I have a lot of sympathy for the issues Rebecca Harrison raised in her opinion article “False goddess” (3 May), in which she argues that Athena SWAN and similar schemes are failing. I too am involved with Athena SWAN, and I am well aware that, as Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and equality champion, acknowledged in a blog post of January 2015, “We’ve come a long way but…”, “too many departments still think that Athena SWAN means high-profile events, counting how many women professors you have, and trying to get a higher award than the next department”.
The “emotional and intellectual labour of ‘self-assessment’”, as Harrison puts it, might not be a panacea for solving inequality; however, it provides a unique opportunity to gather evidence and to commit the department or institution to some change. Also, I would not underestimate the emotional and solidarity bond that is established among the members of the self-assessment team and the potential for the arts and humanities (included only since 2015) to influence the scheme by recalibrating an overemphasis on numerical data in favour of a more narrative approach.
In a blog post of March 2015 titled “50 shades of sexism in the academy”, I argued that the first step to tackle systemic inequality was to acknowledge the problem, to raise it in public forums and to gather evidence. Second, universities must not become complacent; they must be aware of the risk that policies and programmes (such as Athena SWAN) might become substitutes for action. Third, conscious, structured institutional efforts are needed to counteract unconscious and unintentional biases. Last, quotas can be, even on a temporary basis, the corrections required. Personally, I am persuaded by the research on the effectiveness of quotas carried out by Curt Rice and Louise -Davidson-Schmich. Athena is no goddess; she is all of us: human, fallible and yet determined to fight injustice as vigorously as she can.
Senior lecturer in contemporary media theory and coordinator of PhD studies, equality and diversity, Athena Swan
University of Dundee