In conversation with Professor Sara Mole: gender equality, Athena Swan, intersectionality, mentorship and much much more

Last week, chief Editor Laure Mourgue d’Algue sat down for a (virtual) conversation with UCL’s Professor Sara Mole. Sara is Professor of Molecular Cell Biology, an MRC LMCB group leader and Head of Section for Inborn Errors of Metabolism at UCL GOS Institute for Child Health. She is also UCL Provost’s Envoy for Gender Equality. Her lab investigates lysosomal disorders, the Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinoses or Batten disease in particular, from the genetic and biological level to therapeutic development.

In 2008, Sara introduced Athena Swan to her department to tackle gender inequalities, this work ultimately leading it to achieve UCL’s first gold Athena Swan award in 2016. Since 2017, as Provost’s Envoy she has been involved in gender equality throughout UCL and beyond. Check out our discussion.

Laure Mourgue d’Algue: Hello Sara. Thank you for your time! Could we start off with you telling us a little about what your role as the Provost’s Envoy for Gender Equality entail?

Sara Mole: Yes! So I will start by telling you how I got appointed to that role. Around 2008, I got involved with Athena Swan within my department, helping it to start looking at the available data on gender equality and putting in place different ways of working. This improved the gender equality data and also brought about a change to our culture and the way we thought about things. 

In the following years other STEM departments began to get involved with Athena Swan and the scheme was taking off in the UK as there was a possibility that grant funding would be linked to an Athena Swan award. UCL appointed an Envoy for Race Equality in 2016, and were looking to appoint somebody as Envoy for Gender Equality. After 11 years of engaging with Athena Swan in UCL and also sharing my knowledge and experience with other universities in the UK and abroad, I was keen to do more, so I applied for the position. 

Since then, I have been using my position as an Envoy to help others start addressing their issues related to gender equality, mostly in UCL, and in other universities which could be anywhere in the world. So far, I’ve visited a number of UK universities to talk about how we’ve been doing things at UCL. I have also worked with colleagues in Canada, who are now piloting their own equivalent of Athena Swan, which is broader and simultaneously tackles the inequalities important to their country (Dimensions), with two universities in Japan, and with Australia who have SAGE, their Athena Swan equivalent. 

My role really consists in spreading the fact that the input you put in pays off! This is something I love to do. When I started off, I was focusing on changes at the level of my department, and that definitely improved things at the local level both for me and my peers. Now, my focus is wider, helping other places become much better environments to work in. I may never really know what the full impact of my work is, but it’s great to share what UCL has learnt as we improve our own good practice. Maybe, because of this focus on equality, diversity and inclusion at UCL, someone will be able to thrive as a student and go on to develop something that truly impacts the world for the better.

L.M.A: Yes it is great to be contributing to larger scale changes! How has Athena Swan helped you put in place changes and adjustments at UCL across the past decades? 

S.M.: Athena Swan follows a process that can be used to tackle any inequality. You start off by looking at relevant data, and if data doesn’t exist, you put in place systems to capture it. The procedure then asks you to answer a number of questions to help in the data analysis. From this you might notice some worrying trends. For example, depending on the discipline, you might notice you are losing women as their career progresses despite more women than men initially coming into the discipline (e.g. biological sciences); or you might notice, as for physics, that girls are dropping the subject whilst at school, so few reach university level, and then are lost as up the career pipeline. 

From the data analysis, you devise a rationale and a plan of actions to address issues observed. You then put these actions into place, and monitor their impact. If it works, you continue. If it doesn’t, that’s fine – you go back to the problem and put something new in place. Athena Swan is a systematic process that really works. 

Any scenario where people are dropping out is bad, because we are losing talent. And we can’t afford to do so: we need all the diversity of thought within a discipline to solve problems. If you only include people who think the same way, you’re only going to have that one way of tackling a problem, and that single approach might not work at all, or not be the most holistic way of tackling the problem. It’s a business argument really.

L.M.A: Recently, I read parts of the book “Failing Families: failing Science”, in which authors A.E. Lincoln and E.H. Ecklund argue that women in science with children often find themselves trying to satisfy the requirements of two full time jobs while jobs in industry often appear more family flexible and become more attractive. Do you agree? What structures has UCL put in place to minimise the number of talents dropping out? This trend probably concerns both men and women with families.  

