Athena SWAN is an ugly duckling

Schemes asking us to transform our workplaces in the name of equality, diversity and inclusivity are failing. It’s time to hold our institutions to account, says Rebecca Harrison

May 3, 2018
swan soldier
Source: David Humphries

Athena SWAN was established in the UK in 2005 with the admirable aim of increasing the numbers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine at university. The scheme was widened in 2015 to include other subjects, and offers bronze, silver and gold awards to departments and institutions for the “advancement of gender equality” with a view to providing “representation, progression and success for all”.

However, as recent headlines about higher education have exposed, bureaucratic exercises in tick-box equality are not working. We must stop filling in forms and instead focus on forming coalitions that will take action and bring about real change.

I have been deeply involved with Athena SWAN, as leader of a “self-assessment team” applying for a bronze award. But the problems that I perceive with the scheme and my institution’s implementation of policies relating to equality led me to conclude in April that I had no option but to publicly resign, and to issue a Twitter call for others in secure positions to #boycottAthenaSWAN.

As I wrote in my resignation letter, Athena SWAN allows institutions to tick equality and diversity boxes without taking any significant steps to redress the enormous imbalances in our working environments. To receive a bronze award, staff must complete roughly 35 questions totalling 10,500 words and produce an “action plan” outlining how the department, school or institution will take steps to improve equality. Yet while many of us report sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination, we remain frustrated and disappointed by a sector-wide lack of care or respect. These problems will not be solved by the emotional and intellectual labour of “self-assessment”, but rather by institutions engaging in major reassessments of their priorities.

Let’s not forget that the same institutions that hold Athena SWAN awards frequently divest themselves of responsibility for equality as soon as the task becomes more challenging than completing a form. There remains a sizeable gender pay gap across the sector. Universities continue to rely on probably discriminatory student teaching evaluations when hiring and promoting staff. And women continue to be seriously under-represented at senior level; only 24 per cent of professors in Scotland are women, for instance, even though women account for 44 per cent of academic employees.

Then there is sexual misconduct. When media studies lecturer Lee Salter was charged with assaulting his student girlfriend in 2016, the University of Sussex – according to its own report – “failed to follow and/or operationalise its own policies and procedures” to protect her. Also in 2016, Goldsmiths, University of London, allowed the director of its Centre for Feminist Research, Sara Ahmed, to resign rather than acknowledge her claim that sexual harassment claims were not being appropriately addressed. Since the #MeToo movement began last year, the volume of reports on social media suggest that abuse, sexual harassment and sexual assault are rife on university campuses across the world. The identities of perpetrators are often open secrets, but their scholarly reputations remain intact as official complaints are ignored or covered up by their institutions.

Athena SWAN will not save us from this malaise, however much holding an award becomes a prerequisite for applying for research funding. Indeed, unless the scheme is divorced from the possibility of financial gain, it will remain a signifier of bureaucracy that is ultimately meaningless in the fight for equality.

I am certainly not the first to draw attention to the scheme’s problems. A widely reported case in the Republic of Ireland highlighted the burden women bear for ensuring the success of Athena SWAN applications, with pressure allegedly being brought to bear on four female academics to drop gender discrimination claims so that their department could secure an award and thereby apply for research funding.

More recently, in an open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit, UK academics drew attention to the incompatibility of the now suspended proposals for pensions cuts with the principles of Athena SWAN. More than 2,000 signatories say that they will boycott the scheme until the ECU, Athena SWAN and vice-chancellors recognise pensions as a gender issue. So far, such recognition has not been forthcoming.

Let us not give up hope, though. In the UK, the 1752 Group is lobbying for a sector-wide response to academic sexual misconduct and has identified six strategic priorities that will bring about change. The Changing University Cultures group addresses cultural inequalities that existing schemes such as Athena SWAN are not able to fix. And, at my own institution, I am in discussion with colleagues to establish a multidisciplinary working group to lobby management for recognition of, and support for, intersectional and feminist issues. We will raise topics such as the need for fairer hiring practices and an end to casualisation; better implementation of the research and teaching excellence frameworks; equal pay and fair pensions; and a system that protects those experiencing sexual misconduct, rather than the perpetrators.

Some people argue in favour of Athena SWAN that it has brought about positives such as holding meetings in office hours, to accommodate those with caring responsibilities. However, we should not set the bar so low. As the recent strike proved, collective disruption and action can bring about change. So I again urge those in a secure position to boycott Athena SWAN and find alternative ways to bring about more radical change.

Rebecca Harrison is a lecturer in film and television at the University of Glasgow.

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Reader's comments (1)

I have been wondering how University College Galway, a university that has recently been the subject of a number of legal cases concerning the lack of promotion of female lecturers, has just received the Athena Swan imprimeur

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