Athena SWAN funding link under scrutiny in discrimination row

Female lecturers allegedly under pressure to settle legal action after university’s equality charter application rejected

October 12, 2017
National University of Ireland, Galway
Source: iStock

Four female academics embroiled in a gender discrimination dispute are reportedly under increasing pressure to accept a settlement from their university in a case that has sparked debate about the merits of linking the Athena SWAN equality charter to research funding.

The long-running dispute at the National University of Ireland, Galway has come to a head after the institution failed to achieve Athena SWAN accreditation. Universities in the Republic of Ireland must achieve recognition by the end of 2019 to continue to be eligible for funding from the Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council and the Health Research Board.

The four women taking legal action against NUI Galway – Adrienne Gorman, Róisín Healy, Margaret Hodgins and Sylvie Lannegrand – were all unsuccessful in their applications to become senior lecturers in 2008-09.

The dispute has stretched on for nine years and, on 4 August, the quartet rejected a settlement offer made by the university, which included €50,000 (£44,000) in recognition of “administrative flaws” and “distress suffered”, €30,000 as a contribution to legal costs, and one year of sabbatical leave. The university also said that it would “consider an application for senior lectureship” or submit the women’s current applications to an independent panel for review.

But multiple sources have told Times Higher Education that since the university’s application for a bronze Athena SWAN award was rejected on 18 September, the women have been subjected to increasing pressure from managers and academics to accept the offer, amid concern about the potential loss of research funding.

Kelly Coate, vice-dean of education in the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s College London and a former lecturer at NUI Galway, said: “The Athena SWAN programme is being used as a mechanism to bully the women into accepting a derisory offer.”

The UK’s Equality Challenge Unit, which runs Athena SWAN, said that there was no link between the legal action and the application’s rejection. Ruth Gilligan, the ECU’s Athena SWAN manager, said that NUI Galway fell short “as further analysis of their quantitative and qualitative data, and more specific action planning, was needed”.

But feedback on the university’s Athena SWAN application, seen by THE, states that the assessment panel “noted the seriousness of the situation and the sensitivity required considering the 2008-09 promotions round, and that it will be an ongoing challenge to ensure actions go far enough”.

In 2008-09, just one of the 15 women who sought promotion to senior lecturer at NUI Galway was successful. In 2014, Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, a former lecturer at the institution, won a landmark equality tribunal case against the university for discrimination relating to the same promotion round.

One employee at NUI Galway, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the university had contacted the four women taking legal action after the Athena SWAN rejection.

“My sense is that now that we have failed [to win the Athena SWAN award], more pressure has been heaped on the four women as though they’re being unreasonable and therefore somehow causing our failure to get it,” the employee said.

Another employee told THE that, following the Athena SWAN rejection, the university had “put considerable pressure on [the women] to accept”.

However, a university spokeswoman said that there was “no connection whatsoever” between the failure of the Athena SWAN application and the settlement offer.

Meanwhile, the dispute has instigated a wider debate over whether universities’ efforts to improve gender equality should be linked to funding.

In the UK, Biomedical Research Centre and Biomedical Research Unit funding from the National Institute for Health Research is dependent on an institution’s holding at least a silver Athena SWAN award.

Sector leaders including Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool and president of Universities UK, have called on other research councils to follow suit. The charter’s international expansion means that other countries may adopt the same model: Athena SWAN now has a scheme in Australia, and a similar programme is being piloted in the US.

Dr Coate at King’s told THE that she had emailed the ECU expressing her concerns that the “hugely valuable scheme” is being used to “put pressure on these women”.

In her email, she writes: “It may be, given the particular circumstances there, that you wish to consider whether you endorse the decision…to make the bronze award mandatory [for funding].”

Speaking generally about the award’s link to research funding, Dame Athene Donald, master of Churchill College, Cambridge and the university’s former gender equality champion, said that she was worried that Athena SWAN was “viewed as simply a necessary tick-box exercise”.

“I think there has been an unfortunate shift away from thoughtful consideration of local issues to a rush to get an award, and explicitly tying funding to the award may not help those thought processes,” she said.

The NUI Galway spokeswoman said: “In relation to four remaining cases, the mediation process…concluded in advance of the Athena SWAN announcement…the two issues are entirely and completely unconnected. The matters have returned to the courts for further adjudication.” 

Spreading its wings around the world: the growth of Athena SWAN

The Athena SWAN charter was established by the UK’s Equality Challenge Unit to recognise universities that actively supported the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) subjects.

What started as a small-scale project at 10 universities in 2005 has since spread to more than 140 UK institutions and is now being adopted around the world as a benchmark for gender equality in academia.

The scheme, in which participation is voluntary, awards institutions bronze, silver and gold accreditation according to their ability to ensure inclusivity in the hiring, promotion and retention of female staff members. But a decision made by the UK’s Department of Health to withhold funding from institutions that do not have accreditation made waves in forcing many universities to address their underlying problems with gender equality within research teams.

In 2011, Dame Sally Davies, director general of research and development and chief scientific adviser for the Department of Health and the NHS, announced that the National Institute for Health Research would no longer shortlist any NHS-university partnership for Biomedical Research Centre and Biomedical Research Unit funding unless the academic institution possessed at least a silver award in the Athena SWAN scheme.

Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and chair of both the Cambridge Gender Equality Group and the Athena Forum for Women in Science, predicted that the decision would “transform the landscape” of universities, and the scheme reported a huge uptake in interest from universities soon afterwards.

In 2015, the charter was expanded to include non-STEMM schools and to take in professional and support roles and also transgender staff and students. Versions of the scheme were introduced in the Republic of Ireland, with Trinity College Dublin and the University of Limerick becoming the first organisations outside the UK to gain an Athena SWAN charter mark for gender equality.

Australia subsequently adopted the award scheme, and similar pilot project is due to launch next month in the US. Interest is also said to be growing in India and in Japan.

Back in the UK, sector leaders including Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, are now calling on other research councils to adopt the “incredible sector-changing leadership” shown by Dame Sally and make Athena SWAN awards a prerequisite for funding applications.

The changes seen since the scheme’s introduction are a proven case for tying funding to targets as a way of improving universities’ attitudes towards equality. A 2016 survey of UK academics found that almost 90 per cent of respondents felt that the scheme had made a positive impact on their working environment. The University of Liverpool alone increased its proportion of women with professorships from 28 per cent to 50 per cent in three years, receiving a silver award for its efforts.

But women and minority groups are still very much under-represented and continue to face major challenges in developing careers in research.

The US pilot set to launch next month could set a new precedent in this respect. STEM Equality Achievement Change (SEA Change) – to be overseen by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – is designed with the Athena SWAN principles in mind, but it goes further in aiming to assess universities on all aspects of diversity, including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and social background. 

Rachael Pells

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