Why develop a SMART action plan?
As part of your Athena Swan application, you will produce a Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound (SMART) action plan to address your key priorities. In addition to enabling you to meet the Athena Swan criteria, a SMART action plan will:
- enable you to progress your gender equality work and provide focus for your activities
- be developed by you to meet the needs of your institution or department
- help to ensure that resources (including people’s time and effort) are directed to actions that will make a difference
- encourage accountability and transparency by identifying who is responsible for actions
- enable you to effectively evaluate your progress and evidence success in addressing gender inequality by setting out clear milestones and success measures
Linking actions to your identified priorities
Your action plan will help you address your gender equality priorities. It is helpful to structure your action plan around your key priority areas so that all actions which will address a particular priority are grouped together. This will enable you to evaluate the overall success of the actions in addressing the priority.
Developing your actions
When coming up with possible actions and initiatives to address your priority areas, it may be useful to:
- Generate ideas with a diverse group (such as your self-assessment team, student representatives or staff networks) to ensure a variety of perspectives on the problem
- Analyse the root causes of the problem to help identify possible solutions
- Find examples of how others have effectively addressed similar challenges – for example through Advance HE Connect or Charters Good Practice Initiatives
- Consider other projects and initiatives taking place in your organisation to consider how you can learn from or mutually benefit each other
- Collaborate with those who will be responsible for implementing actions to ensure operational realities are considered
- Take account of what resources are available to deliver the action plan and what expertise might be needed to ensure success.
What is a SMART action plan?
A SMART action plan is one in which actions are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound:
Specific – be specific about what you will do (and who will do it and by when). Avoid including large aims or general ideas. If a new SAT were to be appointed, it would be helpful for SAT members to be able to pick up the action plan and understand exactly what is required of them.
Measurable – describe how the success of the action will be measured. How will you evaluate the effect of the action on gender equality (e.g., a change in culture, gender profile, or other defined outcome to progress gender equality) rather than just action completion? Where possible, it might be helpful to include baseline data and use this to develop achievable, quantifiable targets against which success can be measured.
Achievable – ensure actions and success measures are possible to deliver within your five-year award period. Consider resources needed, time constraints and what your scope of influence is. In order to ensure ambitious change is achievable through your action plan, you will want to ensure the action plan has buy-in from organisational leadership.
Relevant – will your action make a meaningful difference to your gender equality priority? It’s useful to explain the rationale for your action and detail how the action emerges from your data analysis and self-assessment.
Time-bound – include timeframes for your actions. The timeframe for the action should give a clear picture of when the action will be implemented and reviewed. The action plan should span the five-year award period. For larger actions, it might be helpful to identify sub-actions or key milestones and timescales for the review of these milestones.
Features of a good action plan
The action plan is an area of the application which review panels often identify as requiring improvement. Panels frequently identify the following as features of a good, SMART action plan:
1. The action plan is structured around and addresses the applicant’s identified key priorities.
2. Actions are demonstrably relevant to the identified gender equality priorities, and where gender disparities have been identified, actions include targets or success measures which enable the applicant to evaluate the action's effect on gender equality.
3. There is a rationale for each action, which makes it clear why the action is being undertaken and helps to ensure stakeholder buy-in.
4. While ongoing self-assessment and data collection actions are likely to be necessary throughout the award period, the action plan balances these actions with proactive intervention which will effect change.
5. Strong action plans often include baseline data which informs the identification of appropriate targets.
6. Actions contain effective success measures and quantifiable or measurable targets – this is explored further below.
7. The action plan includes ongoing and planned actions which cover the full five-year award period.
8. If an action is ‘ongoing’ or is to become part of ‘business as usual’, for example, to be completed annually, the action plan identifies milestones and specified timescales for review and measurement of success.
9. The action plan is clearly linked to the self-assessment narrative, but it also makes sense as a standalone document. This enables applicants to publish their action plan in order to engage staff and students, raise awareness of their gender equality work and promote transparency.
In some instances, you may choose to use positive action measures in your action plan. Positive action is a provision within UK law that enables employers and most education providers to meet a group’s particular needs, lessen a disadvantage they might experience or increase their participation in a particular activity. Where actions make use of positive action measures, your SAT will need to assure itself that these are within the law – the Equality and Human Rights Commission provide further guidance for those working in England, Scotland and Wales and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland provide further guidance for those working in Northern Ireland.
Developing effective success measures
Your action plan needs to contain success measures that will enable you to evaluate whether the actions you have taken have made a difference to your gender equality priorities.
A common pitfall when designing success measures is to include measures that will only indicate whether your action has been completed (i.e., actions that focus on outputs, e.g., report written, handbook updated, focus group organised, policy developed, appraisal template created) or whether it has received engagement. However, it is important for your SAT to be able to evaluate whether the action has made a difference to the key gender equality issue that you are trying to address, e.g., a change in culture, an improvement in perception or experience, or the representation of a particular group.
A SAT has identified a priority to ensure that staff with caring responsibilities feel the department is a supportive environment, and one of the supporting actions is to establish a parents and carers' network, directly responding to feedback that those with caring responsibilities feel isolated.
There are a number of indicators that may be useful to the SAT in evaluating this action, for example:
Was the network established?
How many people joined the network?
How many meetings or events has it had?
These measures are all useful to test progress and engagement with the network, but none of them will tell the SAT whether the network has helped to address their priority. To do this, the SAT would need to design a success measure that focuses on their priority, which could include considering at baseline staff survey data in relation to feeling supported and looking for changes in staff perceptions about feeling that the department is supportive of staff with caring responsibilities.
When developing your success measures, it might be helpful to consider baseline data, in order to develop realistic and quantifiable targets, where possible. This is not a requirement, but understanding your baseline position and developing specific, quantifiable targets will enable you to more easily evaluate progress and evidence success in addressing gender equality issues.
Following analysis of their culture survey results, a SAT has identified the need to improve the levels of satisfaction among female staff with how bullying and harassment are dealt with in the department. They identify the following success measure:
‘Increase in female staff satisfaction with how bullying and harassment are addressed.’
Whilst this is a measurable indicator of success, it is not particularly specific. A better success measure might be:
‘Increase in the percentage of female staff satisfied with the way bullying and harassment are addressed in the department, from 47% in 2023 to 90% in 2027 (with an interim target of 80% in 2025), as measured by Culture Survey question 4’.
This explains what the starting point is, the target the applicant is aiming for, how it will be measured and the timescale in which this will be achieved. It also includes a milestone which will enable the SAT to monitor progress and adjust their actions if they are not having the desired effect.
It is also recommended that you avoid including abstract goals and consider how your success indicators will be measured. It is common for action plans to include success measures such as ‘commitment’, ‘engagement’ or ‘awareness’, which are not always easy to measure or quantify. If you are identifying such success measures, it is helpful to articulate how they will be measured.
Templates and good practice examples
There is no requirement for you to adopt a particular template for your Athena Swan action plan, however, a template which will support the development of a SMART action plan is available here, should you wish to use it.
The Equality Charters Team is in the process of identifying some examples of strong action plans and obtaining applicants’ permission to publish these. Examples will be published here in due course.