S.M.: That’s really interesting because I have always thought about a career in science as including flexibilty. Of course it depends on what kind of experiments you are doing, but you can generally choose when you want to do them. Of course, if you have to be there for a 12 hr stretch, that’s not terribly friendly.

UCL has put measures in place to ensure flexible working does not disadvantage people. For example, holding meetings within core hours. This means meetings are held within the central hours of the day so that anyone who needs to leave/arrive earlier/later, perhaps because of caring responsibilities, can do so without missing out on important meetings. Of course you could have a meeting at 5pm, but only if everybody involved can make it. I think that’s a very practical and easy measure to put in place. 

UCL has promoted a culture of flexibility, which can be both formal flexibility, like agreeing to work key hours or compressed hours (i.e. making your 5 day week into 4), as well as informal flexibility, which is when you put in the hours required for the work as they fit best or suit you – this really suits academia. This culture of flexibility has been important during this pandemic, letting people work the hours that suit them especially if they are also trying to homeschool their children.

L.M.A: That’s great. But who do you discuss this with? Is it a departmental decision? A conversation within the lab?

S.M: I don’t know exactly who came up with the idea of core hours for example, but someone said it was a good idea so a group tried it, and because it worked, it spread! What works can be adopted at departmental and faculty or even institutional level.

Athena is great because there are two levels of working, either at the departmental level or at the institutional level. The institutional award is about senior leadership and the policies/ processes that can be put in place to support whatever improves equality. The departmental award means that you can decide what would benefit those currently being disadvantaged around you and try this out. Though the change you bring might at first come from the challenges within your particular department and benefit a particular group, usually any good practice actually benefits all those around you, and can be shared with other departments as well! 

Within universities, your work bubble is usually your department or a section within. At this local level there really is a place for individuals, from the student to the P.I level or technical and professional support staff, to come up with suggestions for improvements. The best equality steering groups are those who include students and staff all along the whole career pipeline, because that lets us drive changes that address what is needed at every level. Even at the institutional level at UCL contributions are sought from all levels, including students through the student union. This is really important because, once again, we need the input of a diverse range of thinking!

L.M.A: This is interesting because you’re getting both institutionally driven changes, as well as ones that rely on individual behaviour and practice! And that can be tough, because sometimes in science (and the culture we live in!) it can be tricky to break away from the myth that you should be productive 24/7. It’s great that institutional changes help individuals set strong boundaries between work and home, and vice-versa! 

S.M: Absolutely. And UCL is a place where people are really driven and want to be excellent. There is definitely a lot of pressure around the idea that the more you do, the better you are. But no one can work well if they’re never taking time out properly. It doesn’t matter what that free time is dedicated to, but it’s necessary! 

L.M.A: That’s so true. Actually I remember listening to a podcast you were interviewed on, and you said you had practically never worked on week-ends. And that made it so much more OK for me to decide I could take the whole week-end off and still be a productive student! 

S.M.: Yes! Everybody has their own way of working. During my PhD I really rarely worked on week-ends! The only thing I would do was if it was better for the following day to come in on a Sunday for half an hour to set up a culture, I would come in. I was lucky because I lived 5 minutes away from my lab so I could do that easily. If I had lived two hours away from work, I wouldn’t have bothered doing that….

L.M.A: That’s good to know! The COVID pandemic has really shifted all the roles and jobs of some of us into one room. Though UCL have definitely promoted a culture of flexibility, have women still been disproportionately affected by the situation?

S.M: Yes definitely. UCL recognises that, as do many places. And that’s because of the gendered responsibilities that still exist outside work. In many households, men are still generally expected to focus on their work while women pick up the caring, and other domestic responsibilities. It’s up to a couple to work out how they share tasks, but there are so many related societal expectations that these problems still persist. UCL have been really clear, right from the start of the pandemic, about “first doing what you have to do at home and fit in your work around it” (maybe not exactly in quite those words!).  The principles were “you’ve got to survive and look after those who need looking after”. 

When the pandemic started, UCL quickly adopted the principles of  “safety”, “humanity” and “student experience” to guide their actions. Actually, when you think about it, these are good principles for any university to follow, but it took a pandemic for them to be articulated. More recently it has been said “perfection can wait for another day, right now, the pursuit of it is cancelled” [1].

