Bidding for Silver: an interview with Professor Tracey Chapman

Tracey Chapman is Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at UEA, and over the last five years has written and coordinated BIO’s successful Athena SWAN bids (Bronze in 2013, Silver in 2017).

I spoke to her about her interest in equality and diversity (E&D) in higher education, and the process of writing the bids.


First of all, congratulations on being awarded Athena SWAN Silver status – you must be really pleased.

TC: Yes, I’m very proud and happy for the whole BIO E&D team. Anyone who’ve been involved in putting together an application like this knows that it’s a LOT of work!

And it involves drawing together really diverse strands, because equality and diversity pervades everything we do: recruitment, staff development, appraisals, teaching and learning, how we do research. Therefore, the changes we can make to improve things can extend into all those areas too.

Can you talk me through the process of putting the Silver bid together?

TC: There’s quite a structured format to writing the bid. We collect data on a range of measures across the School’s activities: the gender breakdown across undergraduate and graduate populations, and across the staff too, to build a pen portrait of the School.

Then we submit evidence on what we’re doing to promote E&D within the school, including flexible working, parental leave, sick leave, and supporting career development, and we comment on the data, to try and shine a light on the areas where we need to improve. For each of those areas, we develop an action plan – so, for example, we have a long-running deficit of female faculty members on the research pathway (ATR) in BIO, and we’ve developed actions to address this over a number of years.

A key part of a Silver application is to demonstrate ‘distance travelled’ from where we were at Bronze stage – how we’ve actually fixed some of these issues. Finding evidence can be difficult: it’s often more qualitative, and can be quite intangible or anecdotal – hard to measure!

But one way in which we can evidence these changes is by asking people – for instance, we used a staff survey to try to gauge if there was any more awareness of Athena SWAN activities, whether more people were satisfied with how appraisals are done, and whether they feel the School has a transparent promotions process.

Which other departments did you work with?

TC: The whole process is overseen by the University’s E&D team – they collect the data on student and staff numbers. We’ve had to invent new ways of collecting some other data, such as numbers of people working flexibly, so we invented some online trackers to collect this data – which the judging panel really liked in our Bronze application.

Since our Bronze bid we’ve also had a specific SCI project coordinator, Katie Large, who did a huge amount of work on the Silver application and was really crucial in our success. We also work with colleagues in HR on our recruitment materials, and our packs now all include information about Athena SWAN. We’ve developed guidelines for how to do headhunting in a way that doesn’t introduce unconscious bias.

We also work with Admissions, Recruitment and Marketing, to look at our advertising and what kind of picture of ourselves we’re presenting to the outside world – we want to make sure E&D isn’t just an afterthought in the whole process.

Then we liaise with School Managers and Head of School PAs to obtain information about the gender breakdown of committees, what training people are doing etc. And the Staff-Student Liaison Group, to try and get an insight into undergraduate opinion.

So it’s basically everyone!

So now we’ve got the Silver award, what are the next steps for E&D in BIO?

TC: We have a lot of action points, so we’ve been trying to prioritise. We want to make appraisals and annual reviews more effective, as a way of helping staff to feel supported and clear about where they’re going and when they are ready to apply for promotion.

We’d also like to increase the number of part-time degrees we offer to undergraduates – currently it’s only around six or eight for the whole of UEA, and we know that if we offer courses part-time it tends to open them up to more women.

When do you think we’ll be going for the Gold Award?

It’s generally thought to be a ten-year plan to get to Gold, starting from scratch, because it takes a long time to implement new policies and for inequality to start to shift. We’re encouraged to publish redacted versions of our Athena SWAN bids, so we can borrow best practice from other universities. It’s a collaborative, rather than a competitive process, which is fairly unusual in bid writing!

When did you start getting interested/involved in E&D?

TC: I’ve been interested in it for a long time, particularly in how everyone has very strong schema for what, say, a scientist or economist or nurse ‘looks like’ – I’m interested in how these are cultural constructs and vary between different countries and regions.

But I wasn’t particularly vocal about my interest until about 2011, when I was asked to get involved in E&D in BIO by [then Head of School] Dylan Edwards. The dearth of women in STEMM subjects has been there for decades and isn’t yet shifting, so I wanted to do something to address it more directly.

What are the more difficult/tenacious areas?

TC: Unconscious bias is one of the most difficult to tackle, because although most people think they themselves are very fair, everyone has a bias in one direction or another. I’m not sure you can do much about that inherently, but you can work to minimise the worst expressions and impacts of it. There are structural things too which might be linked to national or university policy, and therefore more difficult to change – it can be difficult to get support for, say, people on fixed-term contracts who need to go on leave.

I think people can worry that Athena SWAN means that women are going to be given an unfair advantage, but if they come to an E&D Committee meeting they quickly realise that’s not how we approach things. Awareness is definitely increasing in BIO – I even hear people say, ‘You’ve got all Athena SWAN on me!’

When we’re looking at lists of people to invite, I think there can be a worry that we’re ‘rigging’ things in favour of scientists who might be of lower quality, just for the sake of E&D. But this isn’t true – we often think of men first, because they tend to be more visible. If we deliberately extend our invitation lists by, say, five names, we find that we are more likely to include more women – who will be of equal quality to the first names that were thought of, but just slightly less visible. This then helps to redress the imbalance we currently have.

Do you have an impression of how things have improved/changed in BIO?

We are constantly tweaking things to make a gradual, cumulative difference. Each change is often very subtle, and a lot of the work for equality and diversity is just looking at things we should be doing anyway, but which tend to have a disproportionate effect on women if they’re ignored.

There has certainly been a definite shift in the culture of the School. Equality is now seen clearly as something important, something we need to take notice of. People come and talk to me about these issues now. We also have our new E&D blog, and E&D is now a standing item at the BIO Executive and the BIO School Board, so our activities are regularly being reported on.

I’m also particularly proud of the Return to Work Career Development Fund – a pot of money belonging to the Faculty of Science that we can give to people who have taken a break from work, because of maternity or paternity leave, illness, being a carer, or other reasons.

Recently we advertised for a post and got a disproportionately male-dominated pool of applicants. We wondered if this meant we weren’t advertising in all the right places, or if the wording had put women off somehow, so we’ve started to look at this, as well as the later stages like the makeup of shortlists and interview panels. When we’re recruiting, we could always be thinking harder about who’s out there, and how we can reach them.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned since getting involved in E&D?

I arranged a session with some of our E&D colleagues about raising awareness of issues affecting transgender people, so we could develop a better understanding. Some of the case histories we looked at, where people had transitioned from one gender to another and then experienced a whole new set of unconscious biases in their new gender, were eye-opening.

The sessions also made me reflect more on dignity at work, and the emotional impact of people feeling they need to hide something about themselves – like being gay, for instance – in a work culture in which the banter might make them very uncomfortable. I think this is more common than is realised, and really puts a stress on people’s ability to work happily and bond with their colleagues.

If I was new at UEA and keen to make sure I was part of the E&D solution rather than the problem, what advice would you give me?

Come along to one of our meetings and participate in the discussion! It’s a really interesting and motivated committee.

Also, creating a supportive and welcoming environment is really important – whether that’s in the way we encourage and support our researchers, pushing them forward, or simply by cultivating an environment where people feel happy and supported. In part, that means calling people out when we hear things that make us uncomfortable – it can be embarrassing and awkward to do, but it can make a big difference.

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