An innovative approach to improving Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Professor Belinda Colston

In the last of our interviews with key speakers who are presenting at SEC 11th -12th October 2018, Professor Belinda Colston, University of Lincoln, discusses how the ‘ASPIRE project’ is offering an innovative approach to improving Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.


Professor Belinda Colston is a chemist and has been in academia for 30 years. She began her academic life as a Research Fellow in the nuclear chemistry group at the University of Manchester, UK, researching aspects of radioactive waste disposal with the Atomic Energy Authority. After five years she took up a lectureship in the School of Chemistry and Physics at Leicester’s De Montfort University, UK, and spent a year in the Chemistry Department at Florida State University, US, researching neptunium kinetics in relation to nuclear fuel reprocessing. In 2003, she moved to the University of Lincoln, UK, where she is currently Professor of Analytical Chemistry and Cultural Heritage. Today her research crosses the boundaries of chemistry, materials science and cultural heritage, focusing on the underlying chemical and physico-chemical processes that affect the degradation and sustainability of heritage materials in a changing environment.


Could you explain more about the Eleanor Glanville Centre (EGC) where you are based?
In 2012, I was asked to take on the role of the institution’s coordinator for Athena SWAN. Through the role, I began to see the broader need to raise awareness and new initiatives to alleviate disadvantage faced by under-represented groups across the board. It was also apparent we were a long way from unravelling an effective remedy for this ‘unfair’ system we have created. I wanted to establish a centralised system where all schools were working together to achieve their EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) goals – I felt this was the best way to create a critical mass, and the momentum needed to effect change. I also wanted to bring together all the research related to EDI from various pockets across the University, not only as a platform to showcase the research, but as the first step to using our research to inform practice and policy. These ideas culminated in the Eleanor Glanville Centre (EGC), named after the 17th century entomologist and female STEMM pioneer. The EGC represents the University’s centralised EDI centre, the purpose of which is to drive cultural change across the institution to further the strategic ambitions of the University in terms of inclusion and diversity.


What do you believe is key to creating a sustainable inclusive culture?
In academia, we have been striving to establish a fully inclusive culture in science- and engineering-related disciplines for over 30 years. Despite substantial investment, however, there is little evidence of significant improvement. For example, in 2016, only 19 per cent of all UK professors in science-related disciplines were women. The reasons behind such under-representation are complex, with the most significant factors arising through cultures and attitudes in the workplace. If we are to build sustainable and more inclusive environments across academia, we need a step-change in our approach. We need to focus on long-term behavioural and culture change, rather than on improving staff statistics and performance metrics. We need to understand the strategies that work best, those that have minimal effect, and those that can cause unintended negative consequences.


Could you explain more about ASPIRE (Advanced Strategic Platform for Inclusive Research Environments)
In 2017, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) announced an open call for proposals to improve EDI within engineering and physical sciences. The EGC led a bid with the goal of developing sector-wide tools to support EDI. The ASPIRE project offers an innovative approach to improving EDI, with a primary focus on long-term behavioural and cultural change. The project will develop an evidence-based online toolkit to connect best practice with improved ways to measure, monitor and implement EDI initiatives. The aim is to not only harness the breadth of EDI practice to support institutional strategy, but to develop more meaningful and comprehensive frameworks for the impact of EDI initiatives on culture and behaviour.


What has been the impact of some of the EGC’s EDI measures?
The EGC is still young, and it is a little early to see impact from our initiatives. However, we have two initiatives aimed at those with caring responsibilities – which disproportionately affect the careers of women.

Our Academic Returners’ Research Fund (AR2F) was established in 2014 to provide support for female academics working in STEMM subject areas who are either embarking upon, or returning to work after, a period of maternity leave. The funding offers the opportunity for female scientists to continue their research and plan how their research commitments and aspirations can be supported during their leave. The AR2F has proved invaluable to sustaining research during the early maternity responsibilities, and alleviate any resulting disadvantage to career pathways.

We also started our Back2Science programme in 2014 to allow both women and men who have taken extended career breaks in STEMM subject areas to join an established research group, build confidence and gain contemporary research experience. The programme has been extremely successful in providing a stepping-stone back into academia.


You can find out more about the STEMM Equality Congress here

You can find out more about Professor Belinda Colston here