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Why inequality in science isn’t just letting women down, but science too


Equality of opportunity is a key objective for the ICR and underpins our aim to be the employer of choice for those working in cancer research. Our latest blog from CEO Professor Paul Workman explains our commitment to ensure women have the same opportunities to progress in their scientific careers as men, and what we're doing to achieve it.

Posted on 18 November, 2015 by Professor Paul Workman

Science is a competitive activity. There is fierce competition between scientists to secure funding and make the biggest discoveries, as well as between organisations to top the league tables for research excellence and demonstrate the impact of their work.

Although collaboration and team science are increasingly important today, there is no doubt that healthy competition is critically important in driving up research excellence.

Furthermore, at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, we have a tougher competitor still – all our research is focused on understanding and defeating cancer.

In this climate it is essential for scientific organisations to maximise the quality and output of their human talent. We need to recruit and retain the world’s best researchers, as we need the ideas, skills, passion, enthusiasm and drive they bring. That – along with the fact that it is the right thing to do in the modern world – is why we have to ensure that women have the same opportunities to progress in their scientific careers as men.

If we fail to realize the full potential of half our workforce we are not only letting women down, but the whole research enterprise too.

I am personally committed to enhancing the career opportunities for all our female staff across the organisation. I have seen the enormous value of this to both science and society, not only in my professional job as a research leader but also in my personal experience of encouraging the careers of my wife, daughter (and in the future my granddaughter!) as well as many friends, family and colleagues.

I believe that the actions we take to support women here at the ICR will help us attract and retain the very best scientists across the board. And we will do much better science if everyone – regardless of gender – is supported and encouraged as much as possible throughout their careers.

So what more can we do to enhance the opportunities available for all our female researchers?

Last year, I took on the role of Executive Lead of the ICR’s Athena SWAN Silver Steering Group – the team responsible for demonstrating our commitment to women in science. I did so because it’s something that I feel very strongly about. As Chief Executive, as well as the leader of an active research group, I know how important it is to make the most of the talents of every member of the team.

The ICR currently holds a Bronze Athena SWAN Award – part of an excellent programme set up to advance women’s careers in science – received in recognition of the work we have done so far to address female under-representation. I have been closely involved in supporting the delivery of the Bronze Action Plan that we developed in our application – which I am delighted to say has contributed to 91 per cent of female staff reporting in our staff survey this year that the ICR is a good place to work.

Our activities to achieve our Bronze Award identified some key transition points which represent our most significant barriers to women – in particular between postdoctoral researcher and junior Team Leader and between Tenure Track Career Development Faculty and Non-Time Limited Faculty.

We have initiated a range of projects to equip our researchers as robustly as possible for the scientific challenges of the future – from a programme of leadership and development opportunities to a new parent buddy scheme.

We are bridging the gap between postdocs and Career Development Faculty with the creation of intermediate ‘ICR Fellow’ roles, as well as by running a very successful and popular ‘Pathway to Independence’ programme for postdocs seeking Team Leader positions as we recognize that we have an important role to play in training the next generation of scientists for roles elsewhere, as well within ICR. We take this responsibility very seriously.

We are also providing all Career Development Faculty with independent mentors – for which there is particularly strong demand among women.  

I have personally championed our mentoring programme at the ICR, since I know first-hand the value of a supportive mentor. I have been pleased to follow the progress of the many women I have myself mentored, many of whom have reached fulfilling and important senior positions in academia and industry, as well as other careers that benefit from their scientific training.

We have established a new ‘Women in Science’ network which includes not only ICR staff but also female colleagues from our partner hospital, The Royal Marsden, as well as from the ICR.  The programme is delivering series of workshops on influencing, mentoring and leadership. I spoke at one of these workshops earlier this year, and found it both valuable and inspiring to talk to female staff and hear directly their concerns and aspirations.

I recognise that improving training, mentoring and careers advice will not on its own be enough. The working environment also presents challenges to women in progressing their careers and I am committed to removing these barriers. We are working with our Parents Group to introduce emergency childcare, increased nursery places, maternity coaching, and a new scheme to help team leaders return after maternity leave. We’re also increasing opportunities for more flexible working, and in our recent staff survey, 86 per cent of staff commented that meetings and seminars in their department were scheduled within core hours.

I am also keen to extend our experience and influence in this important area beyond ICR. Earlier this year I was invited to give oral evidence as part of an Academy of Medical Sciences review of team science. I used this as an opportunity to highlight some of the ways that scientific organisations need to be looking at their own internal processes to make sure that opportunities are accessible to everyone. For example, much science networking is done out of hours such as in pubs and conference bars – in environments and at times that those with families can often find difficult to access.

And back at ICR we have also reviewed our recruitment and promotion processes, and are requiring search committees to widen their fields. I receive gender data on applications for all Faculty posts, and have set ambitious targets for attracting more women to apply. The Head of each of our research Divisions is tasked to deliver an action plan to address barriers in women’s career progression and they are all very supportive.

So we’ve made great strides in supporting and developing women and we’ll be applying for a Athena SWAN Silver Award soon to recognise the progress we’ve made. We know from our recent staff survey that 85 per cent of staff that work at ICR feel that we are committed to equality and diversity, and an external recognition such as the Silver Award for what we have achieved would be welcome validation for everything we have been doing.

We certainly hope the measures introduced so far will open the way for the next generation of excellent female researchers. But there is more still to be done.

We have, for instance, identified a further attrition point for women in the Clinical Researcher career pathway, and also a need for greater transparency in our female-dominated clinical trials career pathway. We will be working hard on these points and our other key areas in our ongoing action plan.

As part of our mission to make the discoveries that defeat cancer, we are currently preparing our overall strategy for the ICR over the next five years. Our initiatives to support women in science will be central to this.

I want to remove all unnecessary barriers to career progression at the ICR and to ensure that all our researchers are fully supported in their work. A key part of our mission is to train up and develop the next generation of cancer researchers and clinicians – regardless of gender and indeed other indicators of diversity.  

That doesn’t just mean providing our researchers with the education and training they need to achieve excellence in their science. It’s also about providing them with a supportive working environment that allows excellent researchers – whether male or female – to thrive and succeed. 

And in doing that, we’ll give our science the best chance to succeed too – and hence increase our impact on the lives of people with cancer.


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