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Topic 3: Reviewing Your Policies

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

On this page you will find a short video discussing the process for evaluating institutional policies and written guidance on the following:

  • Identifying the policies that are already in place
  • Evaluating policies
  • Creating new policies

In addition to assessing your culture it is important to explore current practice and existing guidance. These are often created more consciously than culture. It is important to remember that the policies in place represent active decisions that have been made over time.

While policies become quickly absorbed into our everyday practices and often simply exist in the background for most, they are very important for change. Not just because they represent active decisions but also because they are powerful statements in themselves. As policies are recognised as an important and significant part of institutional bureaucracy they can be powerful tools in the move towards greater gender equality.

Guidance video on evaluating your policies for the transformed UK Athena Swan Charter

In this video, Ellie Highwood, Advance HE Charters Associate supports members who are preparing an application under the new Charter framework by discussing the process for evaluating institutional policies.

Identify what policies are already in place

For real change to be made often policies may need to be modified or implemented more effectively and getting familiar with the ones that are in place will help inform your Athena Swan application and identify your steps of change.

Locating policies can be complex depending on how your individual institution manages the storage and access of their policy documents and procedure notes. Remember that not every policy that is relevant to gender equality will necessarily be framed as an “equality” policy.

For example, “Academic Advancement” policies may be highly relevant but could be overlooked if you are just trying to source “equalities” policies.

Some institutions will have policies displayed on their website and these might be easy to find and all be in one place. Others will have some policy access restricted to staff and accessible through intranets. In other instances, policy copies may need to be requested through other channels such as HR or committees.

The majority of institutions have their equalities policies displayed on websites. These are normally made easy to find for prospective students. A quick internet search can often provide policy documents that may take longer to access internally. If you find this is the case, consider feeding back to the team responsible for policies (often the HR team) as improving access to policies may be a key step to their better understanding and implementation.

Evaluating Policies

Once you have accessed relevant policies you can begin to identify what is already in place and what is missing. There may be obvious omissions or it may be that you need to delve a little deeper into what is covered by policies.

Make sure you are giving yourself enough time to review policies. This can be very time consuming and depending on your role it may be a task that you haven’t taken on before. Ideally policies should be clear and concise but this isn’t always the case.

Some policies may have existing training or support documents that go alongside them. These can help make elements of the policies clearer and may offer the opportunity to formulate and ask any questions that you have. This also might help indicate who it may be worth consulting with. Those who have developed the training materials will be well placed to offer insights into the policies. 

When reviewing existing policies it is worth taking note of when the policies were put in place. While some more historic policies may well still be functional it is possible that they may need to be updated. As society has changed its approach to gender equality and the laws around it have been updated we have seen a shift in how we need to approach gender in policies. While older policies may cover the legal or practical basics it is worth taking a forward looking approach to them and asking yourself a number of questions:

  • Do the policies in place go far enough to ensure sustained equalities?
  • Is the language used still appropriate and up to date?
  • Is this policy based on any outdated assumptions?
  • Has the population of the institution/department/directorate changed in a way that necessitates an update?
  • Who does this policy cover and does it need to be extended?
  • Does the policy have the potential to impact negatively on a particular gender identity?
  • How might the policy be adjusted to mitigate and intended or unintended negative impacts?

For example, the population and demographics of teaching staff in many institutions has changed over the years as lecturing and researching contracts have evolved alongside the associated landscapes. It might be that existing policies no longer provide coverage or recognition in a way that covers all teaching staff the same. For example, since the policy was put in place it may be that more post-graduates are teaching or that there has been a rise in casual teaching contracts. Do existing policies cover these?

We understand that not every applicant will be in a place to edit or advise on existing policies. We are not necessarily suggesting that all applicants build in actions that include revising existing policies. However, familiarising yourself with existing policies and being critical about what these policies are missing is important for informing yourself on what is already in place and understanding how actions and changes might look.

For example, a policy audit may result in actions for governance committees and may draw their attention to inequalities. This in turn may influence committees to assess other areas of inequality.

Creating New Policies

Once you have reviewed the existing policies available it might be that there needs to be new policies put in place. Again this will not be the case for every application, we understand that some applicants have neither the authority nor the capacity for this kind of action. However, for some applications this may form a significant part of the actions and outcomes.

