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What has Athena SWAN Gold done for us?

17 Dec 2019 | Prof Louise Bryant The Athena SWAN awards takes place at the University of Brighton today. Louise Bryant, Professor of Psychological and Social Medicine, shares her thoughts on the impact that the gender equality charter has had on the School of Medicine at Leeds.

The news that the School of Medicine at Leeds had been awarded a ‘Gold Athena SWAN’ in October was really wonderful and a validation of all our work so far.

Holding a Gold award means that we have made sustained and significant progress towards gender equality and the School can be proud of that.

Like other medical schools we still have a significant gender pay gap and fewer women than men at Chair level in our Clinical Academic workforce. These key markers have been slower to change than we hoped, yet many, many important things have changed for the better. Initiatives carried out under the Athena SWAN banner have had a real, positive and noticeable impact on the culture of the School and the lives of our staff and students. Importantly, we have had, and continue to have, a high level of buy-in from the Senior Leadership team along with their financial support.

What has Athena SWAN done for us?

As well as celebrations and congratulatory messages, there have been discussions about what a Gold award ‘really’ means to us as a School and so it is timely to ask - “What has Athena SWAN done for us?”

Our School has invested significantly in equality training, career development bursaries for those returning from carer or maternity leave, personal development courses for women and many other targeted initiatives. Perhaps most importantly, the Athena SWAN Charter has given us a clear mandate to push for changes that will have a long-lasting positive impact on our School and beyond.  We have worked with our local NHS Trusts so that clinical academics do not lose key maternity/parental leave benefits when they move employment between their Trust and the University. This approach has now been adopted nationally. We extend fixed-term contracts for colleagues on maternity/parental leave so that they have access to redeployment opportunities if their contract is due to expire while they are on leave. This is now a Faculty wide initiative. With students, staff and other medical schools we are working to address sexism and sexual harassment in the learning and clinical environment to help drive change across the sector.

Our work has directly influenced changes at University level, including a new Code of Conduct for professional behaviour and relationships between staff and students that is being backed up by mandatory training, and a policy for supporting staff experiencing the menopause. The Charter work has given us a forum through which a large number of people, from different roles and grades, have been given not just a voice, but a structure within which to affect change.

The continued need for the Athena SWAN Charter

It would have been preferable, of course, for these changes to occur without Athena SWAN, but meaningful progress towards equality has always required policy change and legislation. Often the winning of hearts and minds has to come later, but when this does happen, progress can be significant and very rewarding. Collecting qualitative data for the Gold application enabled us to see that staff recognise the School culture has changed. There is a willingness to speak out about ‘everyday inequalities’, often hidden in process and procedures, along with a realistic expectation that something will happen as a result.

The Athena SWAN application process is labour-intensive, nevertheless, I strongly believe that the time-limited element of the award is key to the value of the Charter. We are eagerly anticipating the outcomes of the Athena SWAN review led by Professor Julia Buckingham.

Beyond the Gold award

So what now for our School? We are still celebrating but have an ambitious Gold action plan to implement in just over three years. The award has strengthened our resolve to drive the equality agenda and accelerate progress in ‘hard to reach’ areas such as creating sustainable senior level careers for female clinical academics. In addition, we have a clearer focus on the career development of staff in Professional, Managerial, Technical and Support roles. To make progress faster, we must increase the proportion of women and men willing to take the equality agenda forward. When Professor Dame Athene Donald collected a lifetime achievement award for her work on gender equality recently she highlighted that relying on equality champions was insufficient for meaningful progress. We all need to consider what we can do to improve equality in the workplace. Working towards the Gold award has been transformational for our School and many people within it. It has given us additional energy to expand our vision and challenge the status quo. Athena SWAN has, in fact, done a lot for us.


Louise Bryant is Professor of Psychological and Social Medicine at the University of Leeds. Involved with Athena SWAN since 2012, she is the Associate Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the School of Medicine at Leeds. The School has recently been awarded Athena SWAN Gold chartered status. Find out more about Athena SWAN.


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