The Equality Challenge Unit is in advanced talks to take its flagship charter mark for improving gender equality in higher education to universities in Australia.
David Ruebain, chief executive of the ECU, said that there was interest in the Athena SWAN scheme “across the world” but that discussions are advanced in Australia, where the ECU is looking to develop a partnership with an agency to run the scheme there.
The Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science is designed to promote good employment practices for women working in higher education and research. It was initiated by senior academic women who wanted to address the issue of their under-representation in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.
Since its launch in 2005, the initiative has “grown exponentially”, said Mr Ruebain, expanding from just 10 member institutions at the start to 129 universities now.
Research institutes that are not affiliated with universities can also now join the scheme, as can universities in the Republic of Ireland. In May, the charter was expanded to include arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law.
The charter bestows bronze, silver and gold awards on institutions and departments if they can demonstrate increasing levels of good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women. At least one funder has made a commitment to award research funding only to universities that hold a charter mark, which has helped to drive up participation in the scheme in the UK.
“When you have that level of activity and enthusiasm, that in itself is potentially culture changing because it becomes part of the mainstream agenda; it becomes part of what institutions want to do,” Mr Ruebain told Times Higher Education.
The move into international territories coincides with the upcoming 10th anniversary of Athena SWAN in mid-July and the ECU’s shift to a subscription funding model.
The ECU’s central funding for its work in English universities, from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, will expire at the end of this year. Universities wanting to apply for or renew any Athena SWAN charter marks will soon have to subscribe to the organisation. The details of how this will work are being finalised.
On expanding the scheme outside the UK, Mr Ruebain said that his team “gets asked to go and talk about the charter all over the world”, although in most cases it is unable to send staff because the focus remains on delivering the scheme in the UK.
He said that a lot of people “of all political persuasions in many countries” are talking about the gender equality agenda, “so there is a groundswell of support”.
However, it is in Australia where discussions are at an advanced stage. Mr Ruebain said that it looked “fairly likely” that something would develop, although a final agreement has yet to be made.
He said that the ECU was looking to partner with a local agency in Australia because it would not make sense to run the scheme from the UK given the distance between the two countries.
The ECU, Mr Ruebain continued, has also had “preliminary discussions” with colleagues in several other member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, among them Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway and the US. But he stressed that these were just talks and did not want to suggest that they would definitely develop into the charter becoming a global phenomenon.