Broadly we can split the designing of new policies into five sections.

    Guidance graphic
    1. Rationale

    The approach to policies and the justification for them shapes everything about the policy. Your rationale for a policy change in this instance is like to be increased gender equality. Intending to create a policy which addresses this and finding new ways to build this into the practice of your organisation is an important step in making positive change. Not every policy will be primarily focused on gender equality but it can still have an important impact on gender equality. Keep gender equality in mind when reviewing policies and establishing an understanding of rationale.

    Throughout the policy process the rationale of your policy should be at the front of your mind. Remembering that you are designing something that is intended to address gender equality is important even if the policy may end up touching on other things.

    1. Design

    Once you have fully realised the rationale for your policy, you can begin to design it. Think realistically about your policy but also be aspirational and forward thinking about what you hope it will achieve.

    Policies will naturally have to work within the parameters of your own limitations and that of your institution, department or directorate. Remember that designing a policy can be labour intensive and may require several redrafts.

    The first step in designing a new policy is consulting with stakeholders. Stakeholders may include those who may need to use the policy as well as those who may be involved in its implementation and management. This should ensure that everyone understands the need for the new policy and ensure that the policy is realistic and relevant.

    Be aware of what the review practices are in your institution for new policies. You will likely need to show the policy to either an individual or a group in order for it to be approved.

    Be clear who the intended target of a policy is. Consider who it needs to cover and how broadly it needs to do so. Some policies may state that they cover “staff” but really don’t mean all staff. There may be separate policies that engage specifically with academic staff for example, but often in institutional policies “staff” might be used in a way that implies the exclusion of professional, technical or operational staff. Some policies may also specifically exclude students or particular groups of students. 

    Be aware of what you want the policy to cover and how you want it to be framed. Institutions may have draft policies or templates that you may wish to work from. While draft policies or templates may be helpful it is important to still tailor your policy to the group that you are aiming it at. Use language that is accessible to them and fits within existing practice.

    Looking at templates alongside existing policies can help you structure your policy and decide how you want to present it.

    Keep policies accessible using clear language. Make sure you are keeping them as concise as possible but include enough detail that they are understandable and clear. If changes or expectations for practice are included these need to be specific.

    For example, “teaching staff must keep records of their work hours” does not explain how this should be done whereas “teaching staff must record classroom hours in their work plans on each module’s admin page” is much clearer. 

    1. Implementation, dissemination and engagement

    Once you have designed your policy you can implement it. Different institutions will have different review and activation processes for policies. It is best to check with your own institution about how they prefer for this to happen.

    Be aware of who needs to be involved and who needs to be notified of new policy changes. Be open and communicative about the new policy and make sure the right channels are utilised to advertise the changes.

    For example, you may have a central information board (either physical or digital) that the new policy can be advertised on. You may also have a newsletter or an employee assembly where the information can be passed to staff. It is worth considering though whether all stakeholders will have access to these or whether a more layered approach may be needed.

    You may need to conduct engagement activities following the finalising of the policy. This is to ensure that all stakeholders are aware of any changes and have the opportunity to ask questions. Additionally, a new policy may necessitate some more training. New procedure sometimes need to be communicated and contextualised in particular ways and running an in-person or online session can make sure that this is done in a succinct way.

    Consider recording your training and making it available to staff. This will allow people to refresh their memories of the training and ensure that any new staff that come in have access to it in future. Consider also using champions as an example of implementation and facilitating engagement.

    Some policies will take time to implement and changes may happen slowly. Be patient with this but stay aware of ongoing uptake and developments.

    1. Results

    Hopefully if all the above steps have been successful the policy will result in tangible change.

    It may be that evidencing this change requires more consultation with stakeholders or some data collection. We discuss how to go about data collection and analysis please see here.

    1. Regular Review

    Review policies regularly especially if external changes occur. Note the results of the reviews and any changes that are made. Version control is important here: make sure that an audit trail is created for the revision and update of versions of your policy.

    Ideally you should be monitoring the uptake and impact of the policy. This will allow you to test its effectiveness and identify if it needs to be edited in order to be more successful. We discuss how to monitor and evidence success more in our guidance on Evidencing Your Success in Gender Equality.