L.M.A: I’ve seen some conversation lately about deadlines, including ones for funding, just being set at the wrong times of the year for people with children. Would you agree?

S.M: Yes definitely, that happens. Some funding deadlines are in early January, which means many end up doing some last minute work over the holiday period. If you have other things going on, such as family to look after which usually affects women more than men, this is impossible. 

In my experience, I have had to deal with that by setting an earlier deadline for myself. But that’s not always possible! This has certainly been more complicated throughout the pandemic given we’ve had to adapt and quickly adjust our work including teaching, reducing the time we have for writing grants. Women (and parents) are certainly being penalised by anything that demands a super fast response at the moment.  

With regards to funding, one interesting study being done at the moment at UCL has been looking at whether women successfully obtain grants, and what the sizes of these are. I’ve heard that women are generally as successful as men, but they tend to apply for smaller grants. That’s an interesting point to consider as it will impact on long term career.

L.M.A: Do you think Athena Swan has what it takes to tackle problems which are intersectional? 

S.M.: The good thing with Athena Swan is that silver and gold award levels already require intersectionality to be addressed. This is important because people’s social identities overlap, and inequalities can be magnified. For example, someone may be a woman and Black, and this combination will expose them to discrimination that is different from a Black man or a White woman,. 

I’m currently part of an advisory group as Athena Swan 4.0 is being developed. We’re still figuring out exactly what needs to be included as part of new requirements, but I am confident that this will allow departments flexibility to concentrate more on the inequalities and intersectionalities that are priorities for that discipline in that location. For example, it may mean focusing on encouraging more men than women into the discipline, or those from different socioeconomic backgrounds, to increase the diversity. 

Today Athena Swan really is no longer just about women in science, but about gender and inequality in higher education. The race question is specifically addressed by a Race Equality charter, which UCL has a silver award in. That is also run by Advanced HE (the UK higher education academy). At UCL we are increasingly merging action plans and have connecting initiatives to address all inequalities. 

L.M.A: Do you think people at UCL are involved and concerned by these issues in their everyday life?

S.M: That’s a good question. My own experience has been that the more I’ve found out, the more my eyes are open to see inequalities, and the less I could ignore these issues. You don’t always know what to do at first to solve the problems, but you can learn from others. There are certainly people at UCL, from all levels, that are involved in networks around race and gender, and other areas where there is inequality and unfairness. But if you consider an individual, it really depends how well the institution and departmental work has gone and been communicated to their level. If your department has got an Athena Swan Award, it’s more likely you want to address other inequalities. However, I’m not sure whether most students at the undergraduate level are so aware of these issues and what is being done at UCL to ameliorate the situation. 

I think UCL is quite good at tackling these problems on the whole, as some departments are quite small. Good practices really spread faster in smaller structures. In larger structures, there tends to just be a small group of people, who may be really passionate, thinking about problems and coming up with solutions, but their attitude is not shared by the majority. 

L.M.A: What’s the #SimpleGoodPractice you want to see put in place in the next few months?

S.M: That’s a difficult question to answer! I think more of any good practice! And the one that is important at this moment in time is simply taking the pressure to work off people. It’s not completely possible, but wouldn’t it be fantastic to give people an extra year to catch up. Realistically that won’t happen. 

UCL have tried to relieve pressure though. This includes the COVID Career Support Scheme, which allows staff to request financial support where they feel the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities [2]. For most of the people it may be their caring responsibilities that have impacted their work the most during the pandemic. This scheme is opened to all staff and allows different sorts of support. Other routes of support are available to students.

L.M.A: Quite a few people have also been furloughed I believe. 

S.M: Yes also, and that reduced the pressure on some people quite a bit too! Though the thing is that, as a researcher, though you might be getting paid, missing out on three months of work has a consequence that is longer than the three months in time, especially if you’ve missed an important grant deadline that may only occur annually. The pandemic will have long term consequences

L.M.A: Yes, the least we can do is probably to be kind and supportive to one another, even virtually. 

I have a few questions on sexual harassment within the Sciences. There hasn’t be a #metoo movement in Science at all, though Katherine Clancy’s research shows that sexual assaults do occur in the Sciences and affect women disproportionately. Do you think we can expect a #metoo movement in academia, and science in particular?

