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Topic 3: Evaluating Your Policies

On this page, you will find guidance on evaluating your policies for the transformed UK Athena Swan Charter.

Why evaluate policies?  

Policies set intentions in a formal way and can be a powerful tool for shaping norms on what practices and behaviours are expected of members of an institution, as well as what benefits and support they can expect. They can be an important instrument for shaping institutional practice and cultures towards greater inclusion.  

For example, Shared Parental Leave (SPL) recognises both parents as primary carer and therefore policies in this area can help to shift gendered norms around the division of care responsibilities in families. This has the potential to advance gender equality through levelling the playing field in terms of career breaks and – ultimately – the impact of those career breaks on progression.  

By formalising principles and codifying practices or behaviours, policies also provide channels of recourse for individuals to challenge decisions or the actions of others. When individuals are disciplined for breaching policies, for example, in relation to bullying and harassment, this can send a powerful signal that can impact on behavioural norms.  

For Athena Swan guidance, ‘gender equality’ is an umbrella term and covers the legal protections relating to sex, gender reassignment and pregnancy and maternity, as well as broader equality work relating to gender identity, trans inclusion and caring responsibilities.

The Athena Swan Charter encourages applicants to consider how policies can provide an inclusive working and learning environment for staff and students. Athena Swan Charter applicants are asked to evaluate their policies from a gender equality perspective as part of their self-assessment, alongside their data analysis and evaluation of culture, to support the identification of priority areas for intervention. 

Your evaluation can help identify where a policy might be leading to differential outcomes or where a new policy might be needed to address gender equality issues. Your policy evaluation will also identify where existing policy is not being effectively communicated or implemented. 

Which policies to evaluate? 

Any policy has the potential to impact differently on diverse groups and could lead to indirect discrimination or exclusion if equality considerations are not considered.  

In considering which policies to evaluate, it is important to consider both explicit equalities policies (such as Equality & Diversity, Equal Pay, Trans and Non-Binary Inclusion policies) and to apply a gender equality lens, or ‘mainstream’ gender equality across all policies.  

The table below gives examples of wider policy areas and related gender equality issues to consider.  

Policy area Relevant policies Gender equality issues to consider
Career development Learning and development Appraisal Promotion Is there equal take up of appraisal? Are men and women staff equally satisfied with appraisal; is there equal take up of learning and development opportunities? Do promotion policies take account of fractional contracts and extended leave?
Managing career breaks and caring responsibilities Parental leave Working hours/flexible working What support is offered for those wishing to take up shared parental leave? What support is offered to those returning from maternity/ parental leave to mitigate against negative career impacts? How do policies around working hours take account of staff with caring responsibilities?
Staff health and wellbeing Absence policy Time off for medical appointments Does the application of absence policies consider the specific needs of trans staff? Are staff affected by menopause enabled to take sick leave to manage their symptoms?
Culture Bullying and harassment Reward and recognition Are staff of all gender identities, as well as intersectional identities, equally confident in reporting bullying and harassment? Do reward and recognition policies, or bonus schemes, disproportionately reward activities where men predominate?

Factors to consider when deciding which policies to evaluate are: 

  • Your self-assessment data might indicate that current policy and practice are not delivering gender-equal outcomes. For example, promotions uptake and outcomes data may indicate that these policies are benefitting men more than women, indicating a need to review promotions criteria or how policies are communicated. 

  • Regular consultation with staff and student groups, or feedback from HR (Human Resources) staff, might indicate policy areas to focus on. For example, departmental HR officers may be receiving lots of questions about how to support staff undergoing menopause, indicating a need for guidance in this area.  

  • External drivers, for example, revised sector regulation or professional body guidance, or emerging practice in the sector might necessitate a review of policies. For example, the global pandemic brought into focus policies on furlough, on ‘No Detriment,’ Exceptional Circumstances, home-based and Hybrid Working including the importance of considering their gendered impacts. 

