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Topic guide 4: Developing and implementing a targeted action plan

On this page you will find guidance on developing and implementing a targeted action plan for the Athena Swan Ireland Charter 2021 framework.

The Athena Swan Ireland charter framework supports applicants to drive change through the development of targeted action plans. You are ready to begin the process of action plan development when you have considered the framework data sets and have a clear understanding of areas that require change or improvement in your institution/department/professional unit. Based on analysis of the findings of the self-assessment you should also have an understanding of priority areas for intervention. With this understanding of your context, you can begin to identify actions that will drive progress.

The topic guidance on ‘Developing and implementing a targeted action plan’ will provide you with information on:

  • Common areas for action 
  • Establishing priorities for action 
  • Developing targeted actions
  • Implementing your action plan

Understanding common areas for action

Actions vary across applications and you should aim to develop a responsive plan based on your institution/sub-unit’s priorities and context. While each applicant’s action plan will be unique, there are common areas for intervention: 

  1. Developing infrastructure

It is common to find actions, or groups of actions, aimed at improving the systems and structures that are needed to advance equality, diversity and inclusion. This might involve activities related to resource management (e.g. staff levels, systems for recognising and rewarding EDI work), or to governance structures, committees, or reporting lines. Improvements in infrastructure also regularly involve technological solutions to support equality monitoring (e.g. centralisation/expansion of databases), or involve physical space development and management.   

  1. Increasing representation  

These kinds of interventions work to address underrepresentation. Actions will be targeted at improving gender balance (e.g. in particular staff categories or grades, or among students/staff in specific discipline areas) and may seek to drive progress in relation to other underrepresented groups. Actions can involve activities to ensure that recruitment, marketing, course packaging, and outreach is designed in a way that encourages a diverse range of applicants. Actions may also involve work to ensure that processes and practices relating to recruitment and career progression are fair and transparent so as not to disadvantage any particular group.

  1. Improving outcomes and experiences

These actions target improvements in the outcomes and experiences of staff and students. Interventions may seek to address student awarding gaps through activities to revise assessment modes and methods, seek improvements in completion rates by improving supports, or improve experience through training or networks. Initiatives related to staff outcomes and experience are also common, such as activities to manage workload equitably, to enhance and encourage staff development (e.g. mentorship/sponsorship schemes, supports for research grant success, annual staff development reviews), or to support staff with caring responsibilities, including those returning from family-related leave. Work in this area may also involve recognising good practice or efforts to celebrate or sustain effective and impactful interventions.

  1. Fostering inclusive cultures

Actions to drive improvement in representation or staff/student outcomes and experience will likely also rely on initiatives designed to foster an inclusive culture. This may involve taking proactive steps to create a safe and respective environment and eliminate unacceptable behaviour (e.g. bullying, sexual harassment), activities to promote social cohesion and community (e.g. networks, events, core hours), and initiatives to celebrate diversity.

Establishing priorities for action

Establishing priority areas for action will enable you to focus your action planning and funnel resources to the area of greatest need. Identification of priorities should be tied to the findings of your self-assessment. Your priorities should therefore be:

  • Evidence-based
  • Specific and detailed
  • Appropriate and tailored to your context
  • Measurable

The Athena Swan Ireland framework will prompt you to identify key priorities for action. You will report on your progress in relation to these priorities when you renew your award. When upgrading your award, you will need to demonstrate achievement in relation to the priority areas you identify. To meet the criteria for a Silver award, you must be able to demonstrate impact in two priority areas. For Gold, impact in three priority areas must be shown.

Priorities can be addressed through multiple actions in the action plan and may have short, medium, and long-term targets for success. Examples of specific priorities can be found in the table below.

