The UK’s flagship gender equality scheme could expand to become an “all-embracing charter on diversity and inclusivity”.
Adding consideration of other protected characteristics such as ethnicity and disability is one of the options being considered in a major review of the Athena SWAN programme, which began in the UK in 2005 and has since been adopted by Australia and the Republic of Ireland.
Respondents to a new consultation being conducted by Advance HE are asked whether the charter should be expanded “to include additional characteristics”.
Julia Buckingham, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, is chairing the independent review of Athena SWAN. She said there was concern about “other aspects of diversity and the extent to which they are recognised and supported in the sector”.
“People have said, ‘Is this the time to have an all-embracing charter on diversity and inclusivity?’ – and ‘I don’t know’ is the answer to that,” said Professor Buckingham.
“Obviously, I am, like everybody else, very concerned about the progression of BME [staff], disability and other protected characteristics; so it’s about asking the question and then also, once the panel gets to work, looking at what is feasible and what is practical.”
An initial consultation of about 1,500 people has already been conducted, and it showed “how much they valued the charter”, Professor Buckingham said.
But concerns focused on the heavy administrative burden of Athena SWAN submissions (a task that often falls on more junior, female academics), the transparency of assessments and the clarity of the criteria used.
Professionalising assessment panels, and thus relying on a smaller pool of experts rather than a wide group of volunteers, is one idea being explored.
Changes to the awards themselves have also been suggested, including a faster route to the “beginner’s level” bronze award. The length of time an award is held could be increased, with one suggestion that bronze awards could last for four years, silver for five or six, and gold for seven. Alternatively, that scoring system could be replaced altogether by a grade-point average.
Other changes being considered include looking beyond academic departments to assess the treatment of “all staff in the university” and exploring how to evaluate the “culture” of an institution overall.
Also among the potential options are relying only on data that can be downloaded from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and allowing applicants to focus their application on issues of concern to their institution.
Some academics, however, have questioned whether the changes would go far enough. Rebecca Harrison, a lecturer in film and television at the University of Glasgow who has criticised Athena SWAN as a “bureaucratic exercise in box-ticking”, said the idea of an all-embracing equality charter “where [applicants] are thinking about race and disability and being gender queer and sexuality and the ways that those things inform people’s experiences” was a “good” one.
However, the survey made her worry that Advance HE was only “tweaking the existing scheme” when there was a need to “fundamentally change it”, Dr Harrison said.
Potential changes might “improve the system as it currently stands”, but “that system is still not going to address the enormous inequalities that there are in universities”, she said.
The results of the survey, which closes on 12 September, will be the subject of a report, which is expected to be published in early 2020.
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