No more steps. It’s time for a leap on gender equality

The journey to gender equality in higher education is a long and winding one. It shouldn’t have to be.

Not many would disagree with the assertion that we are far from parity, particularly when we think that only less than a quarter of all professors are female. We still live in a time where male academics significantly outearn their female counterparts, and the stagnant under representation of BME women in academia needs urgent redressing. Yet despite this slow progress, Athena SWAN stands out as a notable example of an initiative working to drive change on these inequities.

If it’s not broken, improve it

For more than a decade Athena SWAN has been central to the gender equality conversation in higher education. The scheme requires participating institutions to assess gender equality among their students and staff and propose an action plan to address challenges. This work is then evaluated through a peer review process. If sufficient progress is made, recognition is afforded to that institution for its work in advancing gender equality.

Research indicates the impact of the scheme has been positive and this is worth celebrating. There has been an increase in the overall number of female students and academics in science and technology fields and in the number of women applying for promotions. Evidence also points to an ongoing transformation in culture, citing that the scheme had been a driving force in bringing about greater awareness of gender equality among all staff. The scheme has also expanded over the years from STEM disciplines to now focus on all subject areas, including ones where men are underrepresented.

Equally though, the scheme has been the subject of debate, with institutions expressing concern about the workload associated with undertaking the review questioning the remit of the scheme in relation to issues like intersectionality (the impact of age, class, religion and other protected attributes on gender). These matters are being teased out through an independent review currently underway.

From the moderate to the radical

I’m struck by the recent work of Charikleia Tzanakou and Ruth Pearce, who conclude that the rollout of Athena SWAN in institutions operates as a form of “moderate feminism,” and that it comes attached with many contradictions.

They argue that in the pursuit of “moderate” arguments to promote gender equality, including developing new competitive metrics for institutions, there is a risk that this can reduce gender equality to an issue that can be fixed through fulfilling numerical targets. The fear is that this comes at the expense of considering intersectional dynamics and the reproduction of roles related to unpaid, emotional labour undertaken by women.

As poignantly pointed out, these researchers highlight that there is considerable focus on women – in building their capacity, forging solidarity, fixing their “issues” – because these are safe and reasonable measures to do so, rather than to critically examine the broader institutional structures and forces.

These contradictions also play out in very real and practical ways in institutions. Overwhelmingly, self-assessment teams that work on the Athena SWAN scheme in institutions and who engage in the bulk of the workload are indeed women and other marginalised groups. It is these individuals whose experiences are being sought to be improved. Yet they are the ones who are having to do the heaviest lifting. This seems counterintuitive.

The guidance offered by Athena SWAN repeatedly highlights the need for the scheme to be a collective effort and not just the responsibility of a few. However, there is a disconnect between the intents of the scheme and how it is being rolled out an institutional level.

This research and the experiences of those in institutions should not lead us to conclude that women don’t have a role to play in their institutions’ Athena SWAN scheme. It is an important part of the puzzle. However, where we need to move is towards a greater focus on the institution and its structures, overarching legislative frameworks, and the very ways in which the identities of women and marginalised groups are conceived.

Go big or go home

The context in which Athena SWAN is situated, particularly for its participating institutions, has changed considerably since it was introduced and it is worth thinking through the very real challenges that the scheme must respond to at this time. Issues of intersectionality and the non-binary experience must be front and centre. Given the gaps in pay, greater action to correct existing inequities must also be an area of focus for the scheme to assess. Engaging men more consciously is also an area that remains to be interrogated.

The independent review underway seeks to investigate how the scheme can meet the challenges posed by a changing higher education environment, reduce the administrative burden for those in institutions, and how it can learn from other equality measures. It must go much further to specifically examine the legislative and institutional structures and the cultural factors that need reform to advance gender equality

No doubt Athena SWAN has galvanised momentum towards the pursuit of gender equality in a way that has not been seen before. However, as the saying goes, it’s time now “to go big or go home.” With the outcomes of the independent review hotly anticipated, a more radical approach is needed to affect the type of progress towards gender equality that is so urgently needed.

With thanks to Ruth Gilligan, Advance HE and Sara Mole, University College London.

One response to “No more steps. It’s time for a leap on gender equality

  1. I did not read the full article, but I wonder, when there is a spending gap, with women outspending men significantly, is that true in academia? Regardless, what does it say about our society?

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