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Topic 4: Identifying Your Priorities

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

On this page you will find a short guidance video exploring how to identify your priorities and written guidance on the following:

  • Identifying Internal Priorities
  • External Priorities
  • Finalising your Priorities

By combining the steps you have taken in collecting and analysing data, assessing your culture and reviewing your policies, you should now have a good idea of what areas might need some work. However, we recognise that some applicants will have limited capacity to address every issue identified. While we will discuss capacity later in our guidance on Implementing and Evaluating Your Action Plan, the first step to ensuring that your plans are achievable and sustainable is by identifying and focusing on your priorities.

Athena Swan applications can be submitted from all kinds of units within an institution. What is a priority for a university might not be the same as that of its faculties, departments or directorates. Take time to tailor your approach to prioritising and make sure it reflects what your goals are for your journey towards gender equality.

Your priorities should be informed by the legal expectations for gender equality that your organisation has to meet. These are predominantly laid out by the Equality Act 2010 for institutions in England, Scotland and Wales, and in Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. For more information, please see here. While the vast majority of institutions will have worked hard to ensure that the legal requirements are being met, there is always a possibility that something may have been overlooked. Familiarise yourself with the legal expectations or work alongside a qualified colleague to ensure that you are working within the law. If you are unsure who holds these qualifications and responsibilities within your institution, the HR team may be able to advise you.

Guidance video on identifying priorities for the transformed UK Athena Swan Charter

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

Identifying Internal Priorities

In some instances, priorities within your own department, directorate, or institution might be immediately obvious and therefore identifying them is very easy.

For example, HR data may show a significant drop-off of women in senior roles. This might therefore present itself as an immediate priority area.

In the above example, inequality in the staff ‘pipeline’ might be obvious with just a high-level analysis of the available HR data. This might be identified as a priority because the under-representation of women is significant, but also because diversity in staffing may have a trickle-down effect on the equalities of all areas that staff are involved in. More diverse staffing may lead to more diverse teaching and research alongside adding a broader perspective to committees or meetings. Again it is important here to consider intersectionality: while a purely gender equality-focused analysis will offer valuable insights on key challenges, it is important to consider how other aspects of identity are mutually constituting and compound gender inequality.

However, although the above example may be easy to identify, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily an easy issue to address. Actioning anything to directly impact this kind of issue may take some time and the effects may not be felt immediately. For example, it may be that staff turnover rates are low and recruitment for new staff may be very rare.

So while this example is certainly a longer-term priority, you may wish to identify additional complementary priorities for the short- and medium-term. Identifying and engaging with priorities may come down to being strategic: while it is important to identify important needs in your application it is also important to identify what realistically will make a significant amount of difference in a reasonable time frame and with the available resources.

If addressing staff imbalances is a long-term goal, as in the above example, a short-term action to address this may be to ensure that all existing staff receive up to date equalities training so they are adequately prepared for their roles on future recruitment or promotion panels. Or perhaps to ensure that gender-informed support and mentoring is offered to those who may wish to apply for any advertised roles in future.

You can find more information about actions and outcomes in the guidance on Creating Your Gender Equality Action Plan. It is worth considering whether you can identify priority areas that can address multiple outcomes or if multiple priorities can be addressed with fewer actions. Priorities also must be specific and measurable. This will help you in your ongoing monitoring and evaluation of your success.

For example, you may wish to include priorities such as:  

  • Increase the proportion of men taking up places on the nursing BSc course
  • Address reported culture of machoism within research groups
  • Reduce incidences of disrespect towards professional services staff from students
  • Improve the success rate of women in the promotion process from lecturer to senior lecturer

Notice that all of these priorities are specific and measurable. They each have specific groups that they are attached to and have identified the specific ways in which issues are manifesting.

Consider your capacity for prioritising different things. There may be significant areas of inequality that you would ideally wish to focus on but in reality lack the resources to do so in the short-term. In this instance, take some time to decide how best to approach this. Try to balance short-term, medium-term and long-term priorities.

If you become aware of a significant equalities gap that is not in your power to address, then raise it with those who do have that power or consider working with others across the sector to tackle it.

External Priorities

In some instances, there will be external initiatives that may help inform your gender equality priority areas, for example, the 30% Club, HeforShe campaign, or UN Sustainable Development Goals. Your priorities should not necessarily be determined by external organisations but their work may help you conceptualise or frame your own priorities.

Find out whether or not your organisation has signed up to any pledges or is working alongside any equality drives. Even if this is not the case there are many external organisations who have identified their own priorities and are sharing resources and expertise on these areas. If you are not sure where to start, then this can be a helpful way of identifying what other organisations are doing and in many instances they may have published guidance or reflections that you can learn from in identifying your own priority areas. While other organisations will have their own priorities and contexts it may be useful to see what actions they have put in place to address issues that are similar to your own.

For example, an Engineering faculty may greatly benefit from familiarising themselves with external initiatives that revolve around tackling gender inequality in engineering. While these might not be unique to the higher education sector they are relevant and can help inform actions.

Finalising Your Priorities

Once you have identified your priorities you will go on to work on planning how best to address them. This is covered in more detail in Creating Your Gender Equality Action Plan. However, there are a few more things that are worth considering about your priorities before you being creating your actions.

Consult with others about the priority areas you have identified. It might be that your Athena Swan application is being drafted by a team or individual. In either instance, they should not be alone in identifying priority areas. After priorities have been identified and capacity considered, consult with others in your department, directorate or institution. Ensure that these are felt to be priority areas by others and be prepared to edit or alter your approach. This will not only insure that your priorities are well-informed but will increase buy-in and support for activities from all stakeholders.

Consider whether your priorities are replicating any other ongoing work in the organisation. It may be that if something is apparent enough as a priority to you that others have picked up on it too. It can be valuable to collaborate and share resources and practices with others who are also trying to address an issue.

Consider how long this will a priority for. It may be that there are upcoming expectations that may force this priority to be put to one side. If this is the case, then be aware of this and plan accordingly. This is an important aspect to consider when building in capacity and consulting with others on priority areas.

Be realistic in the number of priorities you identify, too many could lead to failure. Your priorities aren’t the only issues you can tackle (your action plan can work to address other, lesser issues as well), but should identify what is most important for you to address in the coming years.