What does it take to achieve a successful Athena Swan submission in challenging circumstances? Creating a submission that is honest about the issues that hinder gender equality at a local level, and ambitious enough to tackle these issues is a challenge. Having contributed to three successful Athena Swan submissions before embarking on this one with the School of Applied Social Sciences here at De Montfort University, I was well aware of the complexity and graft involved in the task ahead. However, embarking on such a project whilst a global pandemic turns everyone’s personal and working lives upside down was another thing altogether.
Reflecting on this experience has proved invaluable, particularly given that the increased flexible, hybrid and remote working is going nowhere fast. This reflection led me to identify three key ingredients that went into this successful submission: firstly, making it a collective effort of the whole school/department, beyond the immediate Athena Swan self-assessment team; secondly, recognising that there is strength and experience found in diversity, and assembling the self-assessment team accordingly; thirdly, making the appraisal an honest one to ensure meaningful change. Whilst these reflections and recommendations emerged from working through the pandemic, their application is equally applicable in the post-pandemic landscape.
Maintaining a collective effort
A principal aim from the beginning of our self-assessment journey was to involve the whole School in discussions around our data and creating actions. The pandemic however made this a real challenge; workshops, meet-ups, corridor chats and serendipitous encounters that can lead to insightful discussion were out the window and so ensuring our analysis was collectively informed required both creativity and sensitivity. Grasping the capabilities of technology and organising Athena Swan themed webinars open to all School staff proved successful, and these were well attended. Here we had a platform to share our findings with and gather ideas from School staff beyond the self-assessment team. We also found that the digitisation of engaging staff (eg through digital chat functions and anonymised digital feedback forms) empowered those less likely to engage in a traditional meeting or workshop to participate more confidently, and for these reasons we will continue using this approach. Despite the physical restrictions resulting from the pandemic, this approach enabled us to promote the Charters aims and produce actions with input from the wider School, beyond the Athena Swan team.
Strength in diversity
The Athena Swan framework recommends assembling a diverse self-assessment team for good reason; the positive effects of diversity on group performance are well evidenced (see references 1, 2). Placing the burden of a submission on the shoulders of just one or two people will not result in a quality, well-informed submission that is genuinely progressive. A parochial self-assessment lacks the necessary breadth of skills and fails to capture the experiences that a diverse team brings to the project. Assembling a diverse and dedicated team and ensuring the workload does not fall just on women might sound obvious but can so often be forgotten. Our self-assessment team was also enriched by diversity regarding staff seniority and included staff on temporary contracts (a difficult mission for such staff to dedicate time to). Hearing the insights, concerns and priorities from such a diverse group of staff was critical. Gender equality concerns us all, and making progress requires the experience and skills of those from all backgrounds, roles and levels within an organisation.
Find out what your team members have a talent for and encourage them to put this into practice. Some may enjoy crafting words and can develop a narrative with ease, whilst others may have a penchant for crunching the numbers – as much as possible, work to divvy out the tasks of a submission based on the strengths and passions of the team. Crucially, here at De Montfort University staff participation in EDI initiatives, such as Athena Swan, is recognised in workload models and can be used as evidence of citizenship or leadership by staff when applying for promotion depending on the role they have played.
An honest appraisal
The Athena Swan Charter exists because gender inequalities persist in higher education - this understanding was a vital anchor as we approached each phase of the submission. Pressure exists across the sector be seen as tackling inequalities, and this can at times lead to superficial motivations for engaging with frameworks such as Athena Swan (see reference 3). This in turn can result in shallow changes and easy wins being sought born out of short termism (see reference 4).
A real strength of Athena Swan is the provision of a framework for identifying and reflecting on local gender inequalities as well as the imploration to, not just identify causal factors, but to do something about them. This fundamental objective must remain in the foreground for those undertaking the self-assessment in order to avoid creating a submission that merely “ticks boxes”. Doing this requires a healthy dose of courage and honesty on the part of those undertaking the appraisal. For example, our analysis revealed that whilst women do occupy a number of senior and influential School roles, they do so in numbers that are disproportionately low compared with men when considering the overall profile of our staff and many of our student programmes. As a result, we plan to target support and encouragement to women to overcome the barriers that may be hindering their progression. Taking an honest look in the mirror in order to better understand ourselves has enabled the School to implement progressive actions that redress issues local to us.
Grasp the opportunity
The arrival of the pandemic brought the themes of culture, flexible working and work-life balance up the agenda and drafting a submission through such a period provided a great opportunity to reflect on these themes. The submission process has also been a means by which to identify, celebrate and be proud of the School’s strengths.
Rushing through an Athena Swan submission in order to tick a box wastes a real opportunity to grow our knowledge of our institutions and local areas. If we work collectively and utilise the diversity that surrounds us to increase our understanding, and if we are honest about what we discover then sustained progress just might be the long-term result.
Freeman, R., Huang, W. Collaboration: Strength in diversity. Nature 513, 305 (2014).
Roberge, M. É., & Van Dick, R. (2010). Recognizing the benefits of diversity: When and how does diversity increase group performance? Human Resource Management Review, 20(4), 295–308.
Tzanakou, C., Clayton-Hathway, K., & Humbert, A. L. (2021). Certifying Gender Equality in Research: Lessons Learnt From Athena Swan and Total E-Quality Award Schemes. Frontiers in sociology, 6, 784446.
Ovseiko, P. V., Chapple, A., Edmunds, L. D. and Ziebland, S., 2017. Advancing gender equality through the Athena Swan Charter for Women in Science: an exploratory study of women’s and men’s perceptions. Health Research Policy & Systems, 15, pp. 1–13.
Explore our upcoming events on the Athena Swan Connect Network
Networking Events invite Athena Swan members to share challenges and good practice and learn from each other. Our Enhancing Practice events showcase examples of emerging and impactful practice from charter members on key gender equality themes.