Keep Athena SWAN, but drop funding link for now, say reviewers

Leading academics respond to government plan to end link between charter mark and research funding, amid fears that equality issues will be sidelined

September 18, 2020
Frayed rope near to break
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The decision to cut links between UK research funding and Athena SWAN because of concerns about bureaucracy risks “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and sidelining gender equality issues, leading academics have warned.

But, in an open letter published online by Times Higher Education, the steering group which led this year’s independent review of the charter mark argue that funding should only be tied to Athena SWAN outcomes once the improvements which they recommended are implemented.

The charter was left facing an uncertain future after the UK government urged funders including UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to “place no weight upon the presence or absence of such markers or scheme memberships in any of their regulatory or funding activities”.

A policy paper said this was because programmes such as Athena SWAN “generate large volumes of bureaucracy and result in a high cumulative cost of subscriptions”.

The government announced that the requirement that universities applying for NIHR funding should have at least a silver Athena SWAN award had been scrapped.

In the open letter, the steering group – chaired by Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor of Brunel University London and president of Universities UK – acknowledges that Athena SWAN has become a “burdensome beast”.

However, they say that during the review they were “left in no doubt that the charter is highly valued across the sector” and highlight that Covid-19 “has shone a cruel light on gender equality across the sector”, with the additional caring responsibilities placed on women during lockdown already having an impact on academic outcomes.

“Let’s not throw the baby out with bathwater,” the letter says. “It is time now to get Athena SWAN back on track and ensure that the charter is one we are proud of and which continues to have the impact on the persistent problem of gender discrimination.”

However, the letter adds that “only when we truly confident in the outcomes, should we allow the charter to be a tool to determine eligibility for grant funding”.

The panel – which also includes David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England; Dame Athene Donald, master of Churchill College, Cambridge; and Jenny Higham, principal of St George’s, University of London – refer to their finding in a survey that only 15 per cent of respondents were confident in the consistency of the Athena SWAN assessment process.

They write that, while Advance HE, which runs the charter, had initially welcomed their review, “it soon became evident there was no real appetite to drive the change needed”.

“We have continued to make our case behind the scenes and we now have greater confidence that the process of implementation is about to begin,” the letter says.

Other academics have expressed concern about the proposed removal of the funding link.

Jennifer Rohn, head of the Centre of Urological Biology at UCL, agreed that the application had become “a bureaucratic nightmare”. However, “while I am immensely proud of the equalities work our team has achieved, having the award linked to funding was the carrot that meant that our work was taken seriously”, she said.

“The committees require the goodwill of all staff to take part in surveys, focus groups and other data-gathering exercises, and I suspect that it was the link to NIHR grants that kept engagement and urgency high.”

Sarah Sharples, pro vice-chancellor for equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and people at the University of Nottingham, said that she feared the changes “might be seen as an ‘excuse’ by some who are not convinced of the value of EDI within the sector to push activity to one side.” This would be a “catastrophic” result, Professor Sharples warned.

Alison Johns, chief executive of Advance HE, said that the recent review of the charter and its ongoing work “will keep it fit for the purpose now and into the future” and noted that NIHR had made “clear” its commitment to fair and equal representation.

A UKRI spokesman said it had “made clear that embedding equality, diversity and inclusion in all our processes is critical to supporting our commitments to address barriers and inequalities, and drive transparency and accountability. In that context, UKRI will continue to utilise recognition awards where they contribute to the achievement of our aims.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Athena Swan has its place in enabling a vaguely objective - albeit it's a 'box-ticking' exercise - assessment of how well an institution (or part thereof) is doing in addressing any perceived gender inequality, however it is inappropriate to link it to funding opportunities however much you improve the Athena Swan operation. It talks about something completely different from research potential, something that's also important in the growth of the institution. Also, it begs the question of why should an institution chose to engage with that particular metric, as long as they are ensuring that all genders are treated fairly and given equal opportunities?


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