Dawning diversification

October 17, 2013

We noted with interest your article on the Athena SWAN charter and its mounting influence on UK academia, including plans to extend the scheme beyond science, technology, engineering and mathematics (“Athena SWAN is poised to achieve liftoff”, News, 10 October).

Louise Morley, director of the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex, highlights some of the scheme’s shortcomings, including its lack of emphasis on institutional sexism and it viewing childcare as the only major barrier to women’s academic careers. It is vital, as equalities research has shown, to pay attention to institutional practices that perpetuate sexism, racism and discrimination in all its forms.

Aurora, a UK-wide programme developed and run by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and aimed at early to mid-career academic and professional women, aims not only to provide leadership development to participants but also to challenge institutional behaviours that negatively affect women’s careers. In targeting this group, we aim to broaden the base of potential female leaders significantly while challenging organisational practice through mechanisms such as appointing equality “champions” within each institution.

We have been overwhelmed by interest in Aurora: already more than 100 institutions are committed to taking part and this number is increasing daily. We believe that in order for change to be fully embedded, there needs to be collaboration between individuals, their institutions and an organisation such as the Leadership Foundation.

Diane Bebbington, diversity adviser
Leadership Foundation for Higher Education


In response to “Athena SWAN is poised to achieve liftoff”: the UK research councils do indeed recognise that the rewards of diversity are significant. More excellent researchers, drawn from an expanding talent pool? It’s a no-brainer. And the deeper the pool becomes, the greater the positive good. There are still too many groups under-represented in research.

Research Councils UK is working with sector organisations, universities and key individuals to support equality and diversity in research, and not just with respect to gender. In January, we published a statement of expectations on the issue. Although we don’t require formal accreditation as a condition of award, our statement sets out expectations as to how organisations should address these matters. We expect sensible compliance.

Cultural change on equality is essential in all organisations, not excepting the research councils themselves and their institutes. Evidence suggests that schemes such as Athena SWAN support progress significantly. But Athena SWAN only covers women in STEM. We need to expand the remit to include arts, humanities and social sciences, and areas of concern other than gender.

RCUK will continue to collect evidence, monitor developments and provide information for as long as it takes.

Rick Rylance
Chair, Research Councils UK

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