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Advance HE responds to the NIHR's announcement on funding criteria, including Athena Swan

10 Sep 2020 | Advance HE Advance HE has responded to the National Institute for Health Research's (NIHR) announcement that while it will no longer be compulsory for funding applicants and research partners to hold a Silver Award of the Athena Swan Charter, they will still need to demonstrate their commitment to EDI.

Advance HE welcomes the NIHR’s unequivocal commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) highlighted in its plans to review all its eligibility criteria for funding streams in order to reduce bureaucracy.

Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE said, “I am very pleased to see NIHR has made its commitment to fair and equal representation so clear. After nine years of positive change through the Athena Swan Charter, we believe that a well-evidenced commitment to EDI is now a more enduring and credible approach than compliance. What’s clear is that the Athena Swan Charter remains an unrivalled evidence base for NIHR applicants and others to demonstrate that commitment.

“The recent review of the Charter, and the resultant ongoing work co-created with the higher education and research sectors to streamline and improve the Athena Swan processes, will keep it fit for purpose now and into the future.

“The Charter has made a really significant difference for women’s careers. Research shows that 93% of Champions believe that the Charter has had a positive impact on gender issues in their university, department or research institute. We look forward to working with NIHR applicants through Athena Swan and we commend their ongoing commitment to EDI.”

In 2011, there were approximately 10 departments in medical- and health-related disciplines which held Athena Swan awards – with no medical school holding awards. Today, there are over 145 medical and health-related departments with awards. Of these, more than 60 are held by medical schools – including one ‘Gold’ award.

Professor Mark Kearney, Dean of Medicine, University of Leeds, describing the Schools’ Gold Award said, “What does Athena Swan Gold mean to our Medical School? The iconic Athena Swan Gold represents something special to all of us, from 1st year student to our most senior staff. In Leeds it became something every single member of the School wanted and worked together to achieve, now it’s a glue that binds us together. In our Medical School the Athena Swan Gold award has become a touchstone, a standard by which we judge ourselves across all areas of equality, diversity and inclusivity. We are all really proud to hold the award.”

Medical Schools Council’s Chief Executive, Dr Katie Petty-Saphon, said, “The requirement that medical schools applying for NIHR funding must hold an Athena Swan Silver award led to a meaningful commitment from medical schools to improve gender equality within their institutions. Nine years on it is appropriate to consider gender equality alongside other forms of equality as medical schools seek to create truly inclusive environments. Medical schools welcome the NIHR’s commitment to fair and equal representation and will work to ensure that the improvements of the last decade are built upon for the benefit of all.”

The impact and success of Athena Swan in the UK has led to the development of charters in Ireland, Australia, USA and Canada. Athena Swan participants are now part of a global community of practice enhancing equality, diversity and inclusivity.

The Charter has broadened to recognise work undertaken to address gender equality more broadly, and not just barriers to progression that affect women. There are currently 164 Athena Swan members, holding 815 awards between them.

In 2019, Advance HE conducted and independent impact evaluation of Athena Swan. The evaluation found:

  • “…the Charter is seen as a tool that unlocks open communication, honest discussion, real scrutiny of practices and commitment to a common purpose, and there is strong evidence that the Charter processes and methodologies have supported cultural and behavioural change – not just around gender equality, but equality and diversity in all its forms. (2019 impact evaluation)
  • There is evidence that submitting departments see an improved gender balance in promotions to senior lecturer/reader and associate professor, and an increase in the proportion of women shortlisted and appointed during recruitment. (2019 impact evaluation)

Feedback to the study authors included:

  • “The issue of gender equality and indeed equality and diversity more generally has been mainstreamed through the process of delivering Athena SWAN. There has been an enormous amount of progress in a very short space of time. Without it the department would very much be in a different place. It would probably continue to be managed in a more closed way by a small number of senior men.” (Head of Department, Female)
  • “I would describe Athena SWAN as a tool for achieving a bigger strategic objective. We have gathered evidence that shows that gender equality has been accelerated over the period that we have had our award. It has allowed us to identify gaps and challenges that we can then target with policies and initiatives. There are of course challenges that remain but we have found that through delivering Athena SWAN we have introduced a range of ‘bias interrupters’ all the way through the department.” (SAT Member, Academic Staff, Male)
  • We don’t see this as a paper exercise; we see it as a process through which we can deliver real cultural and behavioural change: ensuring the attitudes and behaviours that support equality and diversity are embedded within our school and everything we do is an essential part of achieving this cultural change.” (Head of Department, Male)
  • “It is quite clear that the cultural change we have experienced in our department has been very largely driven by Athena SWAN.” (Former Athena SWAN ‘Champion’, Female)

Find out more about the Athena Swan Charter.


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