Athena SWAN equality charter could cover ethnicity and disability

Consultation options look to reduce administrative burden of flagship scheme

August 9, 2019
Woman wearing swan headdress
Source: Getty

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.

nick.mayo@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (5)

"Professionalising assessment panels, and thus relying on a smaller pool of experts rather than a wide group of volunteers, is one idea being explored." A great idea IF it leads to consistency without personal biases or agendas being set that dilute the value, the potential for 'professionals' SWANning around behaving like seagull parents causing mayhem then flying off leaving decimation in their wake would need to be guarded against. "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." NO, it takes constant attention to maintain an achieved standard, too easy to ignore things until the next assessment, then it becomes a huge mountain to climb all over again. "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." This is a good idea, especially with collegiate working across departments, the corrosive effects poor core central (mis)management can have on ALL staff's lives, even those in 'GOLD' departments has been ignored for too long.
Drop all of the labels and focus on equality per se. There is inequality and discrimination within genders as well as between them. Will the focus become winning the Athena Swan prize as a marketing tool rather than making an environment better for everybody ? Presumably it will result in metrics driving behaviour just like the league table rankings.
Equality is not a box-ticking exercise, it occurs when everyone makes decisions based on merit alone without reference to gender, ethnicity, disability, or other characteristics that are irrelevant to the job we are trying to do. Preening yourself over an award says nothing, 'equality' is something we do, not something we have been given an award for doing. Is Athena SWANN mere virtue-signalling? If so, it should be ditched, or at least subjected to a cost-benefit analysis. Continuing to focus on 'gender' (or any other characteristic) perpetuates differences, highlights some people as being 'other' from the rest of us. This is why I won't fill out any of those questionnaires on such characteristics.
There is already an existing framework within the UK for equality and that is the Public Sector Equality Duty and associated Specific Duties. In Scotland there are heavy reporting requirements, through the Specific Duties, including progress reports on ALL the protected groups. The EHRC have responsibility for auditing these and ensuring compliance. Athena SWAN and the various charters are in danger of creating a confused landscape, where statutory responsibility gets hidden and is less valued because it doesn't provide a charter award. I too am concerned about the cost to Universities of completing charters while at the same time expecting statutory duties to be met and reported on. In reality the issues being identified by Advance HE in their proposal are already being identified through Equality Outcome Action Plans and are being tackled, often without money being thrown at it. Whether successfully or not is a different argument. I also agree with the point about tweaking around the edges. At the very least we should acknowledge that each part of the UK has a different legal requirement in relation to diversity and it is only through a full and thorough review that these,and other different aspects of the diversity landscape, can be taken cognisance of.
In Australia we already include 'Indigenous' as an area of reporting in the Athena Swan application. It needs further thinking and development. The overlap (dare i say, intersection) between ethnicity and gender needs careful consideration.

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