S.M: There are often posts on twitter.There definitely are issues, because unfortunately sexual harassment occurs everywhere. 

UCL have a scheme called “Report+Support”, through which anyone can report an incident, with or without giving their own name [3]. If a lot of people name the same person, this would be followed up. There are also individuals within every department that anybody can go and talk to confidentially about this issue. UCL has recently tightened its requirements, for example a lecturer cannot date a student. You might have thought that was already part of the university’s policy, but actually it wasn’t until not so long ago. It is really important that rules that protect students/ staff from power imbalances are clearly stated. There is definitely an increased awareness of how to combat such issues today, and more safe spaces for people to speak up. It can be hard to do so, because if you speak up against someone senior to you in the specialised field you want to enter, it can put you in a very tricky situation. 

L.M.A: Yes, that was the main big problem related to harassment in academia I identified: how do we create the space for somebody lower in the hierarchy to speak out, without putting themselves in a situation where they endanger their career?

S.M: Yes, that it’s an important space to create. There has been a training course for quite a while at UCL. In one of the scenarios, a professor bringing massive grant monies is found to be sexually harassing a student. Trainees are asked about what they think the university should do. When the course first started, people used to disagree about whether the man should stay or go (and I say man because that’s more often the case). Today, the answer straight away is “of course he should go”. The culture, the thinking and the expectations really have changed across the past 5-10 years. Things do change!

L.M.A: These are questions that are relevant to other fields, like cinema. Do you distinguish the artist from the man? I think similar problematics arise in Science. 

S.M: Absolutely. Maybe this shift in mentality is linked directly to the way we do science, bringing in more diversity and collaboration. Once upon a time, in certain disciplines, if so and so did things one way, then that set the pattern and everybody would do it that way. Comparing my experience of biological sciences with that of my colleagues in chemistry, it seems chemistry is more hierarchical, at least until recently, with people heading big labs and running their research in a certain way. In the life sciences, there is more collaboration and that makes it easier to bring in your own, different, ways of doing things. 

L.M.A: Yes it does feel like the life sciences is a very creative and diverse discipline to work in. The more you look around a given field, the more you realise there are thousands of very creative techniques to get to the same outcome. You can probably fire the head of a big lab and still see research in that area thriving afterwards!

I would like to quickly talk about the (retracted) Nature paper [4] that scandalised a big part of the scientific world, which stated that “increasing the proportion of female mentors is associated not only with reduction in post-mentorship impact of female proteges, but also a reduction in the gain of female mentors”. What do you make of this publication?

S.M: Yes, this paper attracted a lot of criticism including how the data was analysed. I think mentorship for women often plays a really important part of their training, but this is less so for men. I wonder if it is because it’s a place to express concerns and be reassured that your experiences and concerns are shared by many. But there are some incredibly women mentors, and they have an enormous positive impact on their mentees. 

L.M.A: I think what’s really interesting/ alarming is Nature decided to publish that paper. Whether the sample chosen has been appropriately analysed, by choosing to publish this paper they sent out a very negative and toxic message to the scientific community. I really think mentorship is super important. 

I was mentored by a man during my first research experience. And he was a great researcher, but we weren’t on the same wavelength (obviously this could have happened if I had a female mentor and we didn’t get along). But by the end of the internship I didn’t think science was the thing for me anymore. But then I worked in a lab the next summer, where I was mentored by a young woman who was only a few years older than me, and she was really cool and artsy, that got me thinking: “I can stay in science, and be super feminine and creative and express that side of me without that putting in question how good a scientist I am”. And that was a really empowering experience

S.M: Athena Swan actually really encourages you to think about your role models: it’s important everybody can see someone like them in the next step of their career progression #someonelikeme. It doesn’t have to be as Dean in the university sharing the same experience as you, it’s just a question of having somebody similar to you in the next step! Because if they can succeed, so can you. It really is important we make sure these role models are there

Within my department, we used a really easy principle that can be applied everywhere. Molecular biology generally comprises a 60-40% women-men ratio. We were organising weekly seminars, inviting both national and occasional international speakers. When we looked at the gender balance, we realised we were only inviting 30% women. But we decided we needed to get to 50% female speakers, because that represented the balance for the students and postdocs, and it was simply good practice. We did that by asking anybody suggesting a seminar speaker to include one of other gender their suggestions. We got to 50% women speakers really quickly. But then we stopped, and guess what, we went back down to 30% female speakers! That was our default. So we put our initial measures back in place. There are plenty of women out there the biological sciences, but so often we think of a man first….

