Category Archives: Athena Swan

How to ‘institutionalise’ good staff recruitment practices in Universities

I occasionally write blog posts on how we want to recruit new colleagues. The approach is based on four things that go beyond formal advertisements:

  • Thinking about the social background of your likely pool of recruitment (some fields are more heavily dominated by white men than others)
  • Designing the ‘further particulars’ and ‘essential criteria’ to not exclude people unintentionally.
  • Signalling that you have thought about your current position (such as a white-male-heavy department) and don’t want to discourage women and people of colour from applying.
  • Providing information that only a few people (with good networks and, therefore, the confidence to make contact) would get otherwise, via informal discussion.

Of course, there is always the risk that you look, to some, like you are engaging in some form of discrimination. I get the occasional question along the lines of, ‘should white men even bother applying?’ and I suspect I’d get more criticism if I weren’t a white male Professor, even though I’m just trying jump a fairly low bar, to say ‘please don’t be as discouraged as usual’ to some underrepresented groups.

However, for me at least, the potential benefits outweigh such risks, and I’ve seen some encouraging signs of impact in terms of applications (sometimes, male/ female applications are about 50/50, although I accept that I am applying optimism bias to small numbers).

This approach is now, in principle, part of our Athena SWAN commitment, although it won’t happen overnight. You can also find pockets of good practice in many Universities based, I reckon, on unusually high enthusiasm among key individuals (which is crucial to do something reasonably new).

However, here are some reasons why I think it won’t necessarily take off as an approach:

  1. It’s hard to integrate a relatively informal and personal discussion with formal HR requirements and procedures.
  2. If it’s not a routine part of the recruitment process, maybe no-one will ask for the blog post.
  3. Even if it becomes semi-routine, and someone asks for the post, it may not be forthcoming since we have enough to do, and some tasks seem less important or fall through the cracks.
  4. The payoff is difficult to measure, and help offset the cost.

So, it may stay (for some time) as something done by individuals who have a particular enthusiasm for this kind of communication. I’m not sure what would change this context – maybe a signal from some professional associations, or Athena SWAN guidance, that it’s a good thing, or maybe a groundswell of enthusiasm from an informal network of enthusiastic individuals.

Leave a comment

Filed under Athena Swan

We are recruiting three lecturers in Politics at the University of Stirling

Senior lectureship/ Associate Professor in Comparative Politics

Lectureship in International Politics

Lectureship in Politics and Public Policy (4 years – Horizon 2020 programme IMAJINE)

I am the pre-interview contact point and these are my personal thoughts on that process, which blend background information and some helpful advice.

The first two posts provide ‘open ended’ contracts. We are also seeking a postdoctoral researcher/ lecturer to work with me for 4.25 years on a Horizon2020 project. So, I’ll give some general advice on each, then emphasise some differences with the third post.

The politics staff in our division will be 10 following these appointments, so you will have the chance to play an important part of a group which is small enough to act collectively –  to, for example, influence its research direction.

Why do we make reference to ‘gender, sexuality, and race’ in the FPs?

5 of our 7 permanent lecturers are men and all 7 are white. We are not interested in simply reinforcing the imbalances that are already there. So, we worded the further particulars to ‘signal’ that we have realistic hopes of producing a more diverse and gender-balanced short list. Usually, job adverts will have a pro-forma statement about equalities, but we are trying to go one step further to signal – albeit with rather subtle cues – that we have thought about this issue a bit more; that we’d like to expand our networks and the ways in which our staff approach the study of politics. We are trying to make sure that our current set up does not put off women or people of colour from applying, recruiting from a subject pool in which there is (I think) a relatively good gender balance, and signalling support for research topics that might help expand our current offering.

These notes are also there to address a potentially major imbalance in the informal side to recruitment: if you do not have the contacts and networks that help give you the confidence to seek information (on the things not mentioned in the further particulars), here is the next best thing: the information I’d give you on the phone. Still, if you reach interview stage, we really should talk.

We hope to make this kind of informal advice a routine part of the application process, as part of our commitment to innovative best practice and Athena SWAN.

Here are some tips on the application and interview processes.

