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Athena Swan FAQs: Benchmarking

The answers to some frequently asked questions about benchmarking in your Athena Swan charter application.

Why benchmark your data?

External benchmarking data can be used as a helpful tool to provide context and comparison; as a ‘sense check’ in relation to disciplines and institutions within the broader higher education and research sector; and to highlight where there may be good practice and to inform actions. You should consider how your gender representation compares to different national benchmarks, how these relate to your own discipline focus, and what this could mean in terms of what is working well and in setting targets and aspirations (though we advise caution around using benchmarks as definitive targets and goals).

The benchmark data should then be discussed in the context of your institutions/department as part of a robust analysis to help inform activities. Good benchmarking will help you to identify strong departments or institutions relevant to your own discipline or context, and to inform your approach to addressing your own challenges. Data used to benchmark should be the most recently available data. Be mindful of the sources you are considering and ensure that they are appropriate for your department and/or institution. Make sure it is clear throughout the application which sources have been used, for example, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and the timeframe this data refers to.

Internal benchmarking (i.e. identifying your baseline data) is a core part of the self-assessment process to establish an evidence base for issue identification and action. Baselines are useful to include in your action plan (e.g. in a ‘Rationale’ column), alongside targets that represent an improvement on the current metric (e.g. in a ‘Success Measure’ column). Using these together provides panellists with an indication of applicant’s understanding of the relative scale of the issues they are facing as well as an indication of their ambitions. Targets should be ambitious against your own baselines, and using external benchmarks may help shape these. Targets should not, however, just aim to match external benchmarks (particularly where this reflects a poor gender balance). Establishing baselines and including these in your action plan means future impact of actions can be identified and evidenced. 

When should we use benchmarking data and what should we consider? 

External benchmarking data can be utilised throughout the application when looking at data. For example, when looking at recruitment, you can seek to reflect on the benchmark to assess the gender balance of applications against the expected pool of applicants. Through this, you may more readily identify whether your recruitment outcomes are supporting your gender equality ambitions, and whether your targets are appropriate.

Where can we find external benchmarking data?

There are many sources of data that you may find useful for benchmarking, for example: Advance HE Equality statistical reports; HESA data obtained via Heidi Plus; professional bodies and learned societies; mission groups; direct approach to other institutions; local government; and industries that align with your specialism. Be mindful of considering how appropriate data sources are to the context of your department or institution. If benchmarking against a different sector, comment as to why this benchmark was used, as it will assist panellists. All institutions should have access to their statistical report from HESA – we recommend contacting your HR department to access this. Learned and professional societies also hold some data on gender. Other sources of information that may be of use are the Medical and Dental Schools Councils and the Research Councils. 

Guidance is also provided in our Dealing with Data webinar.