L.M.A: It’s crazy how strong that unconscious bias is! It’s a combination of what we picture as authority, and who is actually in a position of power at the moment. I hope we see this unconscious bias shifting in the next generation, as the number of strong and amazing female leaders goes up and they get more attention. 

S.M.: Yes. Though this will takes time as the bias starts from when we are children, so this change is going to take a generation or more. Biological Sciences include 60% women. The percentage of women professors of Biological Sciences ranges more around 20-30% depending on the institution. And yet still you think of the man before the woman. 

Hopefully if the next generation grows up more aware and seeing more equality, they’ll be subject to less of a strong bias. The good thing is our seminar speaker practice is such an easy thing to put in place – it can have big effects if applied in lots of departments! 

L.M.A: Did you have role models within the sciences or elsewhere? 

S.M: By chance I went to a girl’s grammar school, and then a women’s college at Cambridge. Not at all because I was against men but because that’s what was available to me in my immediate locality! And I was surrounded by sisters only. So I grew up totally unaware that boys were supposedly “better”. I really was in an environment where girls thrived and did what they wanted to do! It was only much later in my life that I became aware of the gender bias, and that’s why I got involved with Athena Swan in the first place! I really grew up in an environment that made me confident in myself and my abilities. Because I am an introvert, I think if I had grown up in a school which had some pushy and inconsiderate boys, it would have been tougher. Hopefully I would have found a little group of people like me, but I’m sure I would have been constrained by some negative thoughts like “someone like me can’t do this”! I’ll never know, but I was fortunate to grow up in an environment that let me thrive

L.M.A: That’s interesting because I went to a mixed-sex school, and a few years ago I realised I had starting acting the role that was socially expected from me. I was always being the “nice” girl at school, and that really played out in friendships I had with boys I had crushes on. It’s when “being smart” started to be cool, when we got to year 11, that I became much more confident about being myself. It’s crazy how small biases unconsciously affect our behaviour. 

S.M: Yes really. And you can imagine that if you’re growing up in a family where the parents, or the wider family, think about gender roles in a very conservative way, it can be really hard to break away from what has been ingrained in you to be the norm. 

L.M.A: And that’s why role models outside of your family are so important! It helps you break away from the family way-of-thinking you’ve been brought up in!

S.M: Absolutely. Nowadays, most people end up in a job they never had heard about when they were young. But there are still family professions. I once spoke at a charity lunch for Batten Disease, for professionals offering a very specialised form of insurance. A senior man told me this was the kind of job you would find out about because your uncle in this field would tell you you would be good at doing that – a very word of mouth field. And I could count the number of women in the room using the fingers of my hands! That was shocking, because it’s not so often today that there is such gender imbalance. However, they were extremely generous in their fund-raising, so good people, just not very diverse.

L.M.A: That’s a bit sad in a way. Family can be a real unconscious pressure from my experience! My parents aren’t scientific at all- they both studied economics and politics. And ever since I decided I wanted to be a scientist, they’ve been asking me if I want to be a doctor. In big part because I am a people person and I have always been a good carer to my brother, sister and cousins. The medicine question was recurrent at home, so I ended up deciding “ok you know what, I’ll go work on a ward and see if this is for me”. And it wasn’t! I loved the experience and I think it’s a beautiful job. But it’s just not the fit for me, I know I just want to be a researcher. But my mum still brings up medicine once in a while, and she’s definitely biased by the fact she’s heard of more women doctors than women scientists! 

S.M.: I can see why that would happen! Scientists are often a bit hidden…

L.M.A: Yes often! I wonder also: what was your experience of being a young scientist who wanted to have children? Did that influence your career choices?

S.M.: Yes, I do remember thinking about the possible options as a postdoc. At that point, I went to see a career advisor at the university I was working at and she gave me really good advice: just keep doing what you’re interested in! If children come along, you’ll work it out! And I would say the same thing to anybody. You can never guarantee when you’ll be pregnant, sometimes it happens before you thought it might, sometimes later. Never think “I can only do this if I don’t have children”, because there are always options! 

