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Sarah Blagden - Professor of Experimental Oncology

Sarah Blagden is Associate Professor of Experimental Cancer Therapeutics in the Department of Oncology, the Director of Early Phase Cancer Trials Unit and Oxford ECME Lead.

 Sarah is also the Academic Lead for Athena SWAN in Oncology; in this interview, she explains what Athena SWAN actually is and how it supports the Department to review and improve working practices for staff and students.

 Tell us a little about your role within the Department 

 I am a clinician-scientist, so my life is split between the Old Road Campus Research Building (ORCRB) and the Churchill Hospital.

When I’m wearing my science hat, I am PI of a lab that researches post-transcriptional gene regulation in cancer. We have been looking at RNA binding proteins and whether these can be therapeutically targeted.

With my clinical hat on, I lead the Early Phase Clinical Trials Unit in the hospital. Here we road-test the next generation of cancer drugs in patients. This involves overseeing the trials team, managing a portfolio of trials and looking after the patients themselves.

As well as being a clinician scientist, you've also just taken over as Academic Lead for Athena SWAN. What is Athena SWAN?

Athena SWAN was set up to sort out the gender imbalance that was inherent particularly in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) subjects across UK universities.

Being both a simultaneous NHS and University employee for most of my career, I am in a good position to compare the two sectors, and I personally think academia is decades behind the NHS in its approach to gender equality.

 So, why is Athena SWAN important?

 Athena SWAN encourages departments to reflect on their own conduct. This means we focus on departmental culture as well as gender inequality- to create a workplace that people feel proud to be part of. Although Athena SWAN attracts criticism from some quarters, I would not want to return to a pre-Athena SWAN age. Sadly, many of drivers of inequality are currently beyond the reach of Athena SWAN: such as society’s attitude to working women, burden of childcare and male-dominated grant and award committees. But it is important to “get our own house in order” before trying to tackle these issues!

Give us an insight into what happens during one of your Athena SWAN Self-Assessment Team (SAT) meetings

 Our self-assessment team is made up of men and women across the department, representatives of our postgrad students, postdoc researchers, admin staff and academics. We base a lot of our activities on feedback (so please give feedback in our annual survey and focus groups) and look at areas where there is dissatisfaction and design ways of addressing it. I am particularly proud of the mentoring scheme that we introduced last year.  

 How do you think Athena SWAN has developed over the past 5 years? Are there any obstacles to progress?  

I’ve noticed that Athena SWAN no longer produces the eye-roll reaction of when it was first introduced to universities. The fact that departments are not eligible to apply for certain grants without achieving Athena SWAN recognition is a helpful incentive.

Obstacles to its success are the endless bits of paperwork, complicated stats and lengthy reports that need to be submitted in order to receive or renew awards. Ironically, in many universities, these are completed by the over-worked academic females it is trying to save! Luckily in our department we have dedicated administrative staff who are a key part of our self-assessment process. However, despite all its paperwork, I strongly believe Athena SWAN is a force for good.