Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Understanding Athena SWAN

Jess Cockell is Research Manager in the Kent Business School. Before that, she worked on the Athena SWAN initiative, both at the University of Kent (where she supported seven schools to achieve Athena SWAN awards) and as Equality Charters Officer at the Equality Challenge Unit, which runs Athena SWAN. 

The Athena SWAN Awards recognise work undertaken to address gender inequality, in higher education and research institutions.  The Charter also asks applicants to consider how being black and/or minority ethnic (BME) and a member of an under-represented gender (a female engineer or male nurse) affects the experiences and progression of staff and students.

I know that right now - across the country - people in university departments and research institutes (RIs) are frantically writing Athena SWAN applications and cobbling together crafting evidence based action plans for the 30th November deadline. 

Last month 85 self-assessment teams (SATs) heard that they’d successfully achieved awards,  including the John Innes Centre, which was the first research institute to achieve a gold award.

Now seems a good time to bring up to speed, researchers who’re new to the initiative, or who’re wondering ‘what can I do?’ and ‘why should I bother?’


I am going to assume that you think discrimination on the basis of gender and race….is just not ok. 

Not because there is a business case for diversity. 

Not because assumptions about intelligence/commitment/creativity/a lone wolf genius gene/the inability of the ladybrain to do science stuff are inaccurate and outdated. 

Not because you won’t be eligible for funding (apart from the NIHR - the other bodies have made no move in that directio n- presumably because they then might have to contribute to funding the Charter - unless you're in Ireland...). 

NOT EVEN BECAUSE IT IS ILLEGAL (but please never forget - bottom line - IT IS ILLEGAL). 

But just because it’s not OK. Because when you were little and said ‘it’s not fair’ and someone said ‘life’s not fair, well, it just wasn’t good enough.

I am not an idealist. I know that life is indeed not fair and also that I am part of the problem. My four year-old self being able to bristle at unfairness is something I could (in some ways literally) afford, because I lived a safe, loved life. 

However, I am still sometimes tripped up by my unconscious biases, such as assuming that the older male in an all-female team is the boss.  I try to check my white privilege- but it took me a while to notice that my friend is often the only black person in the cafĂ©/pub/festival in creamy white Kent- and to wonder how this felt.

The Athena SWAN initiative has been so popular because there are many of us who are aware of inequalities (yep- nationally still only 24% of professors are women) but we don’t really know why they’ve come about (because I never discriminate). 

Understanding Athena SWAN

The Athena SWAN application process provides a framework that allows a group to identify areas where small (or large) inequalities or barriers are contributing to a less than equal whole. 

You obtain data (qualitative and quantitative) that indicates where problems may lie (such as maternity return rate, promotion data), and you identify the practices, policies and procedures that can be tweaked (or overhauled) to improve the data and the opportunities and lived experiences the data represent.  

The collective responsibility relieves individuals of a sense of blame, and allows people to raise issues that affect them, without it being a personal demand or complaint.

How It Works

Higher education institutions and their departments are explicitly asked to reflect on their research staff and research focus. Some of these questions are designed to highlight whether the research environment is equally supportive of male and female researchers, and they are specifically asked about REF returns and grant applications.. 

If you're involved in providing these, here's a quick tip: go beyond what the question asks. If it asks about ‘support offered to those applying for research grant applications’, look at your data for applications, success rates, amounts applied for, qualitative feedback, whether only those at certain grades apply, and what numbers look like as proportions of the populations.

Another question is designed to flag occupational segregation. Are women under-represented on research contracts and over-represented on teaching, for instance. If you find this is the case, then look at recruitment data or whether staff are choosing/being directed towards teaching-only careers because that path is seen as being more compatible with a work-life balance. 

You’d want to challenge that one. It opens up the whole long hours/lone wolf/ star being born can of worms narrative. Of course, if men or women make an informed and positive choice to pursue a teaching-only path, then they should be supported and their excellence rewarded. 

You are challenging gender stereotypes in a comprehensive and holistic way: how is feminised work valued and how can you work to challenge assumptions about what and who a ‘researcher’ is. 

Oh yeah - and what’s the gender of your Director of Research? 

Next Steps

I know we’re all a bit knackered and stressed right now. We’ve got TEFs and REFs and European friends/husbands who are starting to look a bit worried about the future. So what action can a busy researcher take?

I would say an easy win is to fill in the culture surveys that will undoubtedly be sent to you (add to the data points and make it significant!). This is a small way of becoming part of the discussion; a bigger way would be to become part of the SAT who’re examining data and practice and putting together the action plan. 

And that action plan is really the whole point of the exercise: take evidence-based action to address identified issues. If you have responsibility for an action instigate, monitor and keep checking it’s actually doing what you want it to. Are you running workshops for the sake of it, for instance, or are people subsequently succeeding at grant applications/promotions/not being mean to colleagues? 

On a micro level remember that none of us exists outside society. Challenge your biases and make sure the Athena SWAN process itself does not reproduce gender inequality

An award is a lovely shinny thing, but it means nothing if you are not addressing inequality.

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