Rewarding equality (1 of 2)

September 1, 2011

In a letter to the Medical Schools Council on 29 July, the chief medical officer, Dame Sally C. Davies, outlined her intention that all medical schools that wish to apply for the National Institute for Health Research's Biomedical Research Centres and Units funding must have achieved an Athena Scientific Women's Academic Network (Swan) Charter for Women in Science Silver Award.

The charter has been running since 2005, and the awards recognise the commitment of institutions and their science, engineering and technology departments to addressing gender inequalities, tackling the unequal representation of women in science and improving career progression for female academics ("Breaking through the SiO2 ceiling", 25 August).

As the recent Sex and Power report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows, there is a continued lack of women in senior management roles across all sectors. In the academy, this is most acute in science, engineering and technology subjects: just 14.5 per cent of professors in such departments are female. This figure rises to 24.5 per cent in other departments.

To our knowledge, the chief medical officer's statement marks the first time that criteria for major funding have been explicitly linked to gender equality. This is a welcome step that provides an opportunity for medical schools and higher education institutions to take the lead on creating gender parity.

We are delighted that the Department of Health has recognised the impact and benefits that working towards an Athena Swan award can have on the quality and success of female academics, their departments and institutions as a whole. We will be meeting with the chief medical officer and the Medical Schools Council to discuss how best to support the UK's medical schools and ensure that the Athena Swan criteria and processes are adapted for the needs and context of clinical academia.

Sarah Hawkes, Senior policy adviser (Athena Swan), Equality Challenge Unit

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