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Athena SWAN strengthened and fit for the future

19 Mar 2020 | Advance HE The independent review of Athena SWAN will see the Charter enhanced and its processes streamlined.

Advance HE welcomes The Future of Athena SWAN, the report of the Athena SWAN Charter Independent Review Steering Group which is published today.

The report is the culmination of the extensive work of the independent review led by Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, Vice-Chancellor and President of Brunel University London.

Advance HE commissioned the review in April 2018, immediately after it was formed, recognising the need for the Athena SWAN Charter to be fit for the future, while maintaining rigour and credibility, and reducing the administrative workload for applicants.

The Steering Group’s detailed recommendations support its primary observations that:

  • Athena SWAN should continue to be a major driver of gender equality practice in the UK higher education sector
  • it is timely for the Charter to change to address concerns raised by colleagues across the sector
  • the application process must be streamlined and the administrative burden on staff reduced, particularly female staff
  • the assessment process must ensure consistency and transparency of award outcomes to have the confidence of the sector
  • the important role of positive and supportive cultures in driving gender equality must be a key part of the assessment
  • the Charter should embrace the wider definition of gender beyond male and female
  • Advance HE must provide more training and support for Athena SWAN applications
  • the governance structure must ensure that the Charter is owned and led by the sector.

Specific recommendations also include:

  • developing routes for professional, technical and operational (PTO) directorates to engage with the Charter
  • establishing new systems and processes to ensure rigour and consistency in the peer-review assessments and to allow for quicker communication of outcomes and feedback
  • creating an online data portal with JISC and HESA to enable mandatory data to be readily accessed and analysed
  • establishing a new governance process.

Professor Julia Buckingham said: “Since its inception in 2005, the Athena SWAN Charter has been instrumental in engendering a step change in the sector’s approach to gender equality.

“But there is a lot more to do. Our recommendations reposition Athena SWAN and respond to sector calls for it to be simpler and less burdensome, as well as more transparent and consistent. We believe it must now embrace the broader definitions of gender and recognise the vital role of positive and supportive cultures. It’s also time for it to recognise and embrace professional, technical and operational staff.

“I am delighted that Advance HE commissioned the review. The level of engagement and sheer volume of responses from colleagues across the sector has been fantastic and indicative of the need for change. I look forward to Advance HE taking forward our recommendations and for Athena SWAN to support gender equality with renewed vigour.”

Alison Johns, Advance HE CEO, said: “We are extremely grateful for Julia Buckingham’s leadership and the Steering Group’s hard work. We specifically chose to appoint an independent review in order to bring fresh perspectives and objective challenge to the Athena SWAN Charter and its supporting processes.

“We fully support what the recommendations aim to achieve. We are delighted that they very much align with our current enhancement initiatives, including the streamlined renewal process published in December 2019, and for remote developmental reviews and site visits at institutional level.

“We particularly recognise the need for robust governance of our equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) and peer review work and will look closely at the review’s recommendations. Advance HE has put new formal governance arrangements in place since the Athena SWAN review was commissioned in April 2018 – our statutory EDI Committee and the Peer Review Quality Committee which report directly into the Advance HE Board. These form part of a single suite of governance arrangements for all four of our peer-reviewed charters/accreditation processes.

"We will look at how this approach may, alongside our newly created Athena SWAN Expert Advisory Group, provide for effective governance and ensure that the sector has a strong voice as the development of the Charter continues beyond the life of the Steering Group.

“The Steering Group’s work will form the basis of Advance HE’s transformation plan, co-created with our members and the sector, to ensure a smooth and successful transition from current systems and practice to ‘Athena SWAN 4.0’. We’re really looking forward to this work.”

Advance HE anticipates that members and the sector will see immediate benefits as some of the shorter term recommendations are enacted and will make sure that the more substantive changes are delivered in a way that does not destabilise the great initiatives already underway across the sector.

The Athena SWAN Charter is used around the world to support and transform gender equality in higher education and research. This is a review of the United Kingdom iteration of Athena SWAN with no compulsion for change elsewhere. That said, the review in the UK does open the opportunity for discussions for how Advance HE could bring greater value for its global members through this refreshed Charter.

The Athena SWAN Charter has been in continuous development within the UK for some 20 years now and has seen many developments, notably when it was widened beyond STEMM subjects to include arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL). This review recommends extending it further to professional and support staff. Given that ‘SWAN’ refers to Scientific Women's Academic Network, the Charter will be rebranded ‘Athena Swan’ to reflect its wider inclusion of disciplines and professions. However, Advance HE’s international work in this area will retain the ‘Athena SWAN’ branding.

A report published in August 2019 by Ortus Economic Research and Loughborough University, funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society and the Department for Health, found that 93% of ‘champions’ believe that the Charter has had a positive impact on gender issues in their university, department or research institute.

There are now over 140 UK Athena SWAN members, holding 800 awards between them.


Click here to download The Future of Athena SWAN


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