Pursuing Gender Equity in UK Atomic Energy Authority

Representatives from the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) spoke with SAGE about their gender equity work. UKAEA is an executive non-departmental public body based at Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire. Their fusion research centre is known as the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE). UKAEA achieved an Athena SWAN Bronze Institutional Award in 2015.

Dr Brian Lloyd, Jackie Costello and Dr Joanne Flanagan are members of the UKAEA Athena SWAN Self-Assessment Team (SAT). The SAT leads gender equity data collection, analysis, consultation and action planning. It also coordinates the Athena SWAN Award submission.

The speakers discuss how their data analysis revealed specific opportunities for addressing gender equity in their physics and engineering workforce. They relate their experiences developing an Athena SWAN submission as a publicly funded research agency. They outline key strategies for action planning and for winning institutional support. They also highlight the role of qualitative data collection in addressing issues of flexible work and parental leave.

Gender equity in physics and engineering

Athena SWAN requires institutions to collect and analyse gender equity data. Members of the UKAEA SAT anticipated that they would find different stories in their physics and engineering streams. As Dr Flanagan explains, in the wider UK workforce, the proportion of women in physics is around 18%. In engineering, it is only 6% to 7%, particularly because women are under-represented in engineering apprenticeships.

UKAEA STEM workforce breakdown by gender - 10.2% of STEM employees are female but we are unevenly distributed by disciplilne - 14.2% of scientists and 8% of engineers/technicians
Percentage of women in UKAEA’s STEMM workforce from their Athena SWAN submission

Analysis of UKAEA’s workforce data revealed similar distributions, but also surprising differences in career progression between these streams. As Dr Flanagan explains, their physics workforce showed a classic “leaky pipeline” pattern of attrition of women through senior grades. Their engineering workforce had a much flatter structure, with more successful career progression for women. This allowed them to identify career development strategies from engineering that could be applied across their whole workforce, including mentoring and professional accreditation for physicists.

Speaking to SAGE after the broadcast, Dr Flanagan suggested that this highlights differences in culture between the two disciplines. For engineers in the UK there is a more formal approach to professional development, including formal support networks and professional accreditation. The culture among physicists at UKAEA is influenced by academic models of autonomy. This involves a less structured approach to career progression.

Career track for women students

Analysis of data from apprenticeships, graduate students and graduate recruits was also important. As Dr Lloyd explained, recruitment is the public face of the institution.

“These groups are very important for us because they represent the main entry routes into the organisation.”

The SAT found good success rates for women applying to physics and engineering roles. Their key challenge is having women apply. This highlights the importance of gender equity in public engagement. At UKAEA, their approach includes ensuring a gender balance of representatives at university career fairs. They also feature a mix of women and men in staff profiles on their website.

Exciting one-off initiatives have the potential to shift public perceptions of women in STEMM. An engineer at the CCFE, Kim Cave Ayland, recently starred in an award-winning video in the “Born to Engineer” series. This will be screened in Bristol city centre over the coming year.

Dr Brian Lloyd, UK Atomic Energy Authority: "Recruitment is one of our main forms of engagement with the wider community. Having diversity in our recruitment into these positions influences how we’re viewed externally."

Athena SWAN in a publicly funded research institute

Athena SWAN originated with higher education institutions. The Charter opened up to publicly funded research bodies and medical research institutes in 2015. UKAEA were among the first research institutions to apply. The SAT found they needed to adapt some of the data analysis to make it more relevant for their institution and career structure.

SAT members were familiar with academic career structures from their institution’s close work with universities. This helped them identify how their career structure mapped onto academic roles. They outlined this in their Award application, so that peer reviewers from other institutions could easily interpret the data they presented.

The Athena SWAN Bronze Award application also asks institutions to benchmark their data against sector-wide averages. Most of the benchmarking data available came from universities. The SAT took a creative approach to benchmarking, obtaining data from professional engineering and physics associations and other sources.

Dr Lloyd explains that understanding the trends within their own data was even more important than external comparisons. Comparing across grades and disciplines showed the key gender equity sticking points across career paths. This enabled them to design appropriate actions in response.

Making the case for change with senior leaders 

Three key factors drove the business case for Athena SWAN at UKAEA:

  1. Recognising that women were under-represented in their STEMM workforce, making the challenges they faced in recruiting and retaining suitably qualified staff significantly harder.
  2. The belief that funding in the UK might be tied to Athena SWAN in future.
  3. The personal commitment of their Chief Executive Officer.

Here is an excerpt from the UKAEA CEO’s letter endorsing their Athena SWAN submission:

“As a young academic I benefitted greatly from an enlightened University that allowed huge flexibility. My career was not hindered by spending the time between 3pm and 8pm everyday with my children. I am delighted that the Authority be as flexible – the employees and the Authority will benefit.”  –Professor Steve Cowley FRS, FREng

Several strategies have embedded their Athena SWAN gender equity Action Plan more deeply throughout the institution.

  • Consultation with staff at the beginning of the process. This generated widespread support for Athena SWAN. Jackie Costello explains that this “awakened expectations from our employees” and kept the momentum going.
  • Linking gender equity actions to corporate milestones. This increased the visibility of action items and meant that they were seen as connected to employees’ bonus payments. It acted as a visible driver for everyone to get involved and make a contribution.
  • Tying the Action Plan closely to their findings. SAT members understood that Athena SWAN required them to demonstrate how their Action Plan would address the specific issues revealed in their data. The ability to demonstrate this connection between data analysis and action planning helped them negotiate the resources and time needed.

Jackie Costello, UK Atomic Energy Authority: "The data we gathered was actually very compelling, very powerful. So it was fairly easy to have management support at all levels on this because it was quite clear that these were the issues that our employees were facing, and that in order for this to be successful we had to tackle those.”

Understanding flexible work through qualitative data

The data showed low representation of women in certain grades for particular disciplines. To understand why, the SAT conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with all the women in STEMM at UKAEA. A key theme to emerge was that staff perceived barriers to undertaking maternity leave and part-time work. In response, the SAT is currently overseeing a full review of flexible work procedures.

Ongoing analysis of these qualitative data has also revealed that women are reluctant to put themselves forward for promotion. Many employees also lack of awareness of career development and promotion processes. Actions taken in response to these findings include:

  • Clearer guidance on promotion and career development
  • Coaching for managers in supporting part-time employees and ensuring their career development matches other employees
  • Better access for women to mentoring and professional development schemes
  • Unconscious bias training to all managers, with plans to extend this to the whole workforce
  • Encouraging managers to look beyond the most obvious candidates for promotion

Louise Naughton from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute posted a question for our guests:

With qualitative data collection did you encounter focus group fatigue with other programs/projects running simultaneously? If yes, how did you overcome this challenge?

Dr Flanagan responds that it can be a lot of work to prepare for qualitative data collection and win engagement. Fortunately they found strong enthusiasm from staff on the issues they were raising.

Dr Flanagan suggests that running focus groups and collating data has a large overhead. She advises careful planning and selecting the most important issues to focus on to avoid overload.

Download the UKAEA Athena SWAN Bronze Institutional Award submission

Dr Joanne Flanagan, UK Atomic Energy Authority: "Discussions around flexible working and return from maternity or paternity generally have one commonality, and that’s major life changes. Qualitative data is so important. It paints a far more nuanced picture of what’s going on than just who managed to survive a particular situation. It gives you some understanding for the bumps in the road on that journey. And if you can look at the commonalities in those bumps, you can target some and help smooth them out."