Practise what you preach: Equality and diversity at NUI Galway

14 Jul 2017

Prof Anne Scott, NUI Galway vice-president for equality and diversity. Image: NUI Galway

Dr Dara Stanley and Dr Jessamyn Fairfield sat down with Prof Anne Scott to discuss how gender equality issues can be prioritised at an institutional level.

Soapbox Science, bringing female scientists to the streets to talk about their work, is coming to Galway for the first time on Saturday, 15 July. The initiative is supported by the NUI Galway (NUIG) Office of the Vice-President for Equality and Diversity.

Soapbox co-organisers Dr Dara Stanley and Dr Jessamyn Fairfield, who lecture in botany and physics respectively, sat down with Prof Anne Scott, the NUIG VP for equality and diversity, to talk about how gender equality issues can be prioritised at an institutional level.

‘Developing a good policy doesn’t necessarily mean everybody’s going to implement it. Absolutely, you need it but you also need to follow through to implement the policy’

What does the Office of the Vice-President for Equality and Diversity at NUIG do?

The key reason for the establishment of the office was in response to the recommendations of the NUI Galway Gender Equality Task Force, which advised that committed, sustained and demonstrable leadership was required to transform the culture regarding equality and diversity in the university.

The appointment of a vice-president to provide leadership together with the establishment of a fully resourced Office of Equality and Diversity was considered necessary to bring about the required cultural change. A priority for me has been to develop a Gender Equality Action Plan to implement the recommendations of the task force.

For me, the title of the post is also important because, as it suggests, the scope goes beyond gender equality to include equality and diversity more broadly.

We’ve evolved over the course of the past year and identified the priorities for us to address. There are four work areas: gender, LGBTQ, disability and internationalisation. We lead and support gender equality initiatives and Athena SWAN accreditation across the university. The office is supporting the set-up of an LGBTQ staff network and initiating a consultation process with staff and students with disabilities. We are also developing a programme of work on cultural sensitivity and international issues since 20pc of our students and staff aren’t just from down the road.

To achieve this, we have to engage decision-makers from across campus, get them talking to each other, consult and respond to new policies, and provide the resources for this all to happen. We’ve had a group working to bring our anti-bullying policy up to date, and there are several more policies that need revision when that’s done. This all happens out of my office and it’s a significant piece of work.

Do you think that some types of equality intervention are more effective, or do you need a spread of things, from policy to grants to support?

I think you need a spread of things. I remember attending a conference a couple of years ago in the UK looking at these issues, where lawyers who were there said that there are three things you have to do to shift the agenda, regardless of anything else you might try. You need legislation, regulation, and communication. So, something like the national research funding bodies tying grant application eligibility to Athena SWAN accreditation is extremely challenging, but it is also a compelling reason to engage with the Athena SWAN Charter. It’s almost like a carrot as well as a stick approach.

Developing a good policy doesn’t necessarily mean everybody’s going to implement it. Absolutely, you need a good policy but you also need to follow through to implement the policy.

For example, NUI Galway now has a requirement to have 40pc gender balance on every key decision-making committee. We now need to conduct an annual audit every June so that if the balance has shifted, if people have left or moved, we can adjust the membership with committee appointments for the following year to ensure compliance with the requirement for gender balance. And that will continue until it becomes normal business, until it becomes self-correcting.

‘I think the interaction between STEM and the arts and humanities is a no-brainer’

So I think policy’s important. I think follow-through and monitoring is important. And then, in certain areas, I think supports are absolutely essential. It’s all well and fine saying, ‘Well, you’ve been a lecturer for seven years, I think it’s time you applied for the promotion’, but if you’ve been long-term ill, you’ve been out on carer’s leave, etc, it can be more difficult to progress your career. It might be very hard for you to do it in another two or three years. Whereas, if you’re given a bit of support – if you get a semester out, financial support to buy in research assistance – that can give you a leg back up onto a level playing field.

One of the things we thought was interesting about your research profile is that it is interdisciplinary between social science, STEM and arts. Are there differences in how you need to implement equality and diversity across the different disciplines?

Maybe it’s different manifestations of the same problem, which means the solutions may be different, too. I think there are differences between STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and the social sciences in the way things operate. For example, lack of funding is probably much more impactful early on in STEM because of the costs involved in equipment, whereas small amount of funding can go a very long way in the humanities and social sciences.

