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Topic guide 3: Consulting with your community

On this page you will find guidance on consulting with your community for the Athena Swan Ireland Charter 2021 framework.

Purpose of consultation

Advance HE recognises that each institution, department and professional unit has different equality challenges and priorities, and that these priorities should be developed based on an understanding of the local evidence-base. Consulting with various staff and student communities is necessary for understanding their perceptions, views, and experiences, and is required for successful implementation of the Ireland charter framework. Continued, iterative consultation should be integrated into equality, diversity and inclusion strategies and visibly supported by senior leadership.

Consultation findings should be used to:

  • Inform the self-assessment and identify where there are issues and opportunities.
  • Support the development and rationale for particular actions and activities.
  • Track improvements against previously identified challenges through evaluation of the outcome(s) and impact(s) of the action plan.

The topic guidance on ‘Consulting with your community’ will provide you with information on the following:

  • Methods and types of consultation
  • Facilitating consultation activities
  • Consulting with particular groups
  • Required areas of consultation
  • Capturing and analysing responses
  • Increasing engagement with consultation

Methods and types of consultation

It is important to choose consultation methods that are realistic and will be possible within the parameters of working with your target populations. Applicants may employ both quantitative and qualitative methods of consultation.

Potential consultation activities include, but are not limited to:

  • Surveys, including pulse surveys
  • Questionnaires
  • Focus groups
  • Structured or semi-structured one-to-one interviews
  • Liaising with networks and unions
  • Roundtable discussions
  • Town hall meetings

The type of consultation carried out will be dependent on the size of the submitting unit, and not every approach will be suitable for every group. Large scale quantitative data might be useful for a large institution to collect but a smaller department or professional unit might struggle to get sufficient responses for that approach to be valid. Therefore, a smaller sub-unit may decide that relying on qualitative methods of consultation is more appropriate. You may also need to take extra steps to ensure confidentiality, such as employing external facilitators, or making sure surveys ask questions in a way that ensures anonymity.

Facilitating consultation activities

The self-assessment team (SAT) provides a formal structure to lead and coordinate consultation activities. Depending on factors such as the size of a submitting unit and availability of resources, applicants may seek support inside or outside of the SAT for conducting and analysing consultation activities. Some example approaches are detailed below:

  • An institution might use an EDI office or other centralised department to conduct consultation activities.
  • Departments/professional units could run their own consultation activities with support from an EDI role or an external consultant.
  • An institution might agree to run centralised surveys that departmental/professional unit applicants can draw upon.
  • Submitting units could harness their own professional and academic expertise to lead on consultation, particularly if those individuals are SAT members.

It is not expected nor appropriate for an entire SAT to have access to a raw data set. Safeguards should be put in place to ensure confidentiality is maintained. Applicants should work with their own institutions to ensure they are following the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and any relevant ethics-related policies. For example, a facilitator may provide a report to the self-assessment team following a series of focus groups, or access to full survey results may be restricted to a particular member of the SAT, or other role in an institution or sub-unit. The approach should be made clear to your community from the outset.

Depending on topics and themes covered, information on policies and procedures (and relevant training, where necessary) should be provided to facilitators, as sensitive issues may arise during consultation.

Consulting with particular groups

The Athena Swan Ireland charter framework applies to all staff and students working and studying in higher education institutions. When determining who to consult with, applicants should ensure they are communicating with all staff that contribute to, and are affected by, the culture of the institution/department/professional unit. This usually includes all staff that are directly employed by an institution. Institutions/sub-units may wish to consider how they ensure that insourced staff are from organisations that align with the Athena Swan Ireland principles. A department may wish to consult with enrolled students. Other groups may be included, such as occasional students.

Some examples of consulting with particular groups, drawing upon the example consultation methods noted above, are:

  • EDI surveys circulated to all staff and students.
  • A pulse survey with all staff (or a particular cohort) following completion of staff development reviews.
  • An online qualitative questionnaire with all department staff on the working environment of the department.
  • A focus group with staff that have returned from family leave in the previous year.
  • One-to-one interviews with staff exploring flexible working needs.
  • Liaising with an equality network or society in the institution to capture staff or student feedback related to particular equality grounds.
  • A roundtable discussion that captures key recommendations on incorporating EDI in student curricula, pedagogy, and assessment.
  • A town hall style meeting seeking feedback on a draft EDI action plan.

