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SUSTAIN – enabling female scientists to thrive

Published: 01 Sep 2018
Category: Equality, diversity and inclusion

At the Academy of Medical Sciences, we have a commitment to developing talented researchers. To do this, we have created a range of innovative programmes of tailored support that respond to specific need.

The Academy has been proud to develop SUSTAIN as a response to a mounting evidence base that shows not enough women researchers in science are securing senior leadership posts in the UK. We believe a concerted effort is needed to ensure women are appropriately supported along their career trajectory to enable them to secure those senior positions.

SUSTAIN is a pilot programme, targeted at those researchers who have just transitioned from early career positions to independence, and aims to enable women to thrive in independent research careers. Since it launched in 2015, it has grown into a bespoke programme of training and support to develop participants’ leadership and career potential.

It is a year-long programme which brings together a cohort of twenty women across scientific disciplines and institutes, creating a close-knit network where participants are “free from internal politics and competition”, as one participant described it. “I found that liberating,” she added, because “the group became a safe space, to discuss difficult things about work, and life in general”.

An independent evaluation of the first two rounds of SUSTAIN has been completed by Dr Rachel Hallett, Kingston University and St George’s University of London/Habe Consulting, and Dr Amy Iversen, King’s College London. Dr Hallett worked on both evaluations and Dr Iversen led the first evaluation. It confirmed that after completing the programme, participants had improved in a range of psychosocial and work-related variables, such as burnout, job satisfaction, resilience, and self-compassion in comparison to baseline scores. Work-life balance showed a significant improvement, which is particularly positive, as this was the most common issue mentioned in applications to the programme.

Participants from both cohorts rated SUSTAIN very highly for ‘enjoyability’ and ‘usefulness’. One participant told us that she had put herself forward for SUSTAIN because, “it seemed like the sort of thing I ought to do… and I am so glad I did”. She continued “it has been a great year and has provided a confidence boost and support network at a time when I really needed it”.

As well as providing support, training and guidance to the women who take part in SUSTAIN, one participant told us that she thinks the programme will affect the scientific community more widely. She commented that SUSTAIN “will have long term impact in creating a better (fairer and more inclusive) culture in science”. To begin this culture change, we hope to catalyse the learnings from SUSTAIN and see it implemented in institutions across the country.

So, it’s time to share how we did it.


SUSTAIN is made up of several elements which together create a supportive environment where all scientists can flourish.

The cohort attends bespoke training courses to support their transition to independence.

We theme training courses around key challenges that women report when they apply to SUSTAIN: communication skills; resilience; leadership; network building, and career planning. Feedback has shown that participants rank all of the training courses equally highly.

One part of the programme that has been received particularly well is bespoke media training for women, where we take participants into television studios for a fully immersive experience. This forms part of our commitment to increase the number of women experts commenting in the news media – currently, men outnumber women experts 3:1 on news and current affairs programmes.

Support and networking

The programme puts a strong emphasis on the value of supportive networks, and each participant is matched with both a mentor from the Academy’s Fellowship and a peer coach. They are encouraged to meet regularly, to build strong bonds and discuss the challenges they experience as women in science. Many of the mentoring relationships continue past the programme’s end.

The success of the mentoring relationships hinges on the impartiality of the mentor – having someone senior, a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, from outside the mentee’s institution and research area - allows for an objective and seasoned reflection of the mentee’s situation and options.

One participant said she was apprehensive at first, as her mentor is “terrifyingly brilliant on paper”, but said that “in person [the mentor] has been kind, generous with her time and gives the sort of no-nonsense responses that made me think rationally about where I am and what I need to do”.

One theme that came out of the evaluation is that SUSTAIN creates a safe space, where participants are able to try new things, talk about challenges and work together to find solutions.

One participant commented, “I am so grateful, SUSTAIN has been a very valuable investment in me as a person and will strengthen me, help me find coping strategies and confidence to make and mark my way”. Another added, “SUSTAIN has given me the self-belief and skills to put myself forward and make progress in my career. I think it will have a long lasting impact on my outlook, and I would highly recommend it to colleagues.”

Our SUSTAIN mentors have a similarly positive view of the programme. Professor Moira Whyte FMedSci, University of Edinburgh, who chaired the reference group and is a SUSTAIN mentor, found it “a privilege and pleasure to be involved in the programme”.

We believe the programme is building a strong network of women researchers that will last far beyond the end of each cohort. Please get in touch if you would like to learn more about how to embed elements of SUSTAIN into your institution, or to discuss our programme further.

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