Another point is that you tend to find more women in humanities and social sciences disciplines. However, if you look at the track record in terms of promotions, it is no better, particularly at the professorial level. The perception is it ‘should be easy’ and ‘there is no problem there’, and then no attention is paid to it. In fact, when you look at some institutions, what you find is that the promotion prospects in science are actually better. Greater attention has been paid to retain and support women’s careers in recent times.

I think the interaction between STEM and the arts and humanities is a no-brainer, and allows issues to come from two different perspectives. When you go back and look into the roots of science, the roots are in philosophy and the Greek philosophers, so clearly both started together at one point. I think the development of a field of knowledge is wonderful, but what we can’t forget is that there is still real excitement at the boundaries of these disciplines: physics and art, anatomy and art, visualisation in terms of radiographic developments, etc.

You’ve obviously had an extensive academic background, and now you have also ended up in university leadership roles. How did that happen? Was it a conscious decision?

No, it was never a plan! I’ve never spent a lot of time career planning. I think it just evolved. I’ve been very lucky, but I think I also haven’t been afraid to do something different, particularly if I felt the road I was on wasn’t working.

For example, I started as a nursing student – hell-bent on not going to university. But then, halfway through my training, I couldn’t believe the rigidity of thinking, the ritualistic approach and the lack of evidence for what we were doing, and I thought,‘There’s got to be a better way of thinking about this’. I was very lacking in confidence that I would succeed in university, but I thought that if I try it and if it doesn’t work out, then at least I tried it! I applied to Trinity College Dublin and after the first semester, I never looked back. I loved it. I learned so much from it, and I have such respect for the institution because of the experience I got there.

‘During my PhD studies, I managed to get married and have my first child – in fact, my husband submitted my thesis while my second daughter was being induced. Six months later, I secured my first academic post’

After spending some time in Kenya and the UK, I knew by then I wanted to do an ethics PhD. During my PhD studies, I managed to get married and have my first child – in fact, my husband submitted my thesis while my second daughter was being induced. Six months later, I secured my first academic post. I was accommodated to work half-time for the first six months, and full-time from then on.

A couple of years in, I realised I was one of the few people in the department who had a PhD who was not only teaching, but also actively researching – and who was earning at least £10,000 to £15,000 less than everybody else. I applied for promotion, didn’t get it, and so I moved to a senior lectureship in Stirling.

From the outset, in my first academic job, I was actively engaging with curriculum development. I was fortunate that my head of department at the time had enough confidence and interest to allow her most junior member of staff to openly challenge her in staff meetings. I think, really, from then on, I found myself in leadership roles in departments.

I was leading curriculum development in Stirling for four years when I applied for a promotion that I didn’t get. However, at the same time, I was being headhunted for a chair position in Dublin. My kids were still very young and so I initially turned down the position in Dublin. I was scared by the challenge of setting up a new school, the huge time commitment and effort that that required. The timing wasn’t great for me as the kids were very young.

Three months later, the institution came back with another offer and over that time I realised that, if an institution wants you badly enough, they will offer you certain things – perhaps this applies particularly in STEM! I think I was deemed by the institution as a very successful head of school, but only realised subsequently that I was also both the first female professor and the first female head of school in the institution.

After I finished my five-year term, I was going on sabbatical and, as I was going, I was approached by a couple of senior members of staff to ask would I not consider putting myself forward for the deputy president role? At that point, I laughed at them and said, ‘Are you crazy? I’m going on sabbatical!’ But then I began to think about it and decided to go for it. I did that in addition to the registrar’s job for five years, and the DP for nearly seven. There was no big plan – it just happened!

If you had a piece of advice for people at an earlier career stage who might be interested in university leadership, what would it be?

The world is your oyster! We all meet barriers – don’t live with them, find ways around them. Because, if there’s not one way, there is another. And believe you can do it. Or, at least, believe you can do it as well as anyone else.

Thanks so much for you office’s support for Soapbox Science Galway!

Yes, it’s a pleasure. I think Soapbox Science deals with an important issue in terms of gender equality, but I also think the whole issue of public engagement in science is really important. We have seen the fallout where people don’t understand what’s going on, and the consequences for future generations where people don’t understand the impacts of their decisions. Best of luck on Saturday!

By Dr Dara Stanley and Dr Jessamyn Fairfield

NUI Galway lecturers Dr Dara Stanley and Dr Jessamyn Fairfield are the organisers of Soapbox Science Galway, which will take place from 11am to 2pm on Saturday, 15 July at the Spanish Arch, Galway city.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.