The application process:

  • At this stage, the main documents are the CV and the cover letter.
  • You should keep the cover letter short to show your skills at concise writing. Focus on what you can offer the Division specifically, given the nature of our call and further particulars.
  • Shortlisted candidates at the SL/ Associate Professor level will likely be established lecturers with a strong record on publications, income, and leadership – so what makes you stand out? Lecturers will be competing with many people who have completed a PhD – so what makes your CV stand out?
  • Note that you will have the chance to play an important part of a group which is small enough (10 in Politics, as part of a larger Division with History) to act collectively – to, for example, influence its research direction (as a group, we hold regular 90 minute research workshops for that purpose).
  • Focus on what you have already done when discussing what you will promise to do over the next five years. Those plans seem more realistic if there is already some sort of track record.
  • We take teaching very seriously. Within our division, we plan an overall curriculum together, discuss regularly if it is working, and come to agreements about how to teach and assess work. We pride ourselves on being a small and friendly bunch of people, open to regular student contact and, for example, committed to meaningful and regular feedback. You might think about how you would contribute in that context. In particular, you should think about how you would deliver large undergraduate courses (in which you may only be an expert on some of the material) as well as the smaller, more specialist and advanced, courses closer to your expertise.

The interview process

By the interview stage, you should almost certainly have a conversation with me to make sure that you are well prepared. For example, here are the things that you really should know at that stage:

  • The teaching and research specialisms of the division and their links to cross-divisional research.
  • The kinds of courses that the division would expect you to teach.

Perhaps most importantly, you need to be able to articulate why you want to come and work at Stirling. ‘Why Stirling?’ or ‘Why this division?’ is usually the first question in an interview, so you should think about it in advance. We recommend doing some research on Stirling and the division/ faculty, to show in some detail that you have a considered reply (beyond ‘it is a beautiful campus’). We will see through a generic response in a heartbeat and, since it is the first question, your answer will set the tone for the rest of the interview. You might check, for example, who you might share interests with in the Division, and how you might  develop links beyond the division (for example, the Centre for Gender & Feminist Studies in our school) or faculty (such as the Faculty of Social Sciences) – since this is likely to be a featured question too.

  • Then you might think about what you would bring to the University in a wider sense, such as through well-established (domestic and international) links with other scholars in academic networks.
  • Further, since ‘impact’ is of rising importance, you might discuss your links with people and organisations outside of the University, and how you have pursued meaningful engagement with the public or practitioners to maximise the wider contribution of your research.

The presentation plus interview format

In our system there tend to be presentations to divisional (and other interested) staff in the morning, with interviews in the afternoon. The usual expectation is that if you can’t make the date, you can’t get the job (although we can make accommodations to help you apply or interview via Skype).

  • We recommend keeping the presentation compact, to show that you can present complex information in a concise and clear way. Presentations are usually a mix of what you do in research and what you will contribute in a wider sense to the University.
  • The usual interview panel format at this level is five members: one subject specialist from the Division, one other member of the Faculty (not necessarily from our division), the Head of Faculty of Arts and Humanities, a senior manager of the University (in the chair), and a senior academic in another Faculty (by the time of interview you should know what these terms mean at Stirling).
  • So, it is possible that only 1 member of your panel will be a subject specialist (in Politics). This means that (at the very least) you need to describe your success in a way that a wider audience will appreciate. For example, you would have to explain the significance of a single-author article in the APSR!

It sounds daunting, but we are a friendly bunch and want you to do well. You might struggle to retain all of our names (nerves), so focus on the types of question we ask – for example, the general question to get you started will be from the senior manager, and the research question from the divisional representative. There are often more men than women on the panel, and they are often all-white panels, but I hope that we are providing other more useful ‘signals’ about our commitment to equality and diversity.

I am happy to answer your questions. We can try email first – p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk – and then phone or skype if you prefer.

The Horizon 2020 post

I have described some key concepts in two separate posts, to give you an idea of our part of the larger project:

The theory and practice of evidence-based policy transfer: can we learn how to reduce territorial inequalities?

‘Co-producing’ comparative policy research: how far should we go to secure policy impact?

Please also note why we are offering a 4.25 year post: we want it to be a platform for your long term success. A lot of applicants will know that our research funding system has some unintended consequences: some people get grants and are bought out of teaching, others get more teaching in return, and many research fellows compete for very short term contracts with limited job security. This post should reduce those consequences: you and I would share my full teaching load, you would have the chance to co-author a lot of research with me (and we can both single author other pieces), and we would seek more opportunities for funding throughout. By the end of 2021, I hope that your CV will be impressive enough for you to think about applying for senior lecturing positions.

8 Comments

Filed under Athena Swan, IMAJINE

Academics: should we stop emailing our colleagues and students at 7pm?

The Athena Swan awards have proved to be a significant factor in encouraging conversations about diversity issues and disseminating examples of good practice. As long as they continue to be about facilitating such conversations and internal reflections their importance will remain. If any institution starts to use them, not as the motivator for debate and action but as simply a tick-box exercise which has to be gone through for the colour of the logo on their headed notepaper their worth will instantly be diminished. Departments need to keep their eyes on the primary goal of creating a more equal and creative workplace and not being fooled into believing that an award confers some sort of prestige and that no further work is needed (Athene Donald, ‘Eradicating Gender Stereotyping: How can Athena Swan Awards Help?’)

