College of Life Sciences

Ignite abstracts

We are pleased to present the following Ignite-style presentations, sharing good EDI practices.

Are HEIs encouraging the conversations needed to challenge cultural assumptions about who cares?

Clare Matysova, Head of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Also PhD student at University of Leeds.


UK’s Shared Parental Leave (SPL) aims to give parents more choice in relation to caring during their child’s first year (‘Share the joy’,, 2018). Through this potentially increased choice, SPL has possibilities to reduce the impact of maternity leave on women’s career continuity and progression, create greater opportunities for fathers to engage with their children and for children to be cared for by both parents (Javornik and Kurowska, 2019). Employers play a key role through policy implementation and workplace culture. In the university sector, many HEIs offer relatively good financial incentives (ECU, 2018). 

However, since its introduction in 2015, take up of SPL has been low. This is often attributed to parental choice, for example women not wanting to share their leave, as well as to financial barriers and concerns over the potential impact on fathers’ career (Twamley and Schober, 2018). A review of institutional Athena SWAN gender equality action plans suggests often tokenistic and limited university-led proactive actions to increase take up. Given the significant impact that women taking more time out to care has on the gender pay gap (Gender Equality Roadmap, Government Equalities Office, 2019), this is a missed opportunity.


Research on the role of policy and culture in relation to carers in HE suggests, especially for academic roles, that care work is often rendered invisible (Moreau and Robertson, 2019). The aim of this presentation is to spark conversations that challenge the common focus on financial barriers, challenge cultural assumptions about who carers are and creates a more visible approach to supporting parenting, and shared parenting, within HEIs. The presentation should be of interest to those working to close the gender pay gap as well as considering the role of Athena SWAN in promoting a positive culture around family related career breaks/leave.

Clinical Academics' Experience of REF

  • Angharad Davies, Swansea University Medical School; BMA Women in Academic Medicine
  • David Strain, Exeter Medical School; BMA Medical Academic Staff Committee


In the 2014 REF report, women and certain other groups were under-represented in HEI submissions. As a result, REF 2021 included the requirement to submit all eligible academic researchers, and the decoupling of staff from outputs, intended to take pressure off individual academics and prevent disproportionate exclusion of academics with protected characteristics.

However, clinical academics employed by universities, but also with responsibilities in the NHS, are potentially at particular risk of exclusion from REF. Their substantive contract in an HEI and their honorary NHS contract means that, compared to other academics, it is relatively easy to change their status for REF purposes, and those from protected groups may be at most risk. Much of what is measured by REF is known to be biased against academics with protected characteristics and there is a danger that these well-recognised existing disparities may be amplified. 


The BMA Women in Academic Medicine group surveyed the BMA’s clinical academic members to capture their experiences of REF. Of seventy REF-eligible respondents, 34% were female and 12% declared a minority ethnic background. 10% reported pressure to change contracts because of REF: two-thirds of these were women, and all those who reported being pressured to move to teaching roles were women.

Two respondents were pressed to retire or threatened with redundancy (ethnic minority respondent). Another stated they left their HEI as a result of REF (ethnic minority respondent). 79% said pressure of REF led them to work longer hours, to the detriment of work-life balance, and for 44% it led to a high degree of stress or mental ill-health. 37% of men, 64% of women and 66% of ethnic minority respondents had feared for their job.

Key learning

These concerning findings show REF remains a high-risk exercise for individual researchers.

Menopause Musings

Dr Karen R Reed, Mrs Janet Richardson, Professor Anwen Williams, University of Cardiff