The norm in my field is you generally start a family once you’ve secured a lectureship, because it gives you a stable base. But postdocs are older now and there are many with children. Hence the importance of promoting flexibility in the research environment. There are big advantages with having children young e.g. you generally have more energy, and by the time your children are older, you still have 20 years of your career available; and there advantages to having them older, when you are a bit more stable and secure. So anytime is a good time! 

L.M.A: How do you balance your job as a PI, a mother, a wife and many other roles?

S.M: People deal with their work-life balance differently.  I spent nearly ten years being constrained by the opening hours of UCL Nursery. That makes you organised in your experiments.  I’m a planner, an organiser. It’s about having a really clear diary. That way I can keep track of what I need to do, and do them efficiently. It’s about compartmentalising my life and being fully present in whatever I am doing, whether that’s being with my children, or planning an experience with one of my students.The harder you work in the limited time available, the more you get done! 

The pandemic has been really interesting for me because I have had much less to do as I am not commuting or walking between different parts of UCL’s campus for meetings, and I’m not used to not being constantly busy!  At the end of the day, it is true that the day you will be dying you won’t think “I wish I had done more work” but “I wish I had spent more time with those I love!”. It’s important to keep that perspective in mind

L.M.A: I agree. In science, because it is a job generally associated with “passion”, it’s really important to set strong boundaries between your work and your life outside of the lab. It’s accepting that you can be super passionate and excited about an area of science, but also step out of it and take care of those around you at home.  

S.M: Yes definitely. I think another important thing is to work out what you are good at!  I know I am good at project management and bringing people together to work on more ambitious projects. The more I’ve learnt about my own strengths, the more I have been able to bring myself into the work I do and benefit others. I wish I had known myself better when I was younger!

L.M.A: That’s something a good mentor also allows you to pinpoint! When you are still young and figuring out where your confidence should lie, it’s good to have somebody point out your talent and tell you you should cultivate it

S.M: Absolutely. Sometimes you don’t realise that you are really good at something, because you’ve always been doing that easily. You are so much more aware of what is more of a challenge for you.  It can take some time for somebody to say “you’re actually really good at this!”. 

It’s also really important to work out what you are not good at, because you might have to work harder on these aspects. For example, as an introvert, I could easily have  gone to conferences and not spoken to anyone new. I hated the bar post-conference, it was too loud. But I found there were other options to socialise! And it’s really important to build a network. Some really interesting science work has come from getting to know someone when we were at a conference in the middle of nowhere in Sweden about 20 years ago. We came up with a plan for a grant in the social times and have worked together ever since! 

L.M.A: Woah! 

S.M: One thing I would like to add before we round up the conversation is that UCL is increasingly trying to give people the space to be authentic and bring their whole selves to work. When you’re fully yourself in the lab, then you can do your best work! If you’re having to use emotional energy to hide your family related challenges or other identities, it’s going to be an extra struggle at work. People come from really different backgrounds, and they should be able to bring their whole story with them.

L.M.A: Yes! I think in a way the pandemic has made space for more complexity, by merging our homes and work space. I really hope we keep that when COVID-19 is gone. I love creative writing and philosophy, but I felt like that was a “non-rigorous” part of me that had little space in the lab and would make it look like I was doing the wrong career. But actually I’m coming to terms with the fact that I can be many things simultaneously. It’s only a question of time management and boundaries! And it’s because a researcher I admired told me about her own creative writing that that space was liberated!

S.M: Creative writing is amazing! Just think of the number of papers you are going to have to write. You will tell the story so much better! Your science and thinking might be a bit different to the person next to you, but you’ll do stuff they cannot do. And that once again illustrates why we need diversity within a field. It’s really important young scientists come in with new ideas and different ways of thinking and working. There are big problems to solve in the world and you might be the one who brings that essential and unique perspective!

Want to hear more from Sara? Follow her on twitter @SaraEMole and check out her research at





[4] AlShebli, B., Makovi, K. & Rahwan, T. RETRACTED ARTICLE: The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance. Nat Commun 11, 5855 (2020).

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