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Imperial College's Fellowship for academics returning from parental leave

Target Group
Academic staff
Initiative Theme
Accommodating caring responsibilities
Initiative institution
Imperial College
Application type
Athena Swan Initiative
Publication date

Institution and Department: Imperial College London
Author: Rob Bell, Athena Swan Coordinator


Imperial College London has a long-established Fellowship scheme to support academics returning from parental leave (maternity, adoption and/or shared parental leave) enabling them to concentrate fully on their research work. Originally established in 2000 for maternity leave, the Elsie Widdowson Fellowship has been periodically evaluated and updated. Over 200 Fellowships have been awarded, with strong positive feedback on the benefits of the Fellowship to academic careers.

About your organisation

Located in the heart of London with approximately 8,500 staff and 23,000 students, Imperial is a global top ten university with a world-class reputation in science, engineering, business, and medicine. Imperial is committed to developing the next generation of researchers, scientists, and academics through collaboration across disciplines. Imperial was a founding member of the Athena Swan Charter in 2005. Imperial received its first university Athena Swan award in 2006 and has held Silver since 2012. Imperial became a member of the Race Equality Charter in 2018, achieving a Bronze award in 2021.

Purpose of the initiative

Combining caring responsibilities and an academic career can be difficult. In 1999, Imperial commissioned a report on ‘Academic Progress of Women at Imperial College’ by an external consultant, with a questionnaire sent to all female academics and research staff, and additional focus groups organised as well. One of the significant issues raised was “a deep concern about the implications of taking maternity leave for a successful academic career”. 

Women felt a lack of support and found it difficult post-maternity leave to focus on their research, vital for career progression, due to teaching and administration workload demands. As well as affecting women directly in this position, the perception of this issue contributed to other women being worried about combining an academic career with family and caring responsibilities. Imperial was concerned that women were being lost from the academic career pathway as they felt it was not possible to start a family and be a successful academic. Imperial wanted to provide practical and effective support to women in this situation and identified that protected time for research was key.

Description of the initiative

In 2000 Imperial created the Elsie Widdowson Fellowship, named after a distinguished College alumnus and Fellow, to provide direct support for women returning from maternity leave. The Fellowships are centrally funded, with Imperial providing 50% of salary costs to departments. This enables women to take a sabbatical from teaching and administration, originally in order to undertake an agreed research programme. The creation of the Fellowships provided a very public sign of Imperial’s commitment to women academics, and was made possible by strong support from Imperial’s leadership. 

In 2008 Imperial extended the Fellowships from 6 months to 12 months. Rather than a pre-agreed programme of research, the Fellowship has evolved a more flexible approach, enabling the individual and their department to agree how best to spend the additional money, so the individual can focus on their research work. 

As part of their 2016 Athena Swan Action Plan, Imperial reviewed the Fellowship in the context of Shared Parental Leave being introduced in the UK*. Imperial then revised the Fellowship in 2017, opening it up to all genders. This reflected that men can encounter similar difficulties to women, and that Imperial wanted to encourage more men to take parental leave, as part of a more inclusive and supportive culture. 

*Shared Parental Leave allows mothers to end their Maternity leave early, so that both parents can then take leave in a more flexible way.


Over 200 Fellowships have been awarded since the scheme started in 2000. As a key initiative in a range of gender equality work at Imperial, the Fellowship has helped contribute to a growing number of female academics. For example, Imperial’s female percentage of Professors has increased from 6% in 1999 to 18% in 2021. 

For a number of years, Imperial has asked individuals to fill in a post-Fellowship feedback or survey form. Reviewing feedback data for their 2022 Athena Swan application, Imperial found an average score of 4.4 out of 5 for ‘How beneficial to your career do you feel the Fellowship has been?’. Individual stories can really help show the benefits and impacts of the Fellowships: 

Professor Aimee Morgans, Department of Mechanical Engineering “The Elsie Widdowson Fellowship created the space and time for me to get things in place for the start of a major grant. For example, combining the recruitment of three RAs with supervising my existing PhD students and dealing with a toddler and 6-12 month old baby would have been really difficult, had I been on full teaching load. The Fellowship even created enough space for me to write, as first author, a conference and journal paper within the first year back, and to co-organise an international workshop at Imperial, which most of the big names in the field attended. This all helped with networking, future opportunities and reminding me how much I love research.” 

Dr Doryen Bubeck, Reader, Department of Life Sciences “My lab was down to zero before my leave so I needed to really start from the beginning. It was a privilege to be able to focus in this way. I used it to take a year out of teaching and administration on paper, but in practice I used it a bit more flexibly to take on teaching in a strategic way, contributing to classes in my area of expertise that I could continue, so that the next year when I started back I wouldn’t have such a steep learning curve of new teaching to prepare. The fellowship was definitely key to the rapid success of the lab. Within two years of coming back from maternity leave my lab published its first high impact publication.” 

Dr Gabriella Da Silva Xavier – now Associate Professor at Institute of Metabolism and Systems Research, University of Birmingham “I used the fellowship more flexibly. I opted to use the money to hire a part-time technician in the lab whose principle job was to maintain and look after my mouse colonies for me so that the numbers and breeding were controlled as specified by myself according to budget. I chose this option as this task took up most of my time and I needed to use the time to write grant applications instead. I successfully got two grant applications in this time and two papers were published in the same period.

Key barriers and facilitators

Although all women academics taking maternity leave were eligible for the Fellowship, Imperial found that awareness in the community remained low for several years. This was despite details of the Fellowship being included in the standard HR maternity leave pack and information promoted online. To overcome this barrier, Imperial’s 2012 Athena Swan submission included an action to have a champion in each department fully briefed on the Fellowship, who was responsible for informing all eligible academics. As more people have been awarded Fellowships, awareness has grown, especially since 2017 when the Fellowship was opened to all genders. 

Another challenge Imperial has faced was clear ownership and coordination of data – especially processing and recording Fellowship applications. This meant that records were sometimes unclear or known to be missing, making evaluation of the Fellowship difficult. In 2019 a new system was established to address these challenges, thanks to dedicated capacity within the HR department. At a local level, departments have found it challenging when dealing with multiple Fellowships in a short period of time because of the potential impact on the department’s ability to fulfil teaching commitments. Imperial has provided clearer guidance around this - the timing of the Fellowship should be discussed between the member of staff and the Head of Department before the application is submitted. It’s possible to delay a Fellowship till a later date.

The future?

The Elsie Widdowson Fellowship will continue to be an important part of Imperial’s family-friendly policies and support.

Advice for other members

Many UK universities now have similar initiatives to Imperial’s Elsie Widdowson Fellowship, reflecting common challenges and shared experiences for academics. At a significant point in a staff members’ personal life, it is important that an organisation considers how best to support them. This may be through a similar fellowship or sabbatical scheme, but it is important to engage with your staff to understand their needs and what will work best in your local context.

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Advance HE shares a range of practice and approaches to charters awards. Case studies/example applications illustrate one approach to race/gender equality work but there are a variety of successful approaches and we recommend charter members consider their local evidence-base and context when deciding how to advance equality in their setting.