  • There may be new institutional policies or strategies which might prompt a policy evaluation. For example, a new Institutional Strategy for Learning and Teaching, might prompt an evaluation of Learning & Teaching-relating policies (e.g., on postgraduates who teach), requiring consideration of potential gender equality impacts.

Some universities operate policy review schedules to ensure that every policy undergoes a review at least every 3/5 years and it is helpful if self-assessment teams (SATs) are aware of these. For policy areas that are likely to be significant for gender equality, the scheduled review date might be an opportunity to revise and update policies.  

Who should evaluate policies?  

Most formal policies are set at institutional level and reflect HEIs (Higher Education Institutions) legal or sector regulatory requirements, or sector wide agreements. For example, policies relating to health and safety, sick pay, leave, equal pay, maternity and shared parental leave or flexible working. Thus, for Athena Swan purposes, policy evaluation is most likely to be focused at institutional level. 

Typically, HEIs will have an overarching policy or strategy, and related governance framework, which sets out their commitment to and responsibilities for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). Institutional EDI Committees supported by central EDI staff usually have responsibility for developing and regularly reviewing equality policy in response to legal changes, or for overseeing new areas of equality policy, and associated processes of consultation.  

Policy evaluation is best led by the policy owners, the people most actively involved with the development of the specific policy or process, drawing on wider inputs to inform their review. For example, policies related to recruitment, appraisal and promotion, reward and recognition, equal pay, flexible working, and family friendly workplace policies will be most appropriately evaluated by the relevant HR staff.  

It is important that in evaluating policies, appropriate staff or student networks are consulted, and that specialist EDI staff – where available - provide input. For policy initiatives with broad based or cross institutional ownership, it may be useful to set up working groups to engage all relevant stakeholders in the process.  

Depending on the size of your institution and how devolved decision-making is, there may also be policies and procedures set at the faculty or departmental level - for example, related to staff recruitment, promotion, or progression in specific disciplines such as medical sciences, or to the timetabling of lectures and seminars, or arrangements for student placements – that can also have equality implications and may need to be evaluated, drawing on relevant data and feedback.  

Even where departments do not define policies, it is important to monitor and feedback on policy implementation. Self-assessment may identify a need to improve awareness of institutional policies among staff and students or for greater support to local implementors (e.g., line managers or those with student facing roles).

Monitoring the impacts of policy set elsewhere on staff and students in your faculty or department and providing feedback to the policy owners is an important departmental role. Ongoing monitoring of key policies is best coordinated institutionally to avoid central teams receiving multiple feedback at separate times. Feedback may be gathered and shared in diverse ways, depending on the sensitivity of the issue or degree of anonymity required, such as through staff engagement or culture surveys, via regular departmental meetings or town halls, or via local HR staff or business partners.  

How to evaluate policies from a gender equality perspective?

Once you have decided which policies to focus on, you will then need to evaluate them.  

There is no single method for evaluating policy from a gender equality perspective. One approach is to use Equality Impact Assessment which your institution may already be undertaking, to inform your Athena Swan self-assessment (see Box).  

Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) is a recognised tool to help colleges and universities ensure that their policies, practices and decisions are fair, meet the needs of their staff and students and that they are not inadvertently discriminating against any protected group.

EIA is not a legal requirement in the UK but are commonly used by some institutions, as an established tool for demonstrating due regard to the public sector equality duty (PSED). In Wales, institutions must assess the impact and publish reports where substantial impact is detected. It is a legal requirement in Scotland and Northern Ireland to carry out EIA and make the results accessible.

EIA can help determine the extent of any differential impact of policies, procedures, or practices upon diverse groups, and what can be done to mitigate or remove negative impacts or enhance positive impacts. EIA should be carried out early in the development (or review) of a policy or procedures, not after implementation. There is no standardized way of carrying out an EIA, however, your university may well have established processes and tools for doing EIA. Guidance may be available to support you, from your central EDI and/or legal team. EIA would normally consider equality impacts across all equalities, not only gender.

