Journeys to Systemic Change: The process of designing evidence-based interventions to improve career progression for marginalised academics



organisational system change, research culture, career progression, interventions, personas, journey maps, diversity and inclusion, STEM


This paper describes how the Evidence Base project used a two-stage approach as a foundation for designing systemic policy and practice interventions, with the goal of improving career progression for marginalised scientists at the University of Edinburgh. Stage one involved carrying out qualitative research with new principal investigators in the physical sciences at Scottish universities who had participated in fellowship and career development programmes. Using in-depth interviews to understand the challenges that participants had encountered in regard to their career progression, we share our research results through two ‘personas’ and ‘journey maps’, storytelling and product design tools from consumer research that have rarely been applied to the academic sphere. We used the ‘pinch points’ that were identified through the journey maps as the foundation for creating evidence-based interventions. In stage two of the project, we engaged with a number of stakeholders across the University of Edinburgh to talk about the research results, discuss these possible interventions, and explore the opportunities and challenges to implementing them. We explore why it has been essential for this work to involve engagement with other stakeholders within the University system, particularly within the context of the major disruption and wide-reaching impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In conclusion, we offer a number of recommendations based on our experience, with the hope that others can use these to better facilitate the process of designing interventions to create systemic change to improve equality, diversity, and inclusion in higher education organisations.

Author Biographies

Emily F. Porth, The University of Edinburgh

Inclusion Matters Research Associate, School of Chemistry

Jean E. O'Donoghue, The University of Edinburgh

Head of Student Experience and EDI Coordinator, School of Chemistry

Katie Nicoll Baines, The University of Edinburgh

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager for the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network, Institute for Academic Development

Catherine Lyall, The University of Edinburgh

Professor of Science and Public Policy, School of Social and Political Science

Sara Shinton, The University of Edinburgh

Head of Researcher Development, Institute for Academic Development


Acker, J. (2006) ‘Inequality Regimes: Gender, Class, and Race in Organizations’, Gender & Society, 20(4) (August), pp. 441-464.

Adelaine, A. (2021) Knowledge Equity, 2020: Discussions with UKRI facilitated by Ladders4Action [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 25 February 2021)

Advance HE (2021) REC and Athena Swan Good Practice Initiatives [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 01 March 2021)

Anaf, S., Drummond, C., Sheppard, L.A. (2007) ‘Combining Case Study Research and Systems Theory as a Heuristic Model’, Qualitative Health Research, 17(1), December, pp. 1309-1315.

Bonello, E., Coombs, H., Dessent, C., Jardine, C., Jones, L., Wann, D., Walton, P. (2017) Unconscious bias observer scheme: Development of a novel unconscious bias observer scheme at Chemistry @York [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 17 March 2021)

Burke, W.W. (2018) Organisation Change: Theory and Practice (Fifth Edition). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.

Canning, E.A., LaCosse, J., Kroeper, K.M., Murphy, M.C. (2020) ‘Feeling Like an Imposter: The Effect of Perceived Classroom Competition on the Daily Psychological Experiences of First-Generation College Students’, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(5), pp. 647-657.

Cebula, C., Nicoll Baines, K., Lido, C., Thijssen, J.H., Halliday, K., Hedge, N., Mulvana, H., Gauchotte-Lindsay, C. (2020) ‘Inclusion DOES Matter: COVID-19 as an Opportunity (not a Near Miss) for Making Decisive Changes in UK STEMM Academia’, SocArXiv, October 2. DOI:10.31235/

Chakraverty, D. (2020). ‘The impostor phenomenon among Black doctoral and postdoctoral scholars in STEM’, International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 15, pp. 433-460.

Collinge, K. (2021) Competency Framework for Research Funding: A User's Guide, Edinburgh Research Office [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 28 February 2021)

Davidson, M.N. (1999). ‘The value of being included: An examination of diversity change initiatives in organizations’, Performance Improvement Quarterly, 12, pp. 164–180.

Eaton, A.A., Saunders, J.F., Jacobson, R.K., West, K. (2019) ‘How Gender and Race Stereotypes Impact the Advancement of Scholars in STEM: Professors’ Biased Evaluations of Physics and Biology Post-Doctoral Candidates’, Sex Roles, 82, pp. 127–141.

El-Alayli, A., Hansen-Brown, A.A. & Ceynar, M. (2018) ‘Dancing Backwards in High Heels: Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests, Particularly from Academically Entitled Students’, Sex Roles, 79, pp. 136–150.

EPSRC (2021) Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) at EPSRC [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 12 March 2021)

EPSRC (2020) Understanding our portfolio: A gender perspective [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 25 February 2021)

EPSRC (2017) Quick Reference: EPSRC UKRI Innovation Fellowships, Call for Full Proposals [Online]. (Accessed: November 2019, no longer available online.)

Fritch R., McIntosh A., Stokes N., Boland M. (2019) ‘Practitioners’ perspectives: a funder’s experience of addressing gender balance in its portfolio of awards’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 44(2), pp. 192-203. DOI: 10.1080/03080188.2019.1603882

García-González, J., Forcén, P., Jimenez-Sanchez, M. (2019) ‘Men and women differ in their

perception of gender bias in research institutions. PLoS ONE, 14(12): e0225763.

