The pursuit of diversity in Academia and beyond

The gender diversity agenda remains one of the top items for Universities, research centres and wider organisations. We know that diversity is key to foster innovation, inclusivity and sustainability and many initiatives are focusing on increasing gender diversity and encouraging women to apply to senior positions in research, Academia and beyond. The Athena Swan charter has been a driving force to embed change, initially in STEMM, and more recently across disciplines. We know that one solution does not fit all, and a cohesive approach is required to have a lasting effect. In this article, I am specifically looking at development programmes which can support women researchers and address the leaky pipeline in STEM (Berryman, 1983; Alper, 1993) and the under representation of women in senior roles across disciplines. One of my focal points in recent years, has been to design and contribute to fit for purpose programmes which supports women researchers throughout their career path and leadership journey. As a developer, I have been fascinated by the opportunity to investigate the key drivers and limiting factors that influence women researchers in their decision to pursue leadership roles. This has influenced the way I approach programme design and encouraged experimentation. I have listed below the three combined programme components which have raised interest and engagement:-

1. Finding the hook: inviting women researchers to take the time to reflect, pause and explore career pathways strategically

As researcher developers we are faced with what I like to refer to as the “time scarcity” which can be summarised by our ability to encourage participation and engage “very busy” researchers. Why should researchers participate in development programmes when they are already juggling many responsibilities and time is scarce? The researcher development concordat has been an instrumental force in encouraging institutions and researchers to allocate time and effort to personal, professional development and career planning. However, “dry conversations” around career planning or leadership development may look a little off-putting (or even daunting!) for some. Furthermore, the system is often putting pressure on researchers to secure their next role in a highly competitive and time-pressured environment with little time to think about further steps or career pathways…until they are facing a road block or severe challenges.

To attract women researchers and encourage participation we must think carefully about the “hook”, raison d’être and positioning of the programme. A powerful approach promotes the importance of taking the time to pause and plan. It places researcher at the heart of the discussions and provide an invitation to:

think and reflect on their journey to date

share their experiences and trajectories with other women researchers and listen to others’ stories

explore possibilities and opportunities, stop and think about their options and pathways – in view of their revised assumptions around leadership (which I cover in the next paragraph)

take ownership of their own definition of success and their ambitions

It is also important to consider the timing of the programme and how this fits crucial career milestones. Our ability to engage early on and reach early career women researchers at the start of their journey will increase impact in the short and longer term.

2. Co-creation: de-mystifying leadership and designing a more inclusive culture

One of the key challenges faced by women researchers is the need to embrace the existing leadership paradigm by “Leaning in” and “fitting in”. The challenge with this approach is that too often existing culture, structure and leadership styles are biased and oriented towards certain types of behaviours and values which may not be appealing to women. It is also believed that women in research intensive organisations have a different definition of success which values broader contributions such as teaching, projects and outreach work for instance and which are often undervalued criteria for promotion. Our role as developers is to recognise these differences and open up discussions around existing systems, culture and structures which define success and leadership. However, times are changing, and deeper conversations around a new style of leadership may need to take place. Helena Morissey’s book “A good time to be a girl” was the first public manifesto for a new way of working and a more inclusive culture. Development programmes can offer an opportunity to co-create and shift the leadership paradigm. It is a space needed to de-mystify leadership, challenge assumptions and redefine what leadership is and should be for women researchers. We have a collective role to positively influence a more inclusive research culture. There is a need to explore leadership styles and behaviours that are more authentic and closer to values which are more attractive to women and create a brighter future.

3. The role of women only programme to foster a safe and trusted environment

Our ability to create a safe environment is a key factor to increasing participation and engagement and yet it requires a good understanding of the driving forces, dynamics and context in which the development programme is taking place. In my experience this safe environment is specifically important for women researchers. A mixed gender group will often have different dynamics and we can often notice that women’s voices are often absent or silenced. Designing women only programmes to tackle specific challenges around career progression, pathways and leadership seems to be highly effective. It is a place for women researchers to hear others’ stories full of similarities, contrasts and aspirations and contribute a shared experience. Discussion topics are varied and may include confidence, courage, role models, the imposter syndrome and resilience amongst many.

The aim is to encourage women researchers to discuss openly, the challenges and opportunities they are faced with. And above all it is an invitation to be comfortable with their own and others’ vulnerability as well as an opportunity to design their future. It is cultivating the idea of design and creativity in their own choice of career pathways and allows them to explore possibilities in a safe and trusted environment.


Programme design is one of the many tools we have to reverse the trend and increase gender diversity in senior roles. We have a responsibility to work together to ensure women researchers find the motivation, opportunity and support they need to apply and take on senior roles in research, academia and beyond.

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