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Supporting women in science: International Women’s Day


This International Women’s Day, Rose Wu speaks to our researchers to find out more about some of the work taking place across the Institute of Cancer Research to support women across different stages of their research careers.

Posted on 08 March, 2019 by Rose Wu

Collage of four female ICR scientists

Image: Collage of four female ICR scientists. Clockwise from top left: Dr Mercedes Pardo Calvo, Professor Nandita deSouza, Dr Rachael Natrajan and Dr Jumi Popoola

I’m proud to work for an institution that takes the careers of women in science – and the barriers that they may be facing – seriously.

Speaking to some of our researchers at different stages of their careers for International Women’s Day, it’s clear that the steps The Institute of Cancer Research is putting in place to support women in science are making an impact, and moving us in the right direction.

The ICR’s work to promote equality for women in science is led by our Athena SWAN Steering Group, which is co-chaired by our Chief Executive, Professor Paul Workman and Professor Jessica Downs, Professor of Epigenetics and Genome Stability.

The group brings together representatives from across the ICR to work together to identify practical, real-world solutions – which can make the greatest impact for our staff  and students.

The Athena SWAN charter is only one of the many initiatives the ICR employs to promote gender equality.

Learn more

Overcoming barriers

When identifying the types of barriers facing women in their careers, Professor Downs has said:

“Often when we talk about the issues facing women in their careers, we talk about things like childcare and family responsibilities. These are of course important concerns, but importantly in my mind, eminently solvable.”

Greater choice and flexibility about working patterns can make a huge difference to someone’s experience of the workplace – and the ICR’s flexible working culture is designed to factor in the realities of balancing work and family life and needs, and support staff wellbeing and performance at work.  

Dr Jumi Popoola is a higher scientific officer in the Division of Cancer Therapeutics. Jumi works condensed hours – working 37 hours per week, condensed into four days – to allow her to flexibly design a work routine that fits well around her family life. We spoke to her about how this has helped her in her career and life outside work.

Another small but effective initiative we have recently introduced is the ICR’s new conference and training care support fund – which enables parents to claim extra childcare costs for activities outside work time.

Research is an international career, and it can be particular difficult for parents who don’t have their family support network nearby. Our fund recognises this, to give as much flexibility as possible to those who wish to access it.

Mercedes Pardo Calvo is a Senior Scientific Officer in our Functional Proteomics Group.

She was awarded £250 from the fund which she used to pay for her parents’ travel costs to the UK from Spain, so they could help look after her children while she attended a week-long collaborative lab retreat with colleagues from the Cell Division group. Mercedes shared how the fund supported her to take up a valuable career opportunity.

Other examples of recent initiatives to support families include promoting remote working from home, the expansion of children's access to our lab building in Chelsea, and changing our guidance about holding meetings within core hours.

Many of these are small, but important, practical things that enable women and those with family commitments in particular to keep in the loop, and at the centre of discussions.

Supporting women in leadership

An area the ICR is focusing on as a priority is increasing the number of women in scientific leadership roles.

Currently around 30 per cent of our scientists at Team Leader level are women (compared to around 50 per cent of postdocs) – which is consistent with the proportion of applications we have.

We have taken steps to encourage women to apply for Faculty roles, and introduced ways to support women to develop leadership skills. For example, our Women in Science network led by Professor Jessica Downs and Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Operating Officer at the ICR, provides a space for our female Faculty members, Senior Staff Scientists and senior research-active clinicians to network and share ideas.

Dr Rachael Natrajan leads the Functional Genomics team at the ICR. In 2012, she was awarded a career development fellowship to start her own lab within our Division of Breast Cancer.

We asked Dr Natrajan about the support she has received, and what advice she would give to Postdocs thinking about taking their first steps towards independence and leading a team.

Changes have also been made to the ICR's promotion structure and 'tenure clock' for those in time-limited research roles to take into account factors such as maternity leave, shared parental leave and long-term sickness leave.

We also provide maternity cover for tenure-track Faculty to provide support laboratory management when on leave. Through measures such as these, we hope to encourage women to stay in academia and to progress to leadership roles.

We have also revised our recruitment processes to include mandatory recruitment training, and training around unconscious biases.

We also ensure that every Faculty recruitment panel includes at least one woman, and whilst we believe this will have a positive impact on the way we recruit, we also acknowledge the additional workload burden this places on our senior female Faculty and are taking steps to offset this by including external colleagues on recruitment panels where appropriate.

Professor Nandita deSouza, Professor of Translational Imaging at the ICR, sits on the ICR’s Athena SWAN committee.

We spoke to her about some of the progress that has been made in improving things for women at all levels – such as changing the pathway for progression to professorship for women working part time – and the challenges that still lie ahead.

 Driving change

Through the work of our Athena SWAN committee, we closely monitor our progress, looking at statistics on women’s careers and through research into people’s experiences of working here, to understand what impact our work is having, and what more there is to do.

We are currently in the process of renewing our Athena SWAN Silver Award, which we were first awarded in 2015, having achieved the Bronze Athena SWAN Award in 2009 and 2012.

Our ongoing commitment to progress and to build on our achievements has brought together staff across our research and our corporate services, with a wealth of different experiences, ideas and a shared energy to continue to enhance the opportunities available for all our female researchers and wider staff.

Our group is also increasingly looking at how the work of Athena SWAN can create a work environment where all people, regardless of their gender, race, sexuality or any other characteristic, are welcomed and supported at all levels – so that all our staff and students feel equally valued and supported to realise their potential.


Nandita de Souza Athena SWAN women in science Jessica Downs Rachael Natrajan Mercedes Pardo Calvo Jumi Popoola International Women's Day Equality and Diversity Women in Science - Awareness Days
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