My University is serious about the Athena Swan process, and I have begun to coordinate the bronze application for our School of Arts and Humanities. My impression from the guidance from the Equality Challenge Unit is that the focus is more on the process in which we come up with a good strategy than the strategy itself (or, at least, they should have equal weight).

In other words, it is not enough to import something that worked in another department or University, partly because a lot of these initiatives only work when they are introduced on the back of meaningful discussion about their rationale and likely consequences.

My not-entirely-useful analogy (which I use in empirical policy analysis) is with medicines: with ibuprofen the important thing is the active ingredient, isobutylphenyl (which comes with a suggested dosage), and the delivery system – such as the capsule – is less important. Yet, in policy, the ‘delivery system’ can be the crucial factor since it involves issues such as how you determine the best ‘intervention’, who is involved in the decision, and how you will seek to persuade people about, or ‘coproduce’, the best way forward.

Are there any quick wins?

I’d been hoping that, during the development of our application, we might produce a few ‘quick wins’ –  solutions that are so obvious and well supported that we can put them forward for School approval with minimal discussion – to allow us to focus on the more ambitious and difficult proposals. Yet, even at this early stage, I’m not sure they exist.

Let me give you the example of this solution to one problem: let’s not email our colleagues or students at the weekends and outside the hours of 7am and 7pm.

I think there is a good rationale for this solution if you start at one particular place with an argument relevant to Athena Swan:

  • Universities have a reputation for implicitly encouraging long working hours
  • Part of the problem is a macho or male-dominated culture in which you boast about how long you work (and, in effect, how willing you are to ignore your families while you climb the career ladder)
  • People often refer to this expectation for long working hours to make unrealistic demands on University staff: some managers looking for increased outputs, and some students demanding late night and weekend responses to emails.

So, we need a solution which places limits on those expectations and symbolises the need:

  1. For all staff to maintain a good work/life balance for the sake of their mental and physical health.
  2. To make sure that the staff with significant caring responsibilities are not disadvantaged by the promotions and pay rises system based on the unrealistic expectations that only so many people can meet (in the context of a working assumption based on probability: that women are more likely to have such caring responsibilities).
  3. In terms of the initial aims of Athena Swan, to make sure that this culture does not dissuade women from entering the profession, or contributes towards them leaving.

On that basis, a 7-7 (no weekend) email policy looks like a great solution. It is simple and looks feasible (it is easy to communicate and you can likely track its progress) and would signal to people that there should be a time when work stops and life begins (even if the simple dichotomy is misleading). A University commitment to such a policy would signal to managers and students that they should not expect a response from staff at particular times, and might spark off a more meaningful discussion on these issues.

Yet, it will not be a quick win, for the following reasons:

  1. Without consultation, you don’t gather enough relevant information and identify alternative perspectives on the same issue. For example, I have spoken to people with caring responsibilities who would see this move as detrimental to the flexibility they enjoy as academics. For example, some people catch up on emails when their children have gone to bed in the early evening, and many would resent the additional burden of rescheduling their work.
  2. Without discussion, you don’t generate ‘ownership’ of policies. These policies, which largely began as a way to help people, can soon seem like a top-down imposition which makes their working lives worse.
  3. The subsequent debate on this issue takes time away from the consideration of others. The perception of imposition tends to produce prolonged debate. Seemingly simple solutions begin to dominate our time-limited discussions, since it is often easier to debate in painful detail the minutiae of University rules than to take a collective step back to think of the big picture.

In other words, all of these ‘no brainer’ solutions can have major unintended consequences.

So, where do we go from here?

In this case, it would be tempting to produce a fudge about not normally emailing after 7, and focus on explaining its rationale without trying to change behaviour directly, but my impression is that the ECU wants specific ‘actionable’ plans which allow us to measure our progress towards an aim. It would also be tempting to come up with a technological solution, which allows us to click a button to delay the sending of our emails (which is not always as easy as it sounds when you work off campus).

Who knows? I guess, until we ask enough people in our departments, we won’t find out. Or, if anyone else has tried out this sort of solution in Universities, I’d like to know about it. Please feel free to add a comment with more information.

Update: so far, when people have expressed concerns or opposition to such a policy, they say that: the real aim is to remove the expectation that people have to reply to emails outside normal working hours, so address it directly. I’d be interested in any initiative to do that without a limited hours policy. For example, has any division/ University simply made a statement to staff and students about what they can expect?

See also: you can follow some of the twitter discussion by opening the link here Twitter thread

3 Comments

Filed under Athena Swan