A: Broad priorities B: Specific priorities
Tackle bullying and harassment Reduce incidences of disrespect towards professional services staff from students
Increase the number of women at senior academic grades Improve the success rate of women achieving promotion at Senior Lecturer and Professor grades
Grow engagement with the local community Work with community partners to increase the proportion of male school-leavers from the area enrolling at the institution

Developing targeted actions

When developing actions you will need to be aware of the resources available, including available budget and staff time to support implementation, and whether or not additional external expertise will be needed to deliver specific actions, or to support progress on priority areas. You may also want to consider any other institution/department/professional unit projects, outputs, or commitments scheduled for delivery in the four-year period covered by the plan.

To ensure that your action plan offers your institution/sub-unit a sufficiently targeted strategy to drive progress during the award period, the Athena Swan Ireland framework requires actions, and action plans, that adhere to the SMART action planning principles:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time bound

In applying the SMART action planning principles to the development of actions you will:

Be Specific: what are you going to do?

An action/action plan should make clear to anyone who reads it exactly what you are going to do over the next four years. This means that you will need to include a specific description of a specific action that will take place. When deciding this, consider who the action is aimed at and how it will be implemented. You may need to consider sub actions for initiatives seeking to address large objectives.

Ensure relevance: why are you undertaking this action?

Your action plan should make the rationale for actions clear, demonstrating how the action emerges from the evidence uncovered during your self-assessment. You will need to include information that indicates why the action is necessary for your institution/sub-unit. This necessitates citing baseline data, for example from a survey or focus group, to demonstrate why you are undertaking the proposed intervention. 

Determine timelines: when will the action start and finish?

Timeframes for actions should be included in your plan. These timeframes should provide a clear picture of when the action will be implemented and reviewed. If the action will have various outputs, or if sub-actions have been included, you may wish to include milestones to check on action progress.

Safeguard achievability: who will ensure action implementation? 

You will need to assign responsibility for action/s to appropriate and suitably influential roles in your institution/department/professional unit as this will ensure the action is achievable. You will also find it helpful to differentiate between those who are responsible for action completion and those who are responsible for the action’s implementation. By identifying specific roles, you can ensure action completion if roles change or rotate. In assigning responsibility for actions you should take care not to overburden members of underrepresented groups. Your action plan should attest to the fact that you understand that driving change is everyone’s responsibility.

Identify indicators of success: how will you measure the success of your action?

In order to support your evaluation of progress over four years you will need to identify markers of action success. These success measures should demonstrate the influence or effectiveness of the action on the issues or opportunities identified, not just that activities of the action were undertaken. When choosing success measures, remember that action completion is not necessarily a marker of success. Instead, the success measure should directly relate to what the action is aiming to effect. You will find it helpful to consider your baseline data (i.e. measurements before actions have begun) when choosing success measures for actions.

Distinguishing between action outputs, outcomes, and impacts

When determining your success measures you will likely find it helpful to understand, and distinguish between, action outputs, outcomes, and impacts. A common pitfall of action planning is selecting an output of your action as a measure of success. An action output is typically a milestone or indicator of an action in progress (e.g. report was written, handbook updated, focus group organised, policy developed, appraisal template created; staff network established). In contrast, an action outcome enables you to evaluate how well an action is working and impact describes the positive effect of the action on the issue you have been aiming to address. Outcomes and impact are always closely tied to the rational for undertaking actions and offer evidence of the success of the action plan in addressing your equality priorities.

Action outputs: the initiatives and activities that make up your action plan will produce action outputs. An action output is typically an indicator or a milestone of an action in progress. An action output is generally straightforward to report on as you should be able to easily identify whether or not it happened.

Action outcomes: action outcomes enable you to evaluate if your actions are working appropriately. The outcome of an action is an indicator of whether or not your intervention will be impactful over time. For example, action outcomes may offer evidence of awareness of engagement with action outputs (e.g. uptake/application rates).

Action Impacts: action impact describes the positive effect or change that occurs in your institution/department/professional unit as a result of a well-executed action. Impact demonstrates that your action/action plan is helping to achieve your gender equality and wider equality objectives.

Below you will find some examples of the differences between action outputs, outcomes, and impacts.

