Going for Gold … optimise what you do

How did the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, England, achieve an Athena SWAN Gold Award?
We talk to Dr Carole Thomas from the Centre to find out.

Dr Carole Thomas at Sydney University

Above, Dr Carole Thomas at Sydney University on her trip over to Australia last year presenting to SAGE members.

As the first independent research institute to be awarded an Athena SWAN Gold Award, the John Innes Centre (JIC) in the UK stands out from its peers.

So, how did this international Centre of plant science, genetics and microbiology based in Norwich in Norfolk, England, achieve Athena SWAN Gold accreditation?

Obviously, not without a great deal of self-assessment, deep thinking, collaborative effort and sheer hard work from its staff and students. But what made the Centre stand out and be recognised with a Gold Award?

Dr Carole Thomas, the Centre’s Head of Directorate and Chair of JIC Inclusivity and Diversity Committee, said the key to achieving Gold lies in reviewing what you do honestly, identifying where the gaps are and putting initiatives in place to address them.

“You need to optimise what you are already doing; extend, improve and add initiatives; and then raise awareness both within the organisation you work in and externally,” she said.

Comprehensive review

“At JIC, we did a comprehensive review of everything we were doing to identify what we did well and, more importantly, what we didn’t do well.”

For the gaps that emerged from the review, either new initiatives were put in place to address them, or the team tweaked ones that were already happening to make sure they were fit for purpose.

“Having identified what works and what doesn’t, and in the spirit of Athena SWAN, we shared and promoted the successful initiatives with other organisations,” she said.

“It’s important to be open-minded. You’d be surprised at the amount of activity going on where you work that contributes towards gender equity and diversity and inclusion that you may not be aware of. You will definitely need to search it out.

“Our Gold Award brings together everything the Centre does in this arena and has been achieved not by doing more, but by capturing what we already do.”

Cauliflower Mosaic virus

Dr Thomas’ role is to provide high-level strategic and operational support to the Centre’s Director and to ensure that the JIC directorate is run in a professional, effective and efficient manner.

She also leads on the Centre’s Athena SWAN accreditation applications, but this was not her role to start with.

In 1982, when she started work as a PhD student at JIC researching Cauliflower Mosaic virus, she could not have imagined that 31 years later she would be managing its Athena SWAN Silver Award application.

A catalyst for a change of career direction came in 2008, when the role of Head of Directorate was created.

“The position was created to address the workload of the Director and ended up including attending senior committees and taking on the role of the Senior Equality and Diversity Champion,” she said.

Joining the 2013 UK pilot

In 2010, a change in Director saw the appointment of Professor Dale Sanders, who had already been involved with applying for Athena SWAN accreditation as Head of a Biology Sciences Department at York University.

“The new Director wanted to know why the Centre did not have Athena SWAN accreditation or why an application was not in progress but, at the time, the Athena SWAN Charter in the UK was restricted to universities,” said Dr Thomas.

In 2013, the Athena SWAN Charter in the UK expanded to include research institutes and the Royal Society called for volunteers for the Pilot. JIC joined straight away.

The Centre has more than 400 employees and more than 100 students working on projects or initiatives at any one time.

“Working towards, gaining and keeping Athena SWAN accreditation is hugely time-consuming, but it is also extremely rewarding and makes a real difference for staff.

Focus and visibility

“All people are important on all levels – not that they weren’t before, but it brings more focus and visibility to what is happening, more equity, diversity and inclusion, too,” she said.

It was decided that the Centre would apply for an Athena SWAN Silver Award and bypass the Bronze in the 2013 pilot, as there were already various initiatives for gender equity and diversity and inclusion on the go, including an Equality and Diversity Committee.

“The Centre’s Director was extremely supportive with going for a Silver Award, as he brought his experience with Athena SWAN with him.

“However, some staff were not so sure, they were very wary that Athena SWAN was basically just for women and would not benefit anyone else or the Centre as a whole.

“But in reality, while ingrained bad practices and outdated ways of operating impact women much more than men, using Athena SWAN as a mechanism to evaluate, change and improve how things are done actually benefits everyone and the Centre, too.”

Dr Carole Thomas winning the Gold Award

The John Innes Centre team receiving the Athena SWAN Gold Award, from left, Director, Professor Dale Sander; Head of Directorate, Dr Carole Thomas; HR Manager, Tana Mead; amd Youth Aspirations Champion, Samantha Fox.

Capture what’s already being done

Once Silver was achieved and towards the end of the three-year accreditation period, rather than renew the Silver Award the Centre put in an application for Gold.

“For the Gold application, I felt it was important to achieve this award by capturing what people are already doing and are passionate about, not by asking them to do more.

“Our Gold award recognises the embedding of Athena SWAN principles into the Institute’s culture. It has more of a ‘ground roots’ approach with many more people involved.

“Both staff and students came forward with proposals suggesting ways of making the working environment more inclusive, which was great to see,” she said.

To ensure nothing is lost between award submissions, Dr Thomas created what she calls an “evidence folder” where she saves evidence of any gender equity, diversity or inclusion actions, activities, initiatives, programs or engagement that she comes across in the Centre.

Sharing is a two-way process

“I try to capture everything that happens – from letters we get from girls who attend our Year 10 Science Camp who were then inspired to go on to careers in STEMM, to ensuring the imagery used at the Centre reflects the diversity of people working there, and our partnerships in Africa and China, where we promote our gender equity and diversity work.

“Even my visit to Australia in December 2018, the presentations I gave about JIC’s Gold Award and sharing our practice with SAGE members will be captured for future accreditation applications,” she said.

“I very much enjoyed my working trip to Australia and learnt a lot from the SAGE networks and teams I met around the country. I also plan to implement some of these initiatives at JIC this year – sharing is definitely a two-way process.”

Her role as Head of Directorate also encompasses being the eyes and ears of the Institute, as well as lots of interaction with many staff at all levels.

“It’s good to know the politics at work and what’s going on. I have a very good relationship with the Centre Director and we speak honestly and frankly, which is really valuable. I also think people value my ideas and input at the Centre as well, which helps enormously,” she said.

A better culture for everyone

After her PhD, Dr Thomas worked as a post-doc for six years but then decided to change career track and take on more of a supporting role as a research assistant. This role enabled her to fit the birth of her first child into her fledging science career.

“From my own experience, I’m fully aware of the challenges that face women who work in STEM higher education and research careers and the importance of family friendly policies,” she said.

As part of its Athena SWAN accreditation, JIC has improved and expanded its family friendly policies and, after many years of campaigning by staff, now has an onsite nursery.

“This is something we have needed for a long time and it is already having a positive impact on parents working at JIC,” Dr Thomas said.

“The culture at JIC is now more inclusive, supportive and collegial. We have mentoring for all staff regardless of their role and a more family friendly, supportive and flexible working environment, too.

Not complacent, still more to do

“Athena SWAN accreditation involves a lot of deep thinking, effort and work, but it is absolutely worth it and at JIC it has resulted in staff feeling like one big team and a much better work experience for everyone,” she said.

“Our Gold Athena SWAN status demonstrates the progress we’ve made in our inclusivity and diversity journey, but it is by no means the end point.

“We are not complacent, we know there is still much more we can do.”