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Topic 2: Assessing Your Culture

On this page you will find guidance on assessing your culture for the transformed UK Athena Swan Charter.

On this page you will find a short video exploring the meaning of culture and written guidance on the following:

  • What a culture is
  • Social Culture
  • Professional Culture
  • Hierarchical Culture
  • Physical Space
  • Partnership Working

Guidance video on assessing your culture for the transformed UK Athena Swan Charter

In this video, Ellie Highwood, Advance HE Charters Associate explores the meaning of culture in the context of the transformed UK Athena Swan Charter to assist members preparing an application under the new Charter framework.

What is a Culture? 

Assessing a professional culture can be complicated. Often institutions are designed in a way that is seen as “normal” and is accepted for decades without being challenged. However, it is important to consider whether there is a culture that supports gender equality in your institution and how this can be designed in.

It is worth noting too that institutions often contain subcultures. These can be even harder to identify as not everyone is necessarily included in them. Institutions will also exist within wider social cultures. This is something that is worth considering not just for UK campuses but for international campuses too.

The culture of an institution is fundamentally the story of an institution. As such it is an important thing when it comes to both the experiences of those in the institution and its wider reputation. What people think and feel about a place is increasingly important in a world of open online communication and reputation as a form of cultural capital.

Perhaps the best way to think about this complicated idea is to break it down. In this topic we will look at some of the different ways in which a culture might be created and recreated and think about how each can be assessed. This is not an exhaustive list; it is worth thinking about how culture manifests in your own institution as you read through this topic.

Social Culture

Gender equality can present itself at the surface of professional spaces but a closer look can reveal that there are inherent, built-in inequalities. Assessing your culture is all about asking the difficult questions about equality in your area and facilitating ongoing conversations around gender. Some of this is built into the more social side of the institution and this can be a more day-to-day form of inequality that can at times go unnoticed.

Fundamentally, you and your team should be asking yourselves, is this a welcoming and inviting place for people to come to work and learn?

How is the social side of the institution constructed? While these softer sides of working life might go unnoticed by some, they can have a big impact. You might consider asking yourself things like:

  • Can people bring their “whole selves” to work?
  • Are there inclusive and functioning staff networks?
  • Are events inclusive and considerate of everyone?
  • Are annual events like Pride Month and Black History Month celebrated? Do these celebrations come alongside meaningful support all year round?

Assessing this will involve becoming familiar with the general thoughts and feelings that people have about your institution, department or directorate. Sometimes this is easy to gauge as questions like this can be included on feedback forms for various events or in staff surveys. Some departments may also run module or course pages online which allow for feedback. However, be mindful that feedback which isn’t anonymous may not tell a complete story, as it is less likely a person will be openly critical if their name is on their feedback. If you are collecting your own feedback on this, you may want to create an anonymous online space where people can voice their feelings.

Professional Culture

Universities and research institutes are not just sites of education and research but of course are places of work for many. As such, their professional cultures must be considered.

This is fundamentally a question of whether the working life of the institution is inclusive and geared towards gender equality.

Think about the things about work that may disproportionately affect a particular gender and how your place of work manages them. For example:

  • Flexible working hours
  • Parental leave
  • Training opportunities
  • Mentoring opportunities

Think critically too about how different roles and expectations impact progression. For example, are teaching staff predominantly female? Does this impact their ability to undertake career-furthering activities?

These are all aspects of work life that traditionally are gendered and impact an individual’s prospects and work-life balance. Are these appropriately managed in your place of work or are actions required to improve the situation?

Due to the laws in the UK which guide equality in organisations, all institutions should at least be maintaining a base level of equality. However, this doesn’t necessarily align with lived experience and it is important to familiarise yourself with the realities of working in your institution for other people. 

While for example you might find your faculty an excellent place to work there may be hidden reasons that others find it a hostile or difficult environment. Take the time to create safe and anonymous ways for colleagues to share their experiences and anecdotes so that you have a better understanding to inform your future actions.

Hierarchical Culture

A big part of work culture is the power dynamics within it. Whether you are applying as an institution, a department or a directorate, there will be hierarchies of power, pay and recognition. While it can be clear who is paid more or who gets more say in decisions there are other elements to consider when critiquing hierarchies: 

  • Is everyone getting recognised for their work?
  • Is everyone getting supported equally?
  • Are everyone’s contributions listened to equally?
  • Are there opportunities for mobility?

