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Louise joined DPAG in May 2018, following a Business Manager role at the University of Aberdeen. As DPAG’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Officer, she develops, implements, and monitors a wide range of initiatives to promote equality and diversity within an inclusive working and learning environment where the rights and dignity of all DPAG staff and students are respected.

Louise Cotterell

Tell us about your background so far and what brought you to DPAG?

I have worked in a wide array of roles including retail, administration, and finance.  At one point I was administrator for the Medical Branch of the Army HQ in Germany, and joined a finance company following my return to the UK where I remained for 17 years in a variety of roles, culminating in the role of Manager for the Education Sector within the leasing division. When looking for a new job, I realised that I wanted something that better aligned with my values, and joined the Open University, initially in an Arts Faculty support role, before moving on to support the Director for the OU in the South. I further developed my higher education (HE) experience in my role of Administrator, and then Business Manager at the University of Aberdeen’s Health Services Research Unit, a similar role to DPAG’s Head of Administration and Finance (but on a much smaller scale!), in that I oversaw HR, finance, grant administration, facilities, etc. This is where I first became aware of Advance HE’s Athena Swan Charter which is committed to advancing gender equality in HE and research but, unfortunately, I didn’t have chance to get involved. On my return to Oxford, I spotted a vacancy for Athena Swan Coordinator in DPAG which offered an opportunity to play a key part in shaping the department’s Athena Swan strategy, and to ensure it supported all staff and students, so I applied.

What does your role entail?

This year we have broadened our remit from mainly considering gender equality to tackling wider equality and diversity issues, including race, disability, LGBTQIA+, etc and, to reflect this, my job title became Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Officer, and the Athena Swan Committee became the EDI Committee.

The overarching aim is to help shape a culture where we are welcoming to people from all backgrounds, ensuring that they feel that they belong and can bring their whole selves to work without having to hide any part of their identity. This should improve staff and student diversity, which is essential for creativity and innovation. 

EDI feeds into every element of what we do in DPAG so I work with a variety of key stakeholders to ensure that we focus on the things that are important in DPAG, and communicate them widely.  They include Heidi de Wet (EDI Academic Lead), Helen Christian (Director of Graduate Studies), Sarah De Val (our new Research Staff Advocate), the EDI Committee, Working Groups, and many of the PSS teams. The EDI Committee and Working Groups are largely made up of volunteers from across the Department and I’m extremely grateful to everyone for their time, ideas, energy, and support.

Staff and student consultation is a key part of my role as feedback from our community is essential for me to understand what we are doing well and where we can make improvements.  This happens through surveys, focus groups, and feedback requests and I really appreciate people giving up their time to share their ideas and experiences.  I analyse the data and share it (anonymised) with the EDI committee and senior leadership so that we can work together to identify key priorities and develop initiatives to address any gaps. Our Data Monitoring Working Group also reviews this, alongside other data, to identify trends or issues within the Department.  Survey reports are written and circulated so that everyone can see how we intend to respond to the priority areas identified through the data, and these are published on our intranet.

Athena Swan continues to be a major aspect of my role. The Athena Swan award process has required us to submit an Athena Swan application evidencing what the Department has done to advance gender equality (this was expanded in 2021 to consider those facing intersectional inequalities) through demonstrating the impact of various initiatives, as well as using data to identify where we can improve.  This feeds into an action plan that is prioritised for the following 5 years.  I work with the EDI Committee, Working Groups, and other stakeholders to deliver the action plan, review feedback, monitor impact, and adjust it to ensure that it remains relevant.

What key initiatives have been achieved in recent years?

One major achievement was our Athena Swan Silver Award in 2020, in recognition of our progress since our previous application. Notably, we were able to demonstrate an increase in the number of women achieving the title of Associate Professor through in-house mentoring. A second major initiative was introducing the Anti-Racism Working Group in January 2021, as proposed by a group of proactive postdocs, which has led to the development of a Departmental Statement of Inclusion, and other actions to improve diversity are in the pipeline.

We have also worked to raise the profile of colleagues at all levels and now regularly include PSS, Technicians and Postdocs in the weekly Digest newsletter. As part of the 2020-2021 centenary of women’s full membership of Oxford University, the EDI Committee was behind the launch of a new ‘Women in Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics website’ to celebrate some of the women who have contributed to the success of DPAG over the last century. Photographs of some of these women now also adorn the walls of our Sherrington Building.

Following staff and student consultation, we have introduced a well-attended Lunch & Learn workshop series, a monthly PSS coffee morning, and various social groups (a DPAG Game Night was re-introduced this month). We also introduced mandatory anti-bullying and harassment training a couple of years ago, supplemented with race equality, and equality and diversity training which is now included within new starter induction. Those that are involved in staff or student recruitment also have to take implicit bias training. We share details of key achievements in the annual EDI (formerly Athena Swan) newsletter to ensure that staff and students are aware of what we are doing.

What is coming up in the near future?

Based on 2021 survey feedback, we have started to introduce more networking opportunities for postdocs and students in particular and will continue to work with representatives of both groups to ensure that we are delivering what they need.

We also plan to introduce a buddy scheme for new starters to help ease people into the Department, helping them to feel supported and integrated into DPAG. Alongside that, we intend to introduce a parent buddy scheme to help support new parents.  We will be seeking volunteers that are willing to ‘buddy’ colleagues and I hope that people will get involved.

On the subject of volunteers, we recently put a call out for people to join a new Outreach and Public Engagement Working Group and it would be great if people from a range of roles and career stages could join this group so that we can start to plan cross-departmental activities.

Our Training and Career Development Working Group are planning a Lunch & Learn series for Hilary Term with a focus on career progression – details will be announced later in the year.

Finally, as always, there will be ongoing consultation and I’d really appreciate it if people could take the time to respond to any surveys, questionnaires, feedback requests, or get involved in focus groups.  As I mentioned, this really is vital and helps me to do my job.

What is the most challenging aspect of your role?

In general, the main obstacle is people’s lack of understanding and misconceptions around the importance of EDI, often because it doesn’t directly affect them. If, for example, you don’t experience some of the trickier elements of navigating the workplace, and academia in particular, due to your protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation) you don’t necessarily understand why my role is needed or why we are asking you to change how you do things.

It can also be challenging to confront long-held personal views but we all have biases, and we can all take steps to overcome them.  We can learn from others’ experiences, broaden our networks to ensure we hear a wider range of voices, challenge stereotypes and assumptions, and generally improve our knowledge and understanding, in order to make things better for everyone, whether in work or in our personal lives. People may be concerned about saying or doing the wrong thing but it is usually better to speak up than to ignore the things that go on around us. 

What is the EDI vision for DPAG?

Our vision is to create a culture where a person’s protected characteristics, and/or socio-economic status, are not factors in their ability to thrive and enjoy their time in DPAG.  We will have succeeded when we no longer need someone in my role, when we don’t need a person to push EDI forward because it will be embedded in everything we do. Consideration of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion shouldn’t be supplementary – it should just be how we do things around here.