For detailed guidance on EIAs in different contexts see the Resources and Links section below.

Whether or not you are using EIA in evaluating your policies, for Athena Swan purposes, it is useful to consider gender equality issues across all stages of the policy development and review cycle, i.e., in policy design, in implementation and to monitor how policy affects gender equality outcomes (see diagram below).  

Athena Swan-Policy affects gender equality outcomes

Which of these stages you focus on in your evaluation will depend on whether you are developing new, or evaluating existing policy, what stage of the policy cycle you are in and whether you are a policy owner or implementor.  

It is good practice also to consider intersectional inequalities as part of policy evaluation. Involving your SAT and other stakeholders as relevant in the analysis of policies will help you to incorporate diverse viewpoints and experiences. It is important to document your analysis and to show how it was used to inform any decisions or actions.  

Making changes: supporting effective implementation, revising and developing new policies 

Your evaluation of policies may indicate a gap in awareness or uptake of institutional policies or inconsistency in how existing policy is being applied. In such a case, you might consider actions such as training or guidance to support local managers to effectively implement policies. For example, where data indicates that there is a significant gap between experience and reporting of bullying and harassment, by certain groups in your department, you may wish to consider how complaints are managed locally and whether further training is needed.  

As a result of your policy evaluation, you may also identify a policy gap or a need for changes to existing policy to promote gender equality and inclusion. For example, you may have identified that line managers and HR in your department require clearer guidance on how to manage staff experiencing menopause to ensure that they are being appropriately supported and that their career progression is not impacted negatively. As part of your action plan, you may then decide to gather information to feedback to faculty or central HR, or wellbeing teams, as appropriate, to support the development of new policy or guidance. 

 Your policy evaluation may identify need for faculty or department specific policy or guidance, to mitigate against negative gender equality impacts. For example, health and safety guidance on working during pregnancy in a lab-based environment; or safeguarding guidance for departments where research is often field based.  

When developing new, adapting, or revising existing policies, it is important to work within existing institutional frameworks and systems to ensure policy coherence. Seeking advice from your central EDI team can help ensure that local policies are aligned and informed by sector good practice, especially in new policy areas where the evidence base may be limited. 

The rationale for any policy needs to be clearly evidenced and the purpose, and scope of the policy and who it covers clearly defined. Many institutions have existing formats or templates for policies which you can adapt. Consultation with relevant stakeholders, including ideally opportunities for anonymous input or feedback, is critical from the initial stages of policy design. You will need to allow adequate time for this as well as for taking new policies through the required approval process and considering any resourcing implications.  

You should also monitor the equality impact of any new or revised policy in your own context, and feedback to the wider institution.  

Communicating and implementing policies  

The effectiveness of policy as a tool for change depends on how well it is communicated to key users and groups affected. It is helpful to publish policies in a well-used online location (e.g. your institution or department may have an HR policies webpage), however, to reach diverse groups, a layered and proactive approach is likely to be needed. For example, sharing information through staff or student networks, regular newsletters, departmental meetings, or line managers highlighting policy requirements in their reports. 

Providing information on policies in accessible formats is essential. If you have carried out an EIA of your policy, it is helpful (and may be required – see Box above) that this is also made accessible so that users can see how equalities were considered. 

Finally, no policy will be effective without considering support for its implementation. If you are launching a new policy or updating existing policies, consider what additional guidance, briefings or training will be needed by those who are directly involved in putting the policy into practice. Support may be needed for example, to line managers, staff involved in student admissions, examinations or assessment, staff involved in recruitment, or committee chairs, depending on the policy area. 

Resources and links  

Example extracts from section 1.4 (‘Development, evaluation, and effectiveness of policies’) of Transformed Athena Swan Charter applications. 

Read the Extracts from Section 1.4

Equality Impact Assessment  



Northern Ireland