Reflections on the EDI journey at EMBL – Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Ensuring that EMBL leads by example as a fair, diverse and inclusive workplace

Reflections on the EDI journey at EMBL

As we ease into the summer break, it’s a good time to reflect on a very important year for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at EMBL and to sense real change for our organisation. 

image of Eileen Furlong

Eileen Furlong

Head of Genome Biology Unit


My own EDI journey is rooted in my experience growing up in Ireland, which had its own specific issues with diversity at the time, and as a female life scientist, building my career in an environment that was predominately male. As a Ph.D. student in one of the largest and best Universities in Ireland, there were no female professors, or any other types of diversity for that matter, in my department. And unfortunately, that was the norm, not the exception. During my career, I’ve been lucky to have very few experiences with outright sexism. I’ve also been lucky to have great male peers and colleagues – friends, all focused on our science and trying to build our careers. But looking back on things, there were lots of issues that I’d pushed aside and just got on with things, partly because it was the norm or even the expectation to ignore things (don’t rock the boat), and partly because I didn’t know how to begin to tackle this systemic problem. There were no obvious channels through which to pursue this. I also didn’t feel that I had a voice to change things.

But as I progressed to a position where I was hiring people as a group leader, and later as a head of Unit, my awareness of all the hurdles in career progression for women in science became clearer, as things always do in hindsight! There are many ways that one can bring about change – and of course we can all change our own behaviour and perceptions as individuals. But once you are in a management role, you are now in a position to make change. I felt an obligation to do more, I had a voice and could (should) use it to help EMBL stay at the forefront of cutting-edge science while becoming a more diverse and inclusive place to work. Anne Ephrussi and Cornelius Gross were on the same wavelength, and had been working for years to increase female group leaders at EMBL. Anne started the Gender balance working group over 10 years ago, and asked me to join. This working group was turned into the Gender Balance Committee with Anne as its first rotating chair. Cornelius Gross took over this demanding role for the next two years, implementing a number of important changes, followed by me for the following two years. During this time, the committee transitioned from the Gender Balance committee to the EDI committee. At the beginning of my two years tenure as chair, I was still focussed on what we call binary gender issues but, increasingly, I heard new voices emerging at the EDI Committee meetings and elsewhere across EMBL, opening up debate and pushing for intersectional diversity and equality for minority groups in other areas including sexual orientation, ethnicity, age and disability.  The external environment was also changing, with a global shift towards equality and fairness for all, and EDI initiatives coming much more to the fore.  It was becoming obvious to me that EMBL needed to make a step change in its approach to EDI and that this is not something that can be done ‘part-time’ on the side. It would rather require full-time professionals that are trained and have experience in this area. I bounced around some ideas with many colleagues, including Roshni, Lindsey and Anne, and started to develop a new framework for EDI at EMBL, which included the establishment of a dedicated EDI Office with a new governance structure to support it, as well as a very dynamic and active EDI forum. This is in line with what is in place at other leading scientific institutions.

Any request to use EMBL funds to develop a new area, be it scientific or non-scientific, naturally receives scrutiny, not just from the DG but from all of EMBL’s leadership and the plan for the establishment of EMBL’s EDI office was no exception. Both Edith and Matti were fully on board very quickly, and were very supportive of the plans, which we then presented first to EMBL’s Directorate and then to the Senior Scientist and Management Committee. After careful explanation of the merits that having such a dedicated EDI office would bring to EMBL, people were persuaded. 

In March this year, the EDI office was established under the leadership of Roshni Mooneeram and supported by two EDI officers, covering all six sites. Collectively, they have extensive and complementary experience, and are supported by the EDI Governing Body and a highly engaged body of staff in the EDI Forum, working hard to deliver EMBL’s strategic EDI objectives. We listened to what EMBL staff had to say in their responses to EMBL’s first EDI survey, which we are incorporating into our first EDI strategy.

These are exciting times for EDI at EMBL and I’m really heartened to see the huge progress we have made in 2021. All the more so because we achieved all of this, including hiring and onboarding, while working largely from home. It’s invigorating to work with colleagues who have such a strong sense of social justice and who are prepared to put in the hard work required to  bring about change. EMBL is a fantastic place to work, but even a masterpiece can be improved. This is a journey of continuous improvement – onwards and upwards!