The types and breadth of consultation carried out will depend on the particular part of the community you are consulting with and what you are trying to assess. In any case, consultation activities must be careful not to use a deficit model approach. That is, the questions and themes used should not assume that communities are responsible for any challenges or inequalities they face. Rather, the consultation should aim to unpack the effects of structural inequalities and social injustices, which manifest as differential experiences and outcomes for staff and students.

It is important to communicate with those who are contributing information and consult with them on whether the chosen methods of data collection are working. It is also important to revisit equality issues regularly as the population and their needs may change.

You will find it useful to evaluate your data collection throughout the consultation process. At times, methods need to be revised or amended. To determine this, ask yourself:

  • Who is missing from the discussion?
  • Are the chosen methods letting everyone be heard?
  • Are they accessible to everyone?
  • Are they effective and reliable?

You should also remember that certain groups may have different accessibility needs. Ensure that consultation methods take these into account, and provide accessible options for providing information. For example, some staff may not be desk-based or have easy access to IT and may need access to paper surveys or a digital kiosk in a common area.

Required areas of consultation

The charter framework requires applicants to consult with their communities on specific topics and themes, which are noted in the relevant application forms. These include:

  • Promotion and/or progression
  • Career development, including development reviews
  • Workload
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Sexual harassment and sexual violence
  • Informal and formal flexible working arrangements
  • Timing of meetings and social gatherings
  • Family leave and caring responsibilities
  • Values and traditions
  • Leadership practices and behaviours
  • Negative practices and behaviours

You should consult the Athena Swan Ireland Consultation Template for example questions related to these areas and for further guidance.

Capturing and analysing responses

When consulting with staff and students through an “EDI lens”, you might opt to ask directly about specific topics (e.g. asking how supports for family leave can be more LGBT+ inclusive), or you might ask everyone the same question and analyse findings disaggregated by a particular equality ground or characteristic (e.g. asking staff about support for applying for promotion and disaggregating findings by gender or ethnicity).

When taking the latter approach, you’ll want to consider if cohorts are large enough to enable meaningful analysis as well as ensure confidentiality. Additionally, you should plan how you will capture response rates by cohort, where possible. For example, you may be able to capture the response rate to a staff survey by gender and category of post if the circulation list is tied to an HR system that already captures this information. However, if you do not have a baseline for this information, you may not be able to provide a definitive response rate. You should take steps to determine if your consultation is representative of the population of your institution or department.

Remember that the language around a lot of identities is evolving and language used in data collection will need to be reviewed regularly as it may become outdated quickly. More open approaches can be useful, such as open-ended questions or text boxes in surveys, which will allow people to self-identify.

An honest appraisal of consultations finding is essential. An effective approach to the charter framework requires critical self-reflection and actions in response. Guidance on developing appropriate interventions can be found in Topic Guide 4: Developing and implementing a targeted action plan.

Increasing engagement with consultation

As you plan consultation activities, we encourage you to map existing opportunities to gather information and input from your communities – this will help you to mitigate ‘consultation fatigue’. For example, you may be collecting relevant evidence already through existing staff and student surveys, or decide to append EDI themes to a survey that already garners a high response rate.

You should have a full communications plan surrounding your consultation process. Staff and students will need to understand the point of the consultation activity, and the charter framework, in order to engage fully. Ensuring individuals understand the benefits of consultations will support them to feel secure in responding. It is also important that respondents trust the SAT to utilise the results appropriately. This will also help you to maximise your response rates and the overall quality of captured data.

Consider too the capacity of those who you are hoping to gather data from. For example, you may be better waiting until after the exam period to consult with students or staff involved in student assessment. Methods may need to be adjusted or tailored to participants depending on their role, such as clinical academics on differing sites, or students who are studying remotely.

The long-term effectiveness of engagement with consultation activities can be enhanced by ensuring there is an appropriate balance between how often the community is consulted with, and the time and resourcing needed to implement proactive actions and initiatives in response.

It is important to be mindful that participants are taking the time to share personal information and stories about their experiences. You should also take steps to keep your community informed of successes and challenges along the way, to ensure that they are aware of how their responses have been considered and responded to.

Further resources

You will find further guidance to support robust consultation methods and analysis in these Advance HE data resources.