2 Jun 2014

The bump that dare not speak its name!

IGH Director Prof Tom Solomon on how Athena Swan has opened his eyes to the issues faced by women in science.

Recently the University of Liverpool's Institute of Infection and Global Health has been given an Athena SWAN Bronze Award in recognition of the support we give to our female academics. The Athena SWAN Charter was launched in 2005 to advance the representation of women in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics, sometimes referred to as the STEMM subjects. The Charter evolved from the Athena Project (Athena is the Goddess of Wisdom and Intelligence, among other things, and the Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN).

Women have been at the core of everything we do, ever since we established our Institute in 2010. Our mission is to tackle infectious diseases of humans and animals, in the UK and globally. We brought together leading medical veterinary and basic scientists from across the campus, and nearly half the senior academics we have recruited in the last 3 years have been women. 

Although the Institute of Infection and Global Health is relatively new, for nearly 200 years Liverpool women have played their part in fighting infection and supporting public health. In the 1830s Liverpool’s Kitty Wilkinson, the “Saint of the Slums”, helped tackle cholera outbreaks, teaching people to disinfect bed linen and clothing with chloride of lime (bleach), and establishing Britain’s first public wash house. In the early 1900s, Eleanor Rathbone, MP, of Liverpool’s famous Rathbone family, campaigned for women’s rights and social conditions in the UK, India and Africa. More recently Dame Janet Hemingway, Director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, has played a leading role in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and malaria.

Given her prominent role, and that of many other women in Science (for example, the UK Chief Medical Officer is a woman for the first time) and the fact that more than 50% of medical students, PhD students and Post Doctoral researchers are women, you might be forgiven for wondering whether we need the Athena SWAN charter at all. Has the glass ceiling been shattered? The problem, it turns out, is not so much a glass ceiling, more of a leaky pipe: women drain out of the academic system at each stage of career progression, so the percentage of females drops from PhD to Post-Doc to Lecturer, Reader, Professor, and Senior Academic.

Because my wife is a professional (a paediatric neurologist), I have always been aware of issues that female academics face, such as time out having kids, and putting the family’s needs over career aspirations. I considered myself supportive of women, and was proud when we realised that Liverpool’s Brain Infections Group, which I head, has always had an equal mix of women and men at all levels, from PhD students right through to Lecturers. I don't think this was ever a conscious decision on my part to appoint women; I think it just reflects the fact that I have been able to recognise strong scientists, whatever their gender. Both in my NHS and University environments I have always been aware that some of the best doctors and academics are women. But whilst their male colleagues (myself included) tend to make a great song and dance about all their achievements, the women are usually just quietly getting on with it, and often doing a better job!

Although I thought I was aware of these issues, the Athena SWAN process has also been a bit of an eye opener, and made us all think:  Does this meeting really need to be after work? Are we actively pushing our women forwards for senior roles? Do we ensure a good mix of invited speakers to the Institute? We are addressing these areas. And importantly, with the help of our new Maternity Tzars, we are learning how to deal with the “Bump that dare not speak its name”; this is the awkward situation where-by no one knows quite what to say about a pregnancy, for fear of doing the wrong thing. We still have work to do, but for now, we are celebrating our Bronze Swan.

Professor Tom Solomon is Director of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health, Head of the Brain Infections Group and a Consultant Neurologist at the Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust.
Follow him @RunningMadProf

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