Championing equality in HE

Uni of Leicester hands new Deputy PVC, Dr Kate Williams, a megaphone to champion her cause for equality & diversity in HE

As the University’s newly appointed Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor for Equality and Diversity, she is responsible for overseeing a range of programmes and initiatives to ensure fairness, equality of opportunity and respect for every individual.

The gains have been steady over the last two decades, but there is more work to be done, says Dr Williams, who is a senior research fellow in nursing. She headed up her department’s successful application for an Athena SWAN charter Silver award in 2013, and in her role as gender equality lead for the college of medicine biological sciences and psychology has supported a further three successful silver and one bronze application. She is now ready to press ahead across the institution on issues that she feels, as a woman academic working half time while bringing up a family for 14 years, have defined her career.

 “The fact that this is such a senior appointment shows how much the thinking has transformed in a short space of time,” she says. “The Vice Chancellor Paul Boyle has pushed it to the heart of everything we do. We are talking about equality, diversity and inclusion in a completely different way.”

Leicester’s commitment to diversity and equality led to it being chosen as one of 10 universities worldwide to spearhead the United Nations’ HeforShe campaign. Its goal is to encourage men and boys to take action to promote gender equality rather than leaving it to women.

One of the things that I feel very passionately about it is the importance of work life balance to both men and women

From being almost a fringe concern, gender equality is now being seen as mainstream and crucial to the health of society, says Dr Williams. Gender balance in higher education has come under a close lens recently and she believes one of the main reasons has been the embedding of the Athena SWAN charter across the sector to ensure universities meet gender equality targets. 

Now she wants to move the lens to look more closely at race equality, and believes the Race Equality Charter will be an important driver. Run by the Equality Challenge Unit, the Charter encourages universities to identify barriers and develop initiatives and solutions to promote equality that will be recognised by bronze or silver REC awards.

“Lessons we learn about gender need to be transferrable, so when we talk about gender equality we think in a similar way about other protected characteristics including race equality, LGBT+ and disability. We must also focus on the intersections between characteristics where multiple factors can shape experiences, such as race, sexuality, disability and age,” she says.

On gender equality, she believes women’s progression is impacted if they take time away from the workplace to take on caring responsibilities or to work part-time because of family commitments. She herself worked half-time while bringing up her two daughters, now in their mid teens.

“Working part-time certainly has had an impact on gender balance in promotions in the past as progression has been traditionally measured on attaining a set number of papers and a level of funding income within a specific timeframe,.” she says. “There has been an expectation that you will move in a certain way and go up step by step over a number of years. We need to look at progression over a working lifetime that doesn’t have to follow a pattern in set times and places. Recently we have been seeing a gradual change in the acceptability of a ‘non traditional’ pathway’.” 

Dr Williams says she herself has been able to work flexibly, to decrease or increase hours around research grants and juggle family responsibilities, leading to a positive work life balance. 

“One of the things that I feel very passionately about it is the importance of work life balance to both men and women. For organisations, the challenge is to ensure the conditions exist in which staff can be effective in the work place but also have time to focus on and enjoy outside interests without work life stretching into home life,” she says.

We all need to strive to get better and learn from each other and be the best for the good of society

Among the initiatives she will be watching closely is the attempt to define “core activities’, such as important meetings or seminars, that should be scheduled – wherever possible- at times when it is easiest for those working part-time to attend. Another is the new promotions process that alongside teaching and research puts more emphasis on the quality of wider contributions to citizenship and leadership, such as mentoring post-graduate or post-doctoral researchers, chairing and contributing to committees, and taking time to support the career progression of more junior staff. It also provides space for applicants to record the number of hours they work to put their research and teaching achievements in context.

Providing more role models of senior women academics, leadership training, mentoring and shadowing are all important in supporting women to progress, and these types of activities play a part in redressing the imbalance between men and women in senior roles. 

“There are some departments, not just at Leicester but in universities across the UK, where women in senior positions are very few, and we need to find the points at which women stall on the career ladder and find out what we can best do to support them,” she says.

The university has a series of active forums such as the LGBT forum, Disability and the BAME forum, and she wants to work closely with the people who have lived experience of and close identification with all the “protected characteristics” to ensure their voice is heard.

Universities are massively competitive places, but perhaps equality and diversity is a domain in which they should do more to emphasise cooperation, she suggests. 

“We all need to strive to get better and learn from each other and be the best for the good of society,” she says. With this in mind she is one of the founder members of a group of deputy pro-vice chancellors from the universities of Leicester, Nottingham, Birmingham and Newcastle who have already met to pool their experiences: “We are hoping that others will join us because we all have the same challenges and can collectively be more effective in changing attitudes and practices not just in our own institutions but across the country and the world.”

Dr Kate Williams is Leicester University’s new Deputy PVC for Equality and Diversity 

Free live webinar & QA

Blended learning – Did we forget about the students?

Free Education Webinar with Class

Wednesday, June 15, 11AM London BST

Join our expert panel as we look at what blended learning means in 2022 and how universities can meet the needs of ever more diverse student expectations.

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?