Dismantling the barriers: Five things Learned Societies can do

24 October 2023 | Blogs, Events, News, Dr Andy Clempson news

Learned Societies and professional bodies are pivotal for the promotion of a specific discipline or profession. Supporting member communities at all levels throughout their careers is critical to advancing innovation throughout the research landscape. Learned Societies and professional bodies aim to create an environment where people (including “returners”: people returning to work after a career break) can genuinely thrive by facilitating knowledge exchange, professional development and connecting people. Collectively, we can strive to tackle barriers and create a community representative of the wider society we serve, acknowledging the benefits of various experiences, skills, qualities and perspectives associated with non-linear career paths.

This blog builds on the work of Dr Andy Clempson, Daphne Jackson Trust, in collaboration with Member Organisation representatives from the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group of the Royal Society of Biology (RSB). Here, the authors suggest some actions that representatives of Learned Societies and professional bodies could take back to their boards for discussion, to reduce the barriers returners face.

Inclusive working

1. Investigate your membership offering for returners

Learned Societies are interested in engaging the whole spectrum of their members, communities and the public, including returners. Investigating the offering for those with career breaks should be a central component of this. Relatively simple actions such as actively promoting the benefits your society offers via frequent email roundups, newsletters, magazine articles and journals is helpful. Facilitating knowledge exchange and informal debate on a contemporary science policy topic can be a great way to keep members informed – including those who have taken career breaks and may quickly feel ‘out of the loop’.

More practical support could, where feasible, involve offering a concession in membership fees for anyone on maternity/paternity leave, long-term sickness, a career break or financial hardship. Cost can be a significant factor when identifying where to spend hard-earned funds. Complimentary membership increases accessibility for those who otherwise would be unable to join a society and may also increase supporter retention. Reviewing membership criteria to be more inclusive of returners, examining the reasoning behind lapsed membership and developing supportive preventative measures, would enable greater accessibility.

Why not also consider inviting returners to participate on your committees and working groups to diversify your governance structures? This would allow returners to share their experiences and enrich your discussions by more widely representing members of the research community.

To increase returner participation in meetings and events, consider varying event timings so that they don’t always clash with school holidays and avoid routinely holding evening events, or multi-day conferences. Use of hybrid meetings with digital and in-person attendance can be a big help alongside more practical aspects such as offering complimentary creche/childcare facilities at conferences if it is financially feasible to do so. Furthermore, ensuring your events are fully accessible and inclusive is incredibly important and without it, risks alienating portions of your membership. Guidance on how to run inclusive and accessible events is available and we encourage knowledge sharing between other societies.

2. Create funding opportunities to support returners

Could you support existing schemes that are tailored towards returners to help them back into their careers after a break? Many learned societies sponsor Daphne Jackson Fellowships that enable researchers to return to their careers after a break. By supporting schemes such as this, you are demonstrating a meaningful and practical approach to address culture change and improve equality, diversity and inclusion in your grantees.

Could you also offer small consumables and training budgets to allow returners to undertake mini-projects and address specific re-training requirements? An ‘emergency fund’ or childcare grant may also provide much needed support for returners, allowing them to gain a foothold at future potential employers.

Caring responsibilities or health concerns can also lead to great worry when travelling for a conference, attending a training session or carrying out research. Can you create or promote any funding opportunities to support returners, allowing them to engage in such activities?

3. Review your training offering to ensure it is returner-inclusive

Do you offer the development of both soft and hard skills? For example, wellbeing and resilience workshops can equip people with the tools to cope during challenging times. Does your training promote and educate on the importance of wellbeing, leadership and how to build an inclusive research culture? Can you support a Continuing Professional Development scheme to sustain returners on their journey of continuous learning and development throughout their careers?

The Daphne Jackson Trust offers bespoke training for returners and may be able to open training places to returners from your schemes, where they gain the added benefit of networking with other people who have faced similar experiences.

4. Promote part-time and non-linear career path role models

Can you source returners as speakers, authors or case study examples, i.e., anyone with varied career paths or working part-time? For event planning, a diverse speaker panel can significantly enhance the discussion and bring in new perspectives that might otherwise be missed. ‘Normalising’ career breaks and part-time working patterns would help break down many of the barriers that currently prevent many researchers from returning to their careers. Spotlighting their success highlights the feasibility of thriving in a research career to those in similar situations.

5. Advocate for the needs of returners in your policy work

There is power in a collective voice. Over the past few years, the UK Government and Parliament have taken a great interest in diversity and inclusion in research, using inquiries to consult and understand the existing landscape. Learned Societies and professional bodies have a role to actively represent and advocate for the needs of their diverse member communities. Where possible, how could you advocate for the needs of returners in your policy work?

Wherever your organisation is on its EDI journey, the Daphne Jackson Trust would be happy to work with you to support research returners within your organisations. As the UK’s leading organisation dedicated to realising the potential of returners to research, they understand the unique challenges faced by this diverse community and how to assist them back into meaningful careers. Other organisations, such as STEM Returners and Women Returners, offer different approaches and may also be able to help you as well as offer support for non-research careers.

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