Menopause awareness and the impact this has in the workplace, is thankfully being increasingly recognised as an important topic. Menopause can have a devastating effect on people. Experienced staff are known to have left work because of poorly managed symptoms. The right support can make a huge difference. A group of staff from Cardiff’s School of Medicine have helped lead some of the Cardiff University’s initiatives to normalise conversations around menopause, helping reduce its impact in work, while supporting colleagues’ wellbeing. This includes the establishment of an online community group and organisation of regular Menopause Cafes for staff and students. These spaces provide an accessible, respectful, and confidential space for colleagues to share experiences. External speakers have been invited to provide in-depth talks and have allowed best practices to be shared between institutions. Staff consultations have been undertaken, and the output from these has underpinned the development of a “top tips” document for line managers. Innovative methods of staff engagement have included a series of creative workshops, in which participants used textile-based methods to generate works of art. The exhibition of this artwork provided further opportunities for other staff to learn more about the menopause, and the impact it can have on working life. A common topic of conversation has revolved around barriers individuals face when trying to access medical support. There is a perception that medical staff (GP’s) are not always appropriately informed. Being a Medical School, a session for medical students to directly hear the lived experience, delivered by Cardiff University staff volunteers, has been arranged to directly respond to these perceptions. 


This Ignite talk will highlight the importance of community support groups, share the benefits gained from and tips for running menopause focused sessions, and show some of the artwork produced by Cardiff University staff.

Key learning

The presentation provides examples of how we have normalised conversations around menopause, helping reduce its impact in work and introduced a novel model of exploring this sensitive topic through the medium of textiles.

Introducing the Midlands Racial Equality in Medicine (MREM) Network

Ramat Ayoola, Network Co-Creator, University of Warwick, Kiran Bhavra, Conference Director, University of Leicester


This mini presentation considers the significance of the newly established Midlands Racial Equality in Medicine (MREM) Network and highlights the importance of building a sense of belonging and mattering to students from an ethnic minority background. By empowering staff and student collaboration, the MREM Network aims to unite institutions across the Midlands to tackle racial inequality within Medicine.


  • To inspire medical students from ethnic minority backgrounds by increasing the visibility of role models
  • To provide a platform for medical schools to share best practices and collaborate on matters relating to racial equality
  • To foster a sense of community amongst students from an ethnic minority background across medical schools in the midlands
  • To promote and collaborate on research related to reducing the attainment gap within medicine. 
  • To embed promoting racial equality within medicine as a key principle of the institutions. 


The Midlands Racial Equality in Medicine (MREM) Network was launched through an inaugural hybrid conference held at Warwick Medical School on Saturday 26 February 2022. The conference was organised by a team of 7 students across 3 medical schools in the Midlands. The timetable included a series of talks on topics ranging from ‘Social Inclusion’ to ‘Challenging Racism’ followed by a student panel and workshops. Abstracts were accepted for research conducted by clinicians and academics from an ethnic minority background or research focused on improving the experiences (academic or medical) of ethnic minority populations. The Network has since expanded, with 7 out of 9 of the Midlands institutions pledged so far. Current projects being undertaken include presenting at conferences, assisting on a policy commission to gather information on inequalities in our current and future health workforce and working on Conference 2023.

The Equality Project: Capturing Diverse Voice to Drive Cultural Change

Miss Louise Wright, Dr Damian Parry, Dr Emma Haagensen, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Newcastle University


The most effective way to embed EDI within a Faculty and drive cultural change is to ensure all voices are heard. To support these aspirations and allow an intersectional approach covering all protected characteristics, we developed the Equality Project. Through this project, we have created a combined strategic action plan to support intersectionality in our charter work. The Equality Project consists of eight workstreams spanning key areas within our faculty. We have challenged traditional leadership hierarchies and have recruited workstream leads with relevant lived experience and passion, irrespective of their position or role. This approach has supported diversity of voice but has also inspired leadership and skills development of others, including undergraduate students. However, we were mindful of the importance of the existing Faculty governance structure and value high-level support, hence each workstream feeds into our self-assessment team and strategic oversight board, with a nominated sponsor. This tactic has allowed us to shift from a typical top-down approach to a more collaborative, multi-directional methodology and has empowered each workstream chair to lead and influence our Faculty executive to enact change, gaining recognition for outstanding contributions.  


After one year of running the Equality Project, 5% of the faculty are involved and we have captured the diverse voice of the faculty via staff and student surveys and created an intersectional EDI data dashboard. Our next steps will include analysis of our survey data and implementation of focus groups, which will help to identify new themes and priorities for the Equality Project. 

