind. As such, there needs to be a lot more active sponsorship and challenge to people when they’re asked for names, because unless we get more women being recommended for committees and panels etc., then they won’t have the experience or exposure (or, indeed, confidence) that they need to further their career.

There is a question around role models here, too, and this is also something that the funders and academic institutions can do more about. As a positive example: Cambridge University recently created a publication containing the profiles of the really talented women there, what they are doing, and how they got to where they are. We are thinking about doing something similar in the BBSRC. This is important because it demonstrates that women can achieve these positions, that they can also have a family, come from diverse backgrounds, and that they don’t have to behave like a man in order to progress.

We also want to highlight the fact that many women in senior positions have worked part-time for portions of their career, but have still been able to achieve success. Until now, perhaps, a pervasive, non-inclusive culture has meant that many women have not felt comfortable telling others that this has been the case, which certainly means that other women have not felt able to request more flexible working, and still more may have avoided this type of career choice entirely. Alongside this, we also need to involve more men in the process because the whole argument is one of diversity; it is not about women becoming more like men or men more like women. It is about everybody having a range of styles which will enable them to be more effective at their work. These are points which are not specific to biology; but there is a sense that the biological sciences and biotechnology areas may be able to start from a better position when it comes to addressing some of these challenges.

What is the BBSRC doing to ensure gender bias and sensitivity is a part of its own work?

We have a very clear equality and diversity strategy and, internally, I have also implemented targets. The unconscious bias training that my staff and executive team are undergoing is part of our efforts to make people within the organisation more aware of potential biases. Gender bias is thus high on the agenda. We focused very much on gender this year and we want to try to look at diversity more broadly next year as well. When we did focus group work with the universities, we involved people from across the office so as to create a much broader exposure to some of the issues of gender, but we need to include other protected characteristics in future work. For example, self-reporting is an issue that we want to look at. If we look at disability and sexuality characteristics, the level of self-reporting is very low – perhaps because the environment is not conducive to a more inclusive society. A measure of success (for me, at least) will be when we see more self-reporting of these characteristics, because that will indicate that people feel that it is a safe environment in which to do so.

Professor Jackie Hunter

Chief Executive

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)

This article first appeared in issue 17 of PEN: Science & Technology, which is now available here.