Example One: action outputs, outcomes, impacts

An institution establishes a parents’ and carers’ network in response to finding that staff with caring responsibilities report feeling isolated. The outputs, outcomes, and impacts of this action may be defined as follows:

Output: parents’ and carers’ staff network is established

Outcome: evidence of network activity and staff engagement (e.g. uptake of activities)

Impact: evidence of staff reporting that the institution is a supportive environment for staff with caring responsibilities (i.e. improvement against baseline data from the staff survey)

Example Two: action outputs, outcomes, impacts

A department takes steps to formalise its staff development review process (i.e. introduction of annual meetings and use of new review meeting discussion template) as review meetings are held irregularly and early career staff report receiving limited support for career development.  

Output: review meeting discussion template developed; timeframe for annual meetings agreed.

Outcome: evidence that staff are participating in annual review meetings (i.e. uptake rates)

Impact: evidence of staff reporting that they are receiving support for career development (i.e. improvement against baseline data from the staff survey)

Example Three: action outputs, outcomes, impacts

An institution overhauls its promotion process (i.e. reviews and revises policies relating to eligibility and criteria, introduces training requirements for assessors, launches briefing sessions for eligible staff) due to an underrepresentation of women at senior academic grades and associated low application rates for promotion from eligible staff, particularly women. Baseline data also indicates that low numbers of staff perceive the process to be transparent and fair.

Outputs: new policies and guidance developed; assessor training and board composition requirements in place; annual briefing held.

Outcomes: evidence of positive improvement in staff feedback on new policies and guidance; all assessors (including external panel members) complete required training; high staff uptake of the annual briefing; positive feedback on the usefulness of the briefing; a greater proportion of eligible staff are applying for promotion, including more applications from women.

Impact: evidence of improvement in staff perceptions of promotion process as fair and transparent (i.e. improvement against baseline data from staff survey); evidence of improving success rates for women applying for promotion / improving representation at Senior Lecturer level (i.e. improvement against baseline promotion data).

Choosing an action plan template

You will need to choose an action plan template that supports SMART action planning. The Athena Swan Ireland framework is not prescriptive about the format of action plans but applicants are encouraged to choose an action planning format that is accessible and user-friendly as this will support action implementation and evaluation. 

An example of a SMART action planning template can be found below.

action plan table

Actions presented in the action plan will be embedded and cross-referenced throughout the application narrative demonstrating the link between your data, analysis, and activities to drive progress. You should include the headline text of actions, as well as the action number, in your response to application questions. Embedded action text is not counted within the word allocation (see Word Allocation Guidance). You can find examples of how to embed actions below.

Example 1: Embedding actions

The institutional staff survey revealed that 72% (n307) of all staff report that they often work outside their contracted hours. The figure for academic staff is 87% (n.193), 47% (n.64) for PMSS and 94% (n32) for Senior Managers. From a gender perspective, more males report often working outside their contract hours across all groups. Managing work-life balance was also raised in the remote working survey. Complementing action 5.17, a specific work-life balance policy will be developed to address gender specific issues raised in both surveys (Action 5.29). Given that both surveys also indicated increasing demands of staff, the Health and Safely Authority (HSA) Work Positive programme and audit tools will be adopted to measure progress in this area (Action 5.30).

Action 5.29 Develop and implement a work-life balance policy across the institute
Action 5.30 Implement the HSA Work Positive Programme

Example 2: Embedding actions

In our department staff survey we asked about awareness of the new institutional policy on core meeting hours and gathered feedback on whether events and social gatherings were scheduled to support staff attendance.


Female staff and academic staff in particular noted that social activities can be less feasible to attend. We will implement a departmental core hours policy to be 10:00-16:00 for both department and formal social activities (AP 5.6.8)

Implementing your targeted action plan

By developing your action plan according to the SMART action planning principles you will have laid the foundation for successful implementation – your actions will be specific and measurable but also realistic as they have been developed for your context. Additionally, the prioritisation of your actions will make clear what actions need to occur for progress to be made on the institution/sub-unit’s most important issues.

