Now is the time to improve Athena SWAN, not ditch it

Members of the Athena SWAN review steering group write an open letter in response to the plan to cut the link between the equality charter and research funding

September 18, 2020
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Last week, the government announced that the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) would abandon its requirement for academic partners to hold a silver Athena SWAN award and asked that the Office for Students, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the NIHR place no weight on the presence or absence of Athena SWAN and other awards on any of their regulatory or funding activities. But, is now really the time to ditch Athena SWAN?

It is true that Athena SWAN has become a burdensome beast in recent years. That is exactly why we were asked by Advance HE two years ago to conduct an independent root-and-branch review of the charter and to ensure it is fit for purpose. We invested a lot of time in the review and consulted widely across the sector. Some 1,500 people engaged with us through focus groups in an initial soft consultation and shared their thoughts very openly. We set up task-and-finish groups to tackle specific issues and we conducted a formal survey to seek the sector’s view on possible ways forward, to which we had a huge response.

We were left in no doubt that the charter is highly valued across the sector and that since its inception in 2005, there has been welcome progress in the career progression of women. However, against that positive background, there was a bubbling storm. The issues raised repeatedly included poor governance, bureaucracy and unreasonable demands on those writing the applications – the very people whom the charter was designed to support and protect. But most worrying of all was the serious lack of confidence in the outcomes – just 15 per cent of respondents in our formal survey were confident in the assessment process. The soft consultation told a similar story with the words “unfair” and “unjust” emerging repeatedly.

Our report was published in March this year. It included 41 recommendations which together we believe would deliver a streamlined application system, a robust and transparent assessment process and an effective mode of governance. In addition, we developed a plan for swift implementation. Initially, there were warm words of welcome from Advance HE but 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.

Is it too late? Does Athena SWAN no longer have a place or a value? We sincerely hope not. The pandemic has shone a cruel light on gender equality across the sector, as it has on other equality, diversity and inclusion matters. It is women who have borne the brunt of lockdown and the additional burdens it has brought of caring and domestic chores; not surprisingly, the impact on academic outcomes is already being felt. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. 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, only when we are truly confident in the outcomes should we allow the charter to be a tool to determine eligibility for grant funding. Lessons learned from Athena SWAN and its review should also be used to support the development of other equality, diversity and inclusion measures.

Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor, Brunel University London (chair)
Margaret Ayers, director of human resources and organisational development, Canterbury Christ Church University
Paul Carmichael, associate dean (global development), Ulster University
Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics and master of Churchill College, University of Cambridge
Dorothy Griffiths, emeritus professor and former provost’s envoy for gender equality, Imperial College London
Jenny Higham, principal, St George’s, University of London
Patrick Johnson, head of equality and diversity, University of Manchester
Hilary Lappin-Scott, Cardiff University
David Sweeney, executive chair, Research England
Paul Walton, department of chemistry, University of York
Lesley Yellowlees, head of College of Science and Engineering, University of Edinburgh

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