Key learning

The innovative approach adopted by the Equality Project has the potential to be implemented in your university, to develop a diverse range of participants across all levels and to listen to all voices to co-create actions to support acquisition of charter marks and drive cultural change.

Mitigating gendered impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic

Nita Gandhi Forouhi, Caroline Newman, Fiona Karet and Graham Martin, on behalf of the Athena Swan Self Assessment Team, University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine


The Covid pandemic has posed huge challenges to the way we work, to maintaining a positive culture and to building both gender equality and wider aspects of diversity and inclusion. We championed several initiatives. We added pandemic-specific actions to our existing Athena Swan Action Plan in 2020 so that this issue was recognised, and milestones and deliverables were set to monitor progress.

We led the incorporation of pandemic-relevant sections in School-wide annual staff appraisal forms, targeting discussion on impacts on careers. We worked with the University to devise individual risk assessment and appropriate response planning. These initiatives were adopted by the University.


Despite this, when we ran a Culture Survey in September 2021, with 1301 respondents (45% response rate), we found gendered differences in staff experiences. Fewer women (66%) than men (72%) responded positively to “Action has been taken to mitigate Covid-19 impact”. The greatest difference was among academic (research and teaching) staff, where satisfaction was lower among women (60%) than men (77%). Interestingly, there were no apparent gender differences reported concerning caring responsibilities. Women were also less positive (65%) than men (77%) that “The leadership actively supports gender equality”, and this was least positive among female academic staff (58–59% positive) in contrast to their male counterparts (74–77% positive) and all professional services staff (70%F;78%M positive). These differences may or may not be directly attributable to the pandemic, and merit investigation.

Recognising the critical need to understand and tackle pandemic-related challenges faced by staff, particularly female academic staff, we included this as a key priority in our future Action Plan (2022-27). We proposed several interventions and success criteria to mitigate pandemic impacts. 

Learning point

Targeted action can and must be taken to mitigate gendered impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

MDS SUSTAIN: a novel leadership programme at the University of Birmingham to address the leaky pipeline for women and other demographics which are underrepresented in senior academic positions

Tom Syder, Vincent Cornelius, Sarah Conner, David Round, Wiebke Arlt (University of Birmingham), Laura Meagher (Technology Development Group), Gaynor Miller (University of Leeds)


MDS SUSTAIN is a pilot leadership programme which supports the development of researchers establishing their first independent research group. Named after the University of Birmingham College of Medical and Dental Sciences (MDS) and the Academy of Medical Sciences’ SUSTAIN leadership programme, MDS SUSTAIN began its inaugural year last September. While the national SUSTAIN programme is restricted to female researchers, this version of the programme was expanded to all groups which are underrepresented in senior academic positions (including but not limited to ethnic minority, LGBTQ+, disabled, and first-generation academics). This decision was taken to extend the benefits of the programme, increase value for money by widening the pool of eligible participants, and avoid a deficit model. The latter point was achieved by focusing the application process on the benefits which participants expected to gain, inviting them to write reflectively about, for example, experiences of imposter syndrome or low self-confidence.

The pilot programme received 21 applications, with places offered to 17 primarily based on the remaining applicants having progressed far enough to be eligible for more senior leadership programmes. Two thirds of the inaugural cohort were women, which exceeds the proportion of eligible women and vindicates the approach taken to promote the programme to staff from underrepresented groups.

The programme consists of mentoring (delivered by graduates of the national SUSTAIN programme), peer coaching, and a series of training sessions, largely based on those identified by the Academy of Medical Sciences as being relevant to staff at this career stage. The programme has capitalised on its unique element of participant diversity by including additional training sessions about authentic leadership; these are intended to emphasise the importance of participants bringing their whole selves to work while enabling them to learn from each other about the impact of their diverse identities on their workplace experiences.

The NIHR Research Design Service EDI Toolkit

Dr Rebecca Barnes, Senior Qualitative and Social Research Methods Adviser, Dr Chris Newby, Senior Statistician, RDS East Midlands

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