As you move into the implementation phase of your Athena Swan journey you may find it helpful to undertake the practical steps listed below:

  1. Recognise and celebrate award attainment 

The completion of the application phase of your Athena Swan journey is the culmination of a lot of work. Celebrating this milestone and recognising the work of those involved in the application demonstrates that this activity is valued by the institution/department/professional unit. Marking the attainment of your award is also an opportunity to stimulate momentum and generate wider awareness of the actions the institution/department/professional unit will implement over the next four years.

  1. Reflect on panel feedback

It is important to take some time to reflect on the written feedback provided by the assessment panel and undertake any changes that are recommended. Feedback will note areas for development or key next steps and it is useful for the SAT to consider these recommendations and determine if any further action is needed to support successful implementation. For example, a panel may offer advice relating to prioritisation of actions, or indicate that some action success measures need to be amended to support your evaluation of progress. When renewing your award, you will be asked to reflect on your response to the panel feedback so it is helpful to do this early in the implementation phase.

  1. Take the action plan “live”

You will need to treat the action plan as a “live” document that will need to be updated and modified over the course of your award period. The SAT will work with the action plan regularly and will likely find it useful to RAG-rate actions from the outset of implementation (see Topic Guide 5: Evaluating and evidencing progress and success). You may also find it beneficial to re-share your action plan with your institution/sub-unit.  You should also post the action plan on your website so that staff, students, and other stakeholders can understand the institution/sub-unit’s equality objectives and how these will be achieved. To comply with the Horizon Europe Gender Equality Plan (GEP) eligibility criterion, a GEP must be ‘a formal document published on the institution's website, signed by the top management and actively communicated within the institution'.

  1. Plan review points 

If you haven’t already done so it is helpful to pinpoint formal points for reviewing action plan progress over the four years of your award. It is particularly important to review action implementation against baseline data, as this will enable you to identify emerging areas of progress, and to identify and refresh ineffective or stalled actions. It is inevitable that elements of your action plan will need to be revised and updated over the course of your award. A methodical approach to action plan review will ensure your action plan remains current.

  1. Communicate 

In tandem with the formal reviews of your progress you should plan to communicate updates on progress or changes to the action plan to your community. This may be via town halls, social media, newsletters, standing updates on key committees, or via formal communications from senior leadership. In general, taking a “you said, we did” approach is helpful in demonstrating the institution/sub-unit’s ongoing understanding of issues, and opportunities and of raising awareness of initiatives to drive progress.

Analysing action effectiveness   

During the implementation phase you will need to evaluate whether or not actions are having their intended effects. Evaluating your actions will also enable you to make adjustments to activities when needed, optimise resources, and observe progress and celebrate successes. As you monitor and evaluate implementation during the award period you may find the following questions helpful:

  • Have scheduled actions taken place? If not, why not?
  • Are there any emerging barriers or facilitators to action implementation?
  • Do we need any additional expertise in order to support the action? If so, who might be best suited for this?
  • Is the action yielding the desired outputs and outcomes? If not, why not?
  • Are any changes required to complete this action, or achieve the desired outcome and impact? If so, who will be responsible for these changes?

Analysing the effectiveness of your action plan throughout the implementation will also support your continued engagement with the Athena Swan Ireland framework:

  • To renew your award, you will be asked to demonstrate progress against the priorities you identified during your self-assessment. This will involve reflecting on the delivery of key outputs and evaluating action outcomes.
  • To upgrade your award (to Silver or Gold) you will be asked to present evidence of success against the priorities you identified previously. This will involve demonstrating the impact of your actions on the issues and opportunities identified during previous self-assessment.

You can find further information on evaluating and evidencing success in Topic Guide 5: Evaluating and evidencing progress and success. You can also contact the Athena Swan Ireland team for further advice and guidance on developing and implementing targeted actions.