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Sainsbury Laboratory


Athena SWAN montage

Sainsbury Lab awarded Silver Athena SWAN award

Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University (SLCU) has been recognised for its ongoing commitment to gender equality by achieving a Silver Award under the Athena SWAN Charter.

This award recognises the progress that SLCU has made in addressing gender equality since its Bronze Award in 2014. SLCU Director and Chair of the Lab’s Athena SWAN self-assessment committee explains how the award recognises the commitment of everyone across SLCU – research staff, support staff and students – in taking responsibility for building and maintaining an inclusive environment that supports and values diversity.

Our priority for SLCU is to build an environment where everyone welcomes challenge and debate, feels free to share ideas and take intellectual risks, and embraces interdisciplinary collaboration. This is essential for creative and productive interdisciplinary research and it is best achieved when people feel secure and respected. For us equality, diversity and inclusion are not only a laudable goal, they are a necessity.

Committed inclusive leadership is essential for success, with the goal of fostering a culture of collective responsibility in which anyone can identify issues that need addressing, propose mechanisms to address them and contribute to their implementation. We aim to empower the whole community to contribute through a wide range of mechanisms including our annual All Hands Meeting, SLCU Retreat, staff group meetings, and diverse formal and informal mechanisms for individual feedback. It is a true pleasure to see people from across SLCU taking responsibility for our workplace and proactively making it better.

Athena SWAN Charter

Established in 2005, the Athena Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN) Charter was created to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) fields in higher education and research. The charter was expanded in 2015 to recognise work undertaken in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL), and in professional and support roles, and for trans staff and students. The charter now recognises work undertaken to address gender equality more broadly, and not just barriers to progression that affect women. The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), which is part of Advance HE, enables organisations to apply for an award recognising their commitment to, and progress on, equality and diversity under the Charter.

The Athena SWAN process has been crucial. Our self-assessment team developed working groups to widen participation in progressing our Action Plan. These Groups have driven major changes at SLCU. On their own initiative, staff and students have established groups providing social and career progression support, including a Women’s Group, Writing Group, Coaching Group, Sports Group, Board Game Group and more, illustrating the kind of inclusive, participatory and creative culture we are aiming to embed.

We have nurtured widespread enthusiasm and engagement in our community. The resulting research culture requires that we sustain a level of intellectual security often lacking in academia, where insecurity and fear are prevalent motivating forces, driving a competitive winner-takes-all ethos. This is a major reason why women opt for alternative careers, and it is particularly problematic at prestigious institutions where researchers feel under intense pressure to prove that they deserve to be there. We have worked to counter these pressures by deepening support for diversity and inclusion, for example through second supervisor schemes, mentoring, career development opportunities, social activities and creating a flexible workplace with family-friendly facilities.

We have had some notable successes in establishing the right culture and there is widespread enthusiasm and engagement among our staff. However, there is further to go and also some concerns, such as stubbornly below-benchmark appointment of women researchers, which requires further analysis and targeted interventions in our recruitment systems.

Progressing equality and diversity is a complex and multi-layered challenge and we will continue to advance our Athena SWAN action plan through a newly formed Diversity and Equality Committee, which will further embed equality, diversity and inclusion principles in the day-to-day business of SLCU, its policies, and decision-making, which will benefit our whole community.