Athena SWAN review to target administrative burden

Brunel University London vice-chancellor to examine flagship equality scheme used in UK, Ireland and Australia

May 18, 2018
Source: istock

A major review of the Athena SWAN gender equality programme being led by a UK vice-chancellor will focus on concerns that its red tape requirements have become excessive.

Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, will chair the independent review of the equality scheme for Advance HE, the professional development body that has taken responsibility for the initiative following the merger of the Equality Challenge Unit with the Higher Education Academy and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Professor Buckingham, whose steering group will complete its work in early 2019, said she was “very passionate” about Athena SWAN, but that the review would “provide an opportunity to reconsider its scope, which has evolved considerably in recent years, as well as the application and review processes”.

The review would ensure that the awards would “continue to be recognised as a hallmark of gender equality while reducing the burden of the awards application process”, added Professor Buckingham.

The Athena SWAN charter, which began in the UK in 2005 with 10 founding members focused on science, was expanded in 2015 to include arts, humanities, social science, business and law departments. It now has 145 institutional members and 731 award-holding institutions and departments, and has since been adopted by Australia and the Republic of Ireland, with a pilot under way in the US.

However, some academics have recently voiced criticism of the impact of the awards. Writing for Times Higher Education earlier this month, Rebecca Harrison, lecturer in film and television at University of Glasgow, said that she had resigned from her role supporting Athena SWAN in her department because “bureaucratic exercises in box-ticking” had not led to meaningful change on key equity issues.

“We must stop filling in forms and instead focus on forming coalitions that will take action and bring about real change,” said Dr Harrison, who urged others to boycott the awards.

Attention has also focused on the considerable time and effort spent acquiring Athena SWAN awards, which can often create an extra administrative burden for female academics, while some have criticised the opaque nature of how individual awards are decided – another area that will be examined by Professor Buckingham.

Alison Johns, chief executive of Advance HE, said she had heard “positive feedback that Athena SWAN has enhanced careers and opportunities for many academics and believed the review would ensure that it “continues to be a highly valued accreditation within the sector”.

Ms Johns added, however, that “there has also been feedback from institutions asking for the charter to be reviewed to ensure it maintains its rigour and credibility, whilst reducing the administrative burden”.

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