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Maintaining a Silver Award is something worth celebrating, but we are still going for gold. (Photo of a child chasing a gold balloon). © © Nasir Hamid

Following the ECU's Athena SWAN Awards announcement, where the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences achieved a Silver Award renewal, Head of Department Professor Richard Hobbs reflects on our progress to date in creating a better workplace.

 I am very proud of the department-wide enthusiasm for improving our workplace and striving to be the best.

Our first attempt to achieve an Athena SWAN Gold Award has, unfortunately, been unsuccessful. The good news is that we have maintained our Silver status until 2021, with the initial feedback suggesting it was a “clear” silver. I also heard anecdotally that many applications (over two thirds) seeking silver renewal were downgraded to bronze or nothing (though this may just be fake news).

I’m aware this may come as a blow to those of you who were involved in developing actions plans and analysing the reams of data that formed our application, yet maintaining a Silver Award is still something worth celebrating – particularly when you consider just how far we’ve come in a relatively short space of time. And we are after all mainly engaging in these processes for a better workplace….

Seven years ago, when I first joined the department, we occupied just one floor of an open-plan office, we had no female professors and found that very few women even applied for senior posts. As we’ve expanded to become the UK’s largest and highest-ranked academic centre for primary care, one of our biggest challenges has been to create, as far as possible, a supportive and family-friendly work environment that facilitates anyone to grow and develop their career with us.

We now celebrate four female professors and four female associate professors among our 18 senior staff. We have also increased regrade numbers at all levels and for all roles across the department by adding discussion of grade descriptors to our performance development review. Staff satisfaction in our PDR process is also very high – at 91%.

Our workplace has progressive flexible working and family-leave policies. For example, our maternity leave checklist is used before, during, and after returning from parental leave, successfully supporting staff to make plans, keep-in-touch and rapidly pick up their careers on return. We encourage use of the university’s ‘returning carers’ fund’ to finance training, support, or conference attendance.

To underline our commitment to a diverse and progressive culture, in 2015 we renamed our Athena SWAN Committee the “Better Workplace Group”. Led by Professor Sue Ziebland, this aims to serve the needs of everyone across the department - over the last two years nine new working groups have formed around issues of importance to department members.

Our annual surveys provide a valuable insight into the effectiveness of this initiative and the policies it generates, the latest staff survey showed:

  • 93% of staff are satisfied with their inductions, up from 77% in 2012,
  • 79% of staff feel rewarded for what they do,
  • 93% of people recommend working here,
  • 83% of staff agree that their manager encourages them to take up career development opportunities.

We also have very positive survey feedback on mechanisms for sharing information, promoting visibility, and contributions of staff at all levels, as well as our culture of flexible working. Our policies to support continuity of employment in the department have resulted in high staff retention rates, increases in promotions and distinction awards, and staff reporting feeling valued and integrated.

Through our “Women in Science” project, we have aimed to inspire women across the world and demystify academic careers. Published at, this portrays women’s experiences of working in science illustrated with hundreds of clips from interviews.

While we have made significant gains since our first Athena SWAN Bronze Award in November 2012, our work continues. No less than 42 actions were included in our latest application, all of which were generated by consulting with staff and students across the department. These include making further improvements to the PDR process, supporting commuting and flexible working, improving gender balance, and improving transparency of department decision making. We still have much to do to grow our academic pipeline, support our early-to-mid career researchers, and embed equality across our teams. There is also a significant and important programme of work to improve transparency of work allocation.

We are expecting comprehensive feedback later this month on our Athena SWAN Gold application, and I hope our BWP groups will use this feedback to focus their future activities. We may not have achieved a Gold award with the panel just yet, but I think I will stick a Gold Star on our Silver Award when it comes. I am very proud of the department-wide enthusiasm for improving our workplace and striving to be the best, and I hope you are too.

read more

ECU Athena SWAN results, 6 October 2017

Opinions expressed are those of the author/s and not of the University of Oxford. Readers' comments will be moderated - see our guidelines for further information.

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