For example, while at a university level we may be considering who is on the board, at a department level the power may lie with whoever chooses what is taught, what office hours might look like or whose name is going on initiatives? Who is on the senior management team? What is the gender balance of the professorial community?

This is important because the decision-makers of the institution help shape what the institution will look like. If we strive for more gender equality in these areas, we will build an institution that is more equal and acknowledges a range of priorities. In the Athena Swan framework, the head of participating units (e.g. Vice-Chancellor, Director of the Institute, Head of Department, Head of Directorate) are required to first commit to the Charter Principles before award applications can be submitted. Consider the other decision-makers in your institution or department too as it is important that decision-makers are aware of and support your gender equality goals. Powerful individuals supporting a move towards greater equality will be valuable in pushing forward certain actions. They also represent the institution in different ways and their commitment to gender equality helps inform the reputation and image that the institution is giving out.

It might not be that it is in every applicant's power to engage in a critique of these hierarchies but being aware of them at least may help inform what you might choose to focus on in your application.

Physical Space

While institutions are social and professional spaces they are also physical spaces and are not always built with gender equality in mind. While some applicants may not have scope to affect change in this area some will and it is worth considering. Even if you do not have the ability or capacity to make physical changes, being aware of the inequalities within the physical spaces that make up your institution will help you better understand it and mitigate against inequalities.

Physical spaces can significantly contribute to the culture of an institution because they can be distinctly physically exclusionary. Physical barriers to inclusion are often harmful but can be difficult to identify as we get used to our physical surroundings and often take them for granted.

However, many institutions, especially more historic ones may not have been built with inclusion in mind and so therefore this has simply not been designed in. Approaching your physical space through the lens of gender equality may help identify things that previously were unseen.

For example, you may want to consider if your bathroom facilities are appropriate. Does your institution provide sanitary products and disposal facilities? Are these in all bathrooms? Are there gender neutral toilets? There are also subtler examples that you might want to consider. For example, labs have often been built for the average male height. Are your labs accessible and can the space be easily used by everyone

You may also want to consider other gendered spaces. For example, do you have prayer facilities for those who worship while at the institution? Some religions require that genders are separated for prayer, has this been taken into account?

Beyond making sure that the physical space is practical for everyone we must also consider whether or not the physical space is an equally welcoming one.

For example, consider things like the marketing around a department. While it has become more common in recent years to have inclusive imagery it is worth considering if this is the case for your buildings. While this might not be a department decision it can be useful to display posters or statements indicating your commitment to gender equality.  

Identify who is responsible for the physical spaces within your institution and consider discussing with them whether they have had any gendered feedback or have picked up on any barriers themselves. For example, your institution may have an estates team or a marketing team who are responsible for taking on any complaints about the physical space. Make contact with them and make sure you are informed on if there are any recurring issues to do with gender equality.

Partnership Working

Often partnership working will occur at all levels of the institution. As we see in the guidance relating to Creating Your Gender Action Plan, partnerships can be important and sustainable ways to encourage gender equality. In some instances, this will involve bringing in partners from inside the institution itself; for example, colleagues working on student recruitment, other accreditation schemes, estates or networks. However, this can also involve external organisations. Bringing in external bodies can add value and depth to existing work and inspire and guide new changes however it is important to reflect on how your partnerships and collaborations fit into your gender equality goals. This is true of not just advisors on equality itself but industrial partners and research partners. Each one has a role to play in informing the culture and reputation of the institution.

For example, a partnership with an organisation that is known for sexism or misogyny does not align with gender equality goals. Be critical about who you are working with and remember that each collaboration contributes to how potential students, employees and external organisations see your institution.  

Partnerships can be an important tool to inform your culture positively too and can be brought in to assist in making changes that need to be made; it is worth remembering that other organisations may have a lot to teach us about how to create a culture of inclusion and equality.

Remember, cultures are complex and abstract. As such, defining them and understanding every nuance of them is very difficult. While this guidance has tried to summarise some of the ways that a culture might manifest, it cannot and will not have covered everything. Be on the lookout for things that influence your culture and engage with them actively. There might be many things that are not on this page that could be valuable and important aspects of your application.