Golom, F.D. (2018) ‘Reframing the Dominant Diversity Discourse: Alternate Conversations for Creating Whole System Change’, Metropolitan Universities, 29(1) (February), DOI: 10.18060/22172

Golom, F.D. (2015) ‘Creating Systemic Change Around Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Issues: A Case Analysis and Recommendations’, in Hawley, J.C. (ed.) Expanding the Circle: Creating an Inclusive Environment in Higher Education for LGBTQ Students and Studies. Albany, NY, USA: State University of New York Press, pp. 107-126.

Gonzales, L.D. & LaPointe Terosky, A. (2020) ‘On Their Own Terms: Women’s Pathways Into and Through Academe’, Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 13(3), pp. 274-287.

Guyan, K. and Douglas Oloyede, F. (2019) Equality, diversity and inclusion in research and innovation: UK review [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 25 February 2021)

Handley, I. M., Brown, E. R., Moss-Racusin, C. A., & Smith, J. L. (2015) ‘Quality of evidence revealing subtle gender biases in science is in the eye of the beholder’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 112 No. 43, pp. 13201–13206.

Hancock, S. (2020) The employment of PhD graduates in the UK: what do we know?’, Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 28 February 2021)

Jebsen, J.M., Abbott, C., Oliver, R., Ochu, E., Jayasinghe, I., and Gauchotte-Lindsay, C. (2019) ‘A Review of Barriers Women Face in Research Funding Processes in the UK.’ PsyArXiv, November 26. DOI:10.31234/

Kamler, E. and Rasheed, S. (2006) ‘Mentoring Academic Women: Struggles for Advancement and Strategies for Change’, Research and Practice in Social Sciences, 2(1) (August), pp. 1-15.

Madera, J.M., Hebl, M.L., and Martin, R.C. (2009) ‘Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences’, Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(6), 1591-1599. DOI: 10.1037/a0016539

McGuire, G. M., & Reger, J. (2003) ‘Feminist co-mentoring: A model for academic professional development’, NWSA Journal, 15(1), pp. 54-72.

Miaskiewicz, T., and Luxmoore, C. (2017) ‘The Use of Data-Driven Personas to Facilitate Organizational Adoption – A Case Study’, The Design Journal, 20(3), pp. 357-374.

Moss-Racusin C.A., Dovidio J.F., Brescoll V.L., Graham M.J., Handelsman J. (2012) ‘Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 109(41), pp. 16474-9. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1211286109

Noone, H. (2020) The ARMA Survey on Research Culture 2020 [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 29 March 2021)

Padilla, A.M. (1994) ‘Ethnic Minority Scholars, Research, and Mentoring: Current and Future Issues’, Educational Researcher, May, 23(4), pp. 24-27.

Patton Davis, L. & Museus, S. (2019) ‘What Is Deficit Thinking? An Analysis of Conceptualizations of Deficit Thinking and Implications for Scholarly Research’, Currents, 1(1), pp. 117-130.

Portigal, S. (2008) Persona Non Grata. Interactions, January + February, pp. 72-73.

QSR International Pty Ltd. (2020) NVivo 12 Plus (released in March 2020),

Reid, N. (2014) ‘Gender-Correlated Systematics in HST Proposal Selection’, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 126, pp. 923–934.

Royal Society, The (2018) What is research culture? [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 02 March 2021)

Royal Society of Chemistry, The (2020) Position Statement: Research culture – improving diversity in the physical sciences [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 15 March 2021)

Rollock, N. (2019) Staying Power: The career experiences and strategies of UK Black female professors, University and College Union (UCU) [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 25 February 2021)

Schensul, J.J. and LeCompte, M.D. (2016) Ethnography in Action: A Mixed Methods Approach. Boulder: AltaMira Press.

Sheltzer, J.M. and Smith, J.C. (2014) ‘Elite male faculty in the life sciences employ fewer women’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 111(28), pp. 10107–10112.

Strijbos, S. (2017) ‘Systems Thinking’, in Frodeman, R. (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198733522.001.000

Strolger, L. and Natarajan, P. (2019) ‘Doling out Hubble time with dual-anonymous evaluation’, Physics Today, 1 March, DOI:10.1063/PT.6.3.20190301a

UKRI (2021a) Research and Innovation Culture [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 15 March 2021)

UKRI (2021b) What are Future Leaders Fellowships [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 9 March 2021)

York Chemistry (2018) Athena SWAN Department Application: Gold Award, Department of Chemistry, University of York [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 01 March 2021)

Vaughn, A.R., Taasoobshirazi, G., Johnson, M.L. (2020) ‘Impostor

phenomenon and motivation: women in higher education’, Studies in Higher Education, 45(4), pp. 780-795. DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2019.1568976

York, University of (2021) Family Friendly Working, Department of Chemistry [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 01 March 2021)

Walton, P. (2016) Athena Swan Launch Event - Promoting Equality in STEM, University of Chester Learning and Information [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 01 March 2021)

Wellcome (2020) What researchers think about the culture they work in [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 15 March 2021)

Witze, A. (2019) ‘NASA switches how it divvies up telescope time to reduce bias: The move to double-blind peer review will affect projects worth roughly US$55 million’, Nature, 571(July), pp. 156.