As Advance HE launches the transformed UK Athena Swan Charter, I reflect on its impact to date, both at sector level and from a personal perspective, and share some insight into the work underpinning its transformation.
In 2019, an impact evaluation of the Charter demonstrated that it was being widely used as a tool for addressing gender-related challenges throughout the UK higher education sector. Women in award-holding departments and institutions, particularly those at Silver and Gold level, were being encouraged to apply for promotion, offered more flexible working practices, were benefiting from mentoring and coaching, and were more optimistic about their career prospects. This is absolutely borne out by my own experience, with Athena Swan playing a significant role in my appointment as the first female deputy vice chancellor and the first non-white member of the university executive board at Reading. If that sounds like an exaggeration, let me justify by explaining that personal coaching and an active commitment to job-sharing in senior roles were key elements in our institutional action plan and both have been transformational, not just for me, but also for my organisation.
Universities continue to announce successful awards with pride. Many see the award as external validation of their commitment to gender equality and some statements suggest that equality work feeds into local and institutional strategy and supports cultural change. However, almost without exception, every celebratory announcement also acknowledges the considerable work that goes into an application and expresses thanks to those who contributed.
The workload and bureaucracy associated with an Athena Swan application was a key driver for the independent review of the Athena SWAN Charter, published in March 2020, which set out a mandate for change, making recommendations to streamline the application process and to overhaul the assessment process to ensure consistency and transparency of decision-making. There is no doubt that an evolution of the Charter was due and that this should be driven forward at pace, whilst consulting with the sector and building confidence and trust.
In September 2020, I was appointed Chair of the Athena Swan Governance Committee, which was charged with overseeing the transformation of the Charter. The core elements of the transformation were a paradigm shift towards autonomy, with institutions identifying their own priorities and focus, streamlining of the process and reduction of burden and a shift from a judgmental position to a developmental and supportive approach. While there were some in the sector who simply wished us to ‘plug and play,’ the recommendations of the independent review, there were a number of important factors to consider. First, we needed to ensure that every step of the process aligned with the revised Charter principles by systematically reviewing the criteria, the expectations which sat beneath them and the application forms. Second, we needed to devise a transparent scoring system that would set clear thresholds for assessing awards. Third, we felt that it was critical to take the sector with us throughout the process and therefore included consultation and engagement within the programme of work. Finally, we were conscious that recent world events, most notably, the Covid-19 pandemic and global protests against racism following the murder of George Floyd, had to be considered in our work, for example, by taking some first steps towards introducing intersectionality into the Charter.
In addition to global events, the last few months have been punctuated by debate about the lack of a requirement to hold an Athena Swan award in order to access research funding. I find it utterly disheartening that some view access to funding as the key driver for pursuing gender equality work. While there is ongoing debate in research circles about improving equality, diversity and inclusion, it’s important to remember that there are a multitude of non-research and professional roles in the HE sector and equality work must include them. We consulted carefully to ensure that the transformed Charter was inclusive to those in professional, technical and operational roles.
The commitment and dedication of members of the Governance Committee and the Advance HE team throughout the process has made my role as Chair an absolute joy and I was grateful to have the opportunity to check in regularly with members of the original review group. Of course, the Governance Committee’s work is not over. As we launch the new framework, we are already making plans for monitoring and evaluation. The long-term goal for success for Athena Swan is evidence that the sector views the Charter mark as an improvement tool rather than an end product, is open to sharing good practice, and is genuinely committed to dismantling inequality.