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Eight steps to achieving gender equality, cultural change and Athena Swan Gold

15 Oct 2020 | Prof Rob De Bruin Rob de Bruin, Professor of Molecular Cancer Biology at the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, University College London (UCL), details the eight steps taken by the department to effect cultural change and achieve a Gold Athena Swan award.

UCL’s Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology (LMBC) recently renewed Athena Swan Gold award in recognition of our sustained success in promoting gender equality in academia in the UK. The most important thing we learned is that addressing the wide range of issues that contribute to inequality requires a cultural change. The LMCB EDI committee that I co-chair with Michael Acton Smith, and prior to that with Professor Sara Mole, has followed an eight-step process for cultural change.

The eight steps needed for cultural change were originally identified by John P. Kofte in the context of keeping businesses competitive/profitable, but can be used by any organisation for any purpose. “Leading Change - Why Transformation efforts fail: Leaders who successfully transform do eight things right (and do them in the right order)”

The 8-step process is not an easy fix, but takes 5-10 years of sustained effort for achieving change. We realised early on (2008) that the UK Athena Swan Charter provides the structure needed to take the eight steps necessary to lead change. I will go through these steps providing examples of our experience in academia in the UK.



Step 1: Establishing a sense of urgency

To change a culture you need to convince people of the need for this to happen. Nobody likes change so there has to be a good reason to do so. Whilst promoting gender equality is generally thought to be ‘the right thing to do’ there isn’t a particular urgency to do so right now (that’s why it’s taking literally centuries!). In the UK, the linking of research funding to the Athena Swan Silver Award (2011) gave promoting gender equality in academic STEM: Science Technology Engineering Mathematics that urgency.

Senior management had to get on board or risk their organisation losing research income. The threat of linking it to all government research funding, which is what actually happened in Ireland not long after for Science Foundation Ireland funding, really did make them sit up and pay attention. The hope is that these days commitment to promote EDI affects the choices of people to work or do business with organisations. This will both affect excellence/competitiveness of the organisation and their cash-flow.

Step 2: Forming a powerful guiding coalition

To implement change you need to convince the majority of people of the need for change. Some will always be against change, don’t waste your time convincing them, but some are willing to commit time and energy to drive change. These people sit on our Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee.

The EDI committee aims to drive the change and convince the largely indifferent majority for the need for change. Key to these efforts is ensuring you have a gender balanced diverse group of people driving the change. In addition, senior management SHOULD recognise this and EDI work should be better paid, valued and praised.

Step 3: Creating a vision

You need a clear vision, that can be used repeatedly, to remind all why there is a need for change to convince the majority.

We experienced the importance of this. Initially we adopted Athena Swan’s vision “promote women's careers in science”, but this did not resonate with the majority at all and we found ourselves having to explain that we’re not trying to push for positive discrimination. When we changed this to ‘simply good practice’, where you implement actions that remove barriers so everyone can succeed, which coincidentally benefits underrepresented groups more so than others, we were getting the majority behind us.

Step 4: Communicating the vision

Implement a communication strategy, not just so that EDI becomes visible (content on website, annual EDIC seminar etc) but more so that it is considered in all aspects of the decision-making process at the institute.

To achieve this you need to make EDI a standard item on every committee agenda to have Embedding Athena updates. This way it becomes common practice, part of the culture, to always consider EDI. To communicate our vision beyond the institute we use the #simplygoodpractice when tweeting!

Step 5: Empowering others to act on the vision

The first step is for the EDI committee to identify issues of inequality. This requires a picture of your institute in numbers based on gender, which is the first step in an Athena Swan application. It includes data on all staff at all levels, but also committees, seminar series, students, recruitment, fellowship applications, funding levels, etc. Ideally a survey would be run to add to the picture/data. A survey is also a powerful way to monitor impact of any actions taken.

Whilst data collection requires significant time commitment it is absolutely essential to identify practical solutions to address issues that contribute to inequality. The data allows you to identify and discuss what could lie at the basis of inequality and how this could be addressed. This results in an action plan. Recent examples from the LMCB are an extended leave policy, promotions committee, inclusion guidelines for conferences, support staff career progression training opportunities, design and implementing parent pack, onsite career training and workshops.

Once you implement new actions, procedures and guidelines, which is the second step in an Athena Swan application, you provide the tools that allow others to act and this is when the real change starts to happen.

Step 6: Planning for and creating short-term wins

Once people are willing to act on actions to promote EDI you have to keep them informed of the successes. This will show them that their actions have had an impact and convince them that it’s worth their effort, plus keeps maintaining momentum in the cultural change.

Setting annual goals will help. We have an annual EDIC Prize to highlight someone’s successful effort in promoting EDI, annual promotions and Fellowship success celebrations, nominating for UCL awards and of course applying for Athena Swan awards (every three years).

In addition, feedback survey results to highlight improvements made and areas to continue work on, indicating how these will be addressed. This will both show progress (success) and the need for more change. In addition it will show that concerns are being addressed, which is essential for keeping survey participation high.

Step 7: Consolidating improvements and producing still more change

Based on the picture of your institute and survey data you can assess the impact of your actions. This will indicate what worked, needs more time or another approach. If an action has an impact you embed it in the institutes’ practice so it becomes part of its culture. If no impact is monitored of an action you go back to step 5 and repeat the process until you identify an action that does have an impact. This process has to be repeated for 5-10 years to identify a series of actions that have an impact and to drive the cultural change.

Step 8: Institutionalising new approaches

The accumulation of actions embedded in the general practice that impact on promoting EDI results is a cultural change. It implements good practice in the daily running of the institute and even if you would take away the group of people that drove the change, the EDI committee, the good practice would remain.

This is the third and final step in the Athena Swan application, sharing good practice and acting as a champion. Including Beacon activities at university, national or global level, eg speaking, consultation. Some examples from our work are sharing our appraisal checklist, contribution (workload) model, appointment guidelines and inclusive meeting guidelines.


Inequality is systemic in society but whilst there are commonalities to what drives and maintains this, every organisation, business and institute have particular issues that require specific actions to make a positive change. The one thing that all of this has in common is that it needs a cultural change. This blog highlights an eight-step process to give structure to implement a cultural change. The examples are largely focused on promoting gender equality, but this approach can be used to address any inequality and therefore promote equality, diversity and inclusion.


Prof Rob de Bruin is Professor of Molecular Cancer Biology at MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, University College London.


Prof Sara Mole, Professor of Molecular Cell Biology and Provost’s Envoy for Gender Equality at University College London and the Great Ormond Street Hospital, is speaking at an online event for Athena Swan participants on 19 November. The event will look at the impact of Covid-19 on gender equality in the higher education and research sector. Prof Mole will share examples of what UCL did to tackle the challenge and support colleagues. Book your place here 


Find out more about Athena Swan and Advance HE's Equality Charters 

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