Evolving our approach and using Athena SWAN to do the things that others said couldn’t be done to improve gender balance – Professor Stuart West, University of Oxford


Professor Stuart West is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford whose main interest is adaptation, and especially the evolution of social behaviours and how these can influence major evolutionary transitions. Stuart is the Athena SWAN champion for the Department of Zoology, which has held an Athena Swan Silver Award since 2010. The department was the first in Oxford to receive this award. 

Stuart West

Professor Stuart West

“…If you are interested in your working environment, and getting the best possible people, then you have to care about gender balance…”

Stuart, please can you tell us a bit about your job role, and in particular your role as an Athena SWAN champion for your department?

I coordinate the gender and diversity activities in our department. This includes organising our termly meeting, leading our Athena Swan applications, and working on specific projects. I am also a member of a couple of University gender related committees.

What got you interested in diversity and why is gender balance important to you?

In 2009 my partner (Ashleigh Griffin, then a research fellow, now a lecturer) asked our head of department why Zoology didn’t have an Athena Swan award. He then put me in charge of the application process. If you are interested in your working environment, and getting the best possible people, then you have to care about gender balance.

What progress have you overseen since receiving the departmental award in 2010?

While our department already had some excellent practises and some brilliant role models in 2010, we have done some great things since then that I’m really proud of. Some have been gender directed, such as improved support during and when returning from maternity breaks, investment in Daphne Jackson fellowships, and appointment at 50% female at the lecturer and professorial levels.

Others have been where the gender data inspired us, but everyone benefits. For example, our workshop for post-docs interested in fellowships, or our factsheet for parents.

A harder to quantify change, but very important, is cultural. The Athena Swan process means that staff have become more aware of (and proud of) our achievements in this area, but at the same time they are thinking about best working practices. It has become commonplace to question and improve what we are doing in all ways.

Statistics seem really important for the award applications – what is the best way to capture these on an on-going basis?

Preparing the data for the applications can be very hard, especially in the more complicated Oxford system. Ideally, you would want an easy to use central system. We don’t have that yet.

What are the main obstacles you encounter as you try to drive change?

Our department is very supportive, as a whole. However, when we try to do things at other levels, such as more broadly in the university, or the experience of my colleagues in other departments, things can be hard.

One issue is that you get resistance from people who think it’s not an issue, or not worth the bother, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Another issue is that the complicated nature of the Oxford system means it can be hard and slow to change things.

Our last two heads of department have been very active in driving Athena Swan activities, and this leadership from the top has been key to getting things done in the department, which others have said couldn’t be done.

How is gender balance in student numbers in biology as compared to other areas of science and how does this change from undergraduate to postgraduate level?

We have equality or a female bias at both undergraduate and postgraduate. This just isn’t a problem there. Our drop-off in percentage of females is between postgrad and lecturer. This contrasts with the physical sciences, where there is a male bias at the student level.

What is the best way to keep staff informed and get them bought into the process?

We try to make it a normal day to day part of department life. Gender related issues are brought up at our weekly staff meeting, as they arise, as with any other type of issue.

What are your plans for the future and do you have a Gold award in your plans?!

We just submitted a silver application, and this is a huge job. So, I have to admit, that the last thing I want to think about is when we will make another application.



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