Written evidence submitted by Dr Survjit Cheeta, Prof Justin Fisher & Prof Rebecca Lingwood, Brunel University London[1] (DIV0024)



Executive Summary




As a university with significant activity in STEM areas (67% of academic staff are employed in STEM), our responses are principally focussed on our own experience at Brunel, rather than on the whole HE sector. However, given our significant presence in STEM, our responses will have relevance beyond the University.



  1. The nature or extent to which women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds are underrepresented in STEM in academia and industry


1.1             At Brunel University London, we are proud of our diverse staff and student body. And, we can highlight many positive achievements in building diversity in both STEM and Non-STEM subjects.


1.2             Women remain underrepresented in STEM areas. Only 37% of our academic staff in STEM areas are female. By way of comparison, some 52% of academic staff in Non-STEM areas are women,


1.3             The picture is more positive in respect of ethnic minority staff. Some 38% of academics in STEM areas are from ethnic minorities – well above the proportion in the population as a whole and higher than the proportion of academic staff from ethnic minorities in Non-STEM (31%). Our proportion of academic staff from ethnic minorities is, nonetheless, lower than the proportion of ethnic minority students in a typical London university, like Brunel.


1.4             These figures on their own, however, tell only a partial story. Underrepresentation must also be examined in respect of seniority and leadership in STEM.



  1. The implications of these groups being underrepresented in STEM roles in academia and industry


2.1             Diversity increases quality. If areas like STEM display significant underrepresentation, then the important work in STEM areas will miss both talent and key perspectives. Simple examples illustrate this point well, from the emphasis in many areas of design that do not reflect the needs of women citizens, to the medical testing equipment that works less well with ethnic minority citizens.


2.2             Quite apart from the loss of potential for development in STEM as a result of underrepresentation, all citizens should be equally able to aspire to contribute to STEM. Underrepresentation indicates that for some groups, this is not yet happening.


2.3             In order for STEM to reach its full potential, it needs to draw from the widest possible talent base that reflects the diversity in modern British society. A STEM culture that is both diverse yet inclusive will result in high quality teaching and research and will attract and retain high calibre students who are motivated themselves to pursue a career in STEM. In order to create this future pipeline and for STEM to be seen as an attractive future career prospect to traditionally underrepresented undergraduate and postgraduate students then they must be able to identify with it. This identification is more likely to develop with female leaders, leaders from racially minoritized groups, and leaders that challenges stereotypes and address long standing inequalities.  


2.4             Gathering evidence is the first and necessary step in addressing inequalities that exist in STEM (and Non-STEM) subjects. At Brunel we have been actively doing this by examining processes that can produce bias and maintain the status quo: challenging our recruitment and selection process, and ensuring promotion processes are fair and inclusive, for example. For students particularly those from disadvantaged background or those with protected characteristics – it is important to ensure that they are not further marginalized by the curriculum and assessment approaches used.




  1. What has been done to address underrepresentation of particular groups in STEM roles




3.1.           While underrepresentation exists across a range of groups, most activity has related to the underrepresentation of women.


3.2.           The most well-developed initiative is the Athena SWAN Charter, whereby at both institutional and departmental level, accreditation is awarded by Advance HE.


3.3.           The Athena SWAN Charter, established in 2005, is focussed on promoting gender equality in higher education. Brunel has had accreditation at an institutional level since 2012, and six departments across the University also have accreditation, five of which are STEM and one Non-STEM.


3.4.           The Athena SWAN Charter has been very successful in making diversity an agenda issue and has led to a ‘step change in the sector’s approach to gender equality’.[2] As a result of the Charter, many universities, including our own, have taken much more account of the need to implement policies to deliver equality and diversity in STEM and Non-STEM subjects. One result, across the sector, has been an increase in the number of women in senior leadership roles.


