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All-island sharing of best practice

25 Sep 2020 | Dr Edel Hyland Dr Edel Hyland, from the Athena Swan Gold-awarded School of Biological Sciences, Queen’s University Belfast, describes their successful beaconing activity bringing together Athena Swan Champions from north and south of the border in Ireland to share best practice.

As an Athena Swan champion in a Gold-Award accredited department at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), I am accustomed to receiving emails looking for advice from other Swan champions. I whole-heartedly welcome these emails and am always enthusiastic about supporting others in their Athena Swan journey. When the Athena Swan charter was open to our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland (ROI) the number of such emails I was receiving increased. Furthermore, my diary started to become populated with site visits to different departments in the ROI for Athena Swan advice.

It was after such a visit that a colleague of mine, the Gender Equality Coordinator, Ms. Erin Davidson, suggested that we host a one-day Athena Swan workshop at QUB and invite delegates from Ireland to share best practice. I jumped at the idea, excited at the prospect of our Gold Award having broader impact on the island of Ireland.

Planning a successful beaconing event

Five aspects of our ‘all island’ event contributed to its success:

  1. We had a reasonable budget, provided by the QUB Faculty of Medicine Heath and Life Science (FMHLS) allowing delegates to register free of charge.
  2. There was an appetite among Irish Universities who were just starting their Athena SWAN journey.
  3. We had enlisted a team from Ulster University to moderate the round-table discussion using their eParticipation system called “Engage” 1. This interactive technology captured the details of the discussions in real time generating a comprehensive document for all in attendance to take with them, alleviating the onus on participants to take notes.
  4. We had the world’s most professional organiser overseeing the event, Ms Erin Davidson!
  5. We were extremely fortunate to have the event opened by my long-standing scientific heroine and Belfast-native, Dame Prof. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, one of the founding members of the Athena SWAN charter.

On August 23rd 2019, 47 delegates arrived from a total of 10 academic institutes to sunny Belfast to discuss gender inequalities and Athena Swan. Dame Prof Bell-Burnell’s opening started the event and was attended by upwards of 200 people in the impressive Great Hall on the QUB campus. She spoke of the overt sexual discrimination she experienced as a female scientist in a male dominated field of Astronomy, and the ingenious inception of the Athena Swan charter by her and five of her contemporaries, who wanted to ask all Vice-Chancellors, “How women-friendly is your University?”

As she said herself, “Vice-Chancellors are all guys…if we create a prize, they will compete for it!”

Her speech felt conversational yet inspirational, crystallising the need for Athena Swan better than anyone else I have ever heard speak on the topic.

After the opening speech, the 47 delegates retreated to a smaller room for the round-table discussions. To focus our attention, 5 topics were chosen in advance, which we considered pertinent to obtaining Athena Swan impact.

  1. Supporting female academic promotion.
  2. Ensuring top-level ‘buy-in’ to the Athena Swan agenda.
  3. Instigating cultural change.
  4. Engaging men with Athena Swan.
  5. Swan Data analysis led by the FMHLS data analyst Ms. Carolyn Fitzmaurice.

Changing culture: Our contribution to round-table 3

I have focused a lot of my attention on cultural change, as I feel this will have the longest-standing impact of the Athena Swan process. As such, I used the ‘instigating culture change’ round table to share how we at the School of Biological Sciences hope to achieve a fair and positive working environment through the following practices:

  1. Athena Swan, and more broadly equality, is given prominence within the School. Practically this means for example, that our Gold Athena Swan award is celebrated, Athena Swan/equality is a standing item on the agenda of management board as well as school board meetings, and recognition is given to those who contribute to Athena Swan/equality issues during promotion and staff evaluation. The aim is that the importance and respect awarded to Athena Swan/equality issues instils confidence in colleagues to call out bad practice, safe in the knowledge that any issues arising will be dealt with. Additionally, Athena Swan champions are given the opportunity to present data at School away days, which increases awareness of inequality issues we deal with, and as one colleague commented made him “keen to address gender (and other) inequalities in the workplace as a result”.
  2. An appreciation that many of the Athena Swan actions will benefit everyone, not just women. Initiatives such as increased transparency during staff hiring and promotion, more accurate performance evaluation, fairer work allocation, and acknowledgement of unconscious bias improve a working environment for all. As Swan champion, I actively sought to engage with men within the school to get them on board with our mission. One key aspect that impacts everyone is a healthy work-life balance, and promoting this for men, as well as facilitating it for women have been key priorities for our SAT team.

Positive feedback

Our all island event ended with a reception for the delegates, providing an opportunity to further discuss the points raised. People were very much engaged and the atmosphere was a supportive one with people openly sharing ideas and strategies. The official feedback we received was very positive (Figure 1) and the fact that 75% of the delegates felt our discussions would impact their own Swan action plan was a very satisfying result. 

Beaconing activities are an essential component of all Swan Gold applications.  Is it reasonable to think that Swan initiatives are transferable between departments and Universities, especially with regard cultural changes?


Our new, evidence-based Good Practice Database is for those working to advance gender and race equality in higher education through Athena Swan and the Race Equality Charter (REC). The database aims to celebrate the breadth of gender and race equality initiatives taking place across the higher education sector and to provide Advance HE members with practical ideas and encourage them to trial new initiatives adapted to their contexts. 

Dr. Edel Hyland is a former Swan Champion of the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast and was the main lead in their successful application for Gold Athena Swan accreditation in 2019. Dr. Hyland has currently stepped down from this role to refocus on her biomedical research.


Cleland, B, Mulvenna, M, Wallace, J, Galbraith, B & Martin, S, engage, 2012, Software.



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