3.5.           As an example of positive change inspired by the Charter, Brunel completely re-vamped its promotion criteria in 2014 to explicitly ensure that a range of different activities and achievements were recognized. This was designed to capture the many roles that academic colleagues play in Universities, including teaching, student support, programme management and general collegiality, alongside the established measures focussed on research. The effect has been substantial, with women now being as likely as men to have their achievement recognized and promoted in STEM subjects. Indeed, in Non-STEM subjects, women are now more likely to get promoted than men.


3.6.           The University has also introduced an Athena SWAN award, designed to assist women returning from maternity leave by providing relief from other duties for a year in order to support their research. Awards are up to £15k. Since the scheme was introduced in 2013, some 26 women have received the award, of which 11 have been in STEM subjects.


3.7.           Brunel has also actively participated in many successful schemes designed to boost diversity in STEM (albeit with the principal focus being on gender). Examples include offering studentships from the Santander Women in Engineering programme, which includes a range of benefits for the holder, including support for later employment. We have also been awarded six British Council Scholarships for Women in STEM for applicants from South and South-East Asia – including from Afghanistan. This particular scheme not only builds diversity in STEM in terms of gender, but also in terms of the countries participating, the focus being on developing countries. The British Council has taken a strong stance to help ensure women can benefit from the scheme by ensuring that recipient institutions provide accommodation for the recipients and their dependents. Brunel contributes further on this by providing fee discounts to support dependents and ensuring that recipients benefit from the security of on-campus accommodation. Brunel has also supported a number of Daphne Jackson Fellowships in STEM subjects. The Daphne Jackson Trust is the UK’s leading organisation dedicated to realizing the potential of returners (predominantly women) to research careers following a career break of two years or more taken for a family, caring or health reasons.[3]


3.8.           Brunel is also a member of the WISE campaign, which aims to increase the participation, contribution and success of women in STEM. All students are eligible for membership. Internally, we have the Women in Brunel Engineering and Computing (WiBEC) mentoring programme. Further training, usually in groups, is arranged to support gaining course-related employment. The programme grew out of Brunel's Women in Engineering scheme and many graduates who have been through the programme have returned to us as mentors.


3.9.           Training opportunities have also made available, and since 2014 a significant number of female staff have participated in the AURORA women-only leadership development programme since.


Ethnic Minorities


3.10.      Actions to address the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities are more recent, but have been accelerated in recent years at Brunel.


3.11.      Ten priorities have been identified to both boost underrepresentation and make the University a more inclusive environment. These included seeking to diversify senior leadership by educating future leaders, using recruitment consultants who have a track record of sourcing ethnic minority talent, providing leadership diversification programmes and providing mentoring and shadowing opportunities for ethnic minority staff.


3.12.      Senior leaders across the University including the University’s Executive Board have participated in the Race Equality Training offered by Advance HE, and an anti-racism officer has also been employed to develop our anti-racism policy.


3.13.      We are also taking positive steps to create a more inclusive work environment, including the development of dedicated support for ethnic minority staff.


3.14.      However, while we have seen an increase in the proportion of REF submissions from ethnic minority staff in the last two exercises, we are not yet able to demonstrate positive results in respect on promotions for academic staff from ethnic minorities in STEM areas. In STEM subjects, the success rate in promotion exercises for ethnic minorities is consistently lower than for colleagues from white ethnic backgrounds.


3.15.      Diversity in STEM relates not only to achievement and representation in academia, but also the supply of future graduates. Here, data on achievement at undergraduate level can be instructive. At Brunel, around 60% of our STEM graduates are from ethnic minorities. However, ethnic minority students are less likely than students from white ethnic backgrounds to achieve first-class awards in STEM (as well as in Non-STEM subjects). In contrast, in both STEM and Non-STEM subjects, women are more likely to secure first class degrees.


3.16.      We have taken active action to address our ethnicity awarding gap and our data are highlighting an increase in good degree outcomes for students from ethnic minority groups. In 2016, following comprehensive analysis of degree outcomes data, the University began work to tackle disparities in awards by ethnicity. The work is supported by a budget of up to £100k each year, which includes funding for a full-time member of staff to co-ordinate activities. The work on awarding gaps is also supported by action to improve graduate outcomes for Black and Asian students, where the University has invested significant resource to support internships, placements, coaching and mentoring schemes. One area of focus for the awarding gap work has been to support research and action in academic departments, including analysis of outcomes by type of assessment, student led reviews of curriculum content, development of activities to facilitate the transition to higher education, and consideration of the role of peer support in student outcomes.


3.17.      The University has run a number of events and conferences over the years, which have focused on various aspects of race and racism, across both higher education and broader society. These events have led to spin off campaigns such as the ‘Liberated Library’ campaign, linked to events discussing diversity in the publishing industry, which involved using student suggestions to purchase diverse content for the library. These resources are available to staff and students and can be used both inside and outside of the curriculum.


Challenges of Accreditation


3.18.      For all the positives of the initiatives like the Athena SWAN Charter, there are, however, some negatives. First, the environment in which universities operate has changed substantially since the Charter’s creation. Both the 2010 Equality Act and the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act has altered the legal framework, while the reporting requirements of university regulators and research funding bodies have changed substantially.  Significant cultural change in this period has also led to a broader focus on diversity. Taken together, the demands of Athena SWAN recognition are now being questioned across the HE sector.


3.19.      Second, the administrative burden in achieving Charter status is substantial and a disincentive to institutions. The review of the Charter viewed these as being disproportionate.[4]


3.20.      Third, reflecting the Charter’s origins in promoting gender equality, there is no link with Charters such as the Race Equality Charter in order to promote diversity across a range of protected characteristics.


3.21.      Fourth, Advance HE lacks accountability to the sector. One of the key recommendations of the review of Athena SWAN was significant change on the governance of the Charter.[5]


3.22.      For these reasons, while actively supporting the principles of Athena SWAN and continuing to implement gender equality policies, Brunel is not currently seeking to build on its Charter status while the administrative burden remains so high. This is in line with the BEIS and DfE position of reducing excessive bureaucracy in research and higher education, and also reflects the government position that such initiatives should no longer be a requirement of regulators or funders.[6]


3.23.      Taken together, both the University and sector have taken significant steps in boosting diversity in STEM as it relates to gender. Far less progress has been made, however, in respect of ethnicity and socio-economic status.




  1. What could and should be done by the UK Government, UK Research and Innovation, other funding bodies, industry and academia to address the issues identified.


4.1.           In order to build on the significant progress over the last two decades in respect of gender, the sector needs to take a far more coordinated and inclusive approach to diversity, rather than seeking to develop numerous forms of accreditation. Certainly, the focus of efforts to improve diversity should be far broader than has historically been the case.


4.2.           The focus for the HE sector should be on concrete steps to improve diversity, rather than the excessive bureaucratic burden commonly associated with accreditation exercises.


4.3.           The UK government together with UKRI can support this approach by continuing to seek to reduce the bureaucratic burden in research and innovation and supporting universities’ efforts to develop a more coordinated approach to diversity.


4.4.           Actions to promote diversity should not, however, be focussed solely on research. Targeted efforts at undergraduate level to enhance the pipeline of a more diverse STEM population will also reap long-term benefits.


January 2022



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[1]               Dr Survjit Cheeta is Dean of Culture & Inclusion; Prof Justin Fisher is Director of Brunel Public Policy; Prof Rebecca Lingwood is Provost (and a professor in a field of Engineering). All at Brunel University London

[2]               Future-of-Athena-SWAN_Appendix6.pdf (ecu.ac.uk) p.1

[3]               https://daphnejackson.org/

[4]               Future-of-Athena-SWAN_Appendix6.pdf (ecu.ac.uk) p.6

[5]               Future-of-Athena-SWAN_Appendix6.pdf (ecu.ac.uk) pp.13-15

[6]               Reducing bureaucratic burden in research, innovation and higher education - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)