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Athena Swan transformation – co-creating the enhanced UK Charter

10 Jun 2021 | Dr Ruth Gilligan With the imminent launch of the transformed UK Athena Swan Charter, Dr Ruth Gilligan, Advance HE Assistant Director for UK Equality Charters, shares her reflections on the sector’s engagement in the transformation project.

As we approach the end of the academic year, many are reflecting on the challenges the year has presented for the HE and research sector. The response of colleagues, staff and students to these challenges has been inspiring, showing a sector which hasn’t lost its passion or dedication for furthering knowledge, tackling inequalities and supporting each other. And this has been equally reflected in the passion and dedication with which colleagues throughout the sector have embraced our Athena Swan engagement events, fuelling the transformation work on the Charter this year.

We recently held our final event before the updated Athena Swan Charter launches, so I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the process and share how we have benefited from a range of input and engagement – and thank all those involved.

One of the first decisions Advance HE took shortly after its formation in 2018 was to commission an independent review of the Charter. Our motivation in establishing the independent review was for the great strides that have been made in gender equality to be accelerated through an even more effective, engaging and pragmatic Charter. The findings of the Independent Review Steering Group offered the insight and observations – and, of course, recommendations – which have provided the guiding light for the transformation process.

From the outset, our objective has been to undertake the transformation work in a collaborative and transparent manner as we began the work to implement the recommendations. To do this we:

  • established the Athena Swan Governance Committee (ASGC) chaired by Professor Parveen Yaqoob, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Reading, who collectively provided invaluable oversight, advice and input through monthly meetings, offline working and engagement events
  • worked with three specialist sub-groups with 32 sector specialists contributing through monthly meetings
  • benefited from advice and input from the Athena Swan Transition Group (with representatives of the Independent Review) into how the recommendations should be effectively achieved in the changed sector context
  • engaged sector colleagues to update the Principles, award criteria and application materials through member networking events and survey responses – which included eight engagement events with over 330 attendees
  • undertook a feedback exercise about the mandatory departmental culture survey, with detailed input from 58 institutional, departmental and individual respondents across all nations of the UK.

This engagement has been instrumental in the transformation work, and we have made enormous progress in a short and challenging period. As Professor Sarah Sharples, Deputy Chair of the ASGC explained in her blog earlier this week, “we knew that the sector was impatient for change…as with many of these things, the devil has been in the detail, and for each aspect of the transformation it has been important to think through very carefully the way that it will be implemented, and what will be required to ensure that the changes have the positive impact that we all wish them to have.”

We are now in the final stages of finalising the updated Charter before we launch on 30 June 2021, when we will share with the sector:

  • the revised Charter Principles (previously shared)
  • the new award criteria
  • completely revised application materials including forms, data requirements and application guidance
  • the new departmental culture survey
  • information and guidance to support members to transition to the revised charter.

This represents the full range of Charter materials for university and department applicants. We are still working hard with the ASGC to launch the Research Institute and Professional, Technical and Operational (PTO) staff framework details at the same time.

I am personally very excited to be moving to the next stage in this journey. I’m confident the transformed UK Athena Swan Charter will bring about a paradigm shift from prescription to autonomy and flexibility enabling applications to focus on aspects of gender equality that are a priority for them. Among many enhancements, we will see a transformed Charter which will support greater inclusivity for people of all gender identities and people facing intersectional inequalities; provide greater clarity and transparency on the expectations; reduce the administrative burden – including a halving of data requirements; and increased support for applicants, with Advance HE taking a more developmental role across the Charter process.

These changes will be launched for Athena Swan in the UK only and we will work with our Athena Swan partners across the globe to share our learning from this process of co-creation. We will also continue to take the opportunity to learn from their successful practice as we work collectively to ensure Athena Swan supports progress in gender equality in the HE and research sector in an increasingly international context.

In the meantime, I would like to reiterate my thanks to all who have supported and provided input to the Charter this year – we look forward to sharing more detail soon and working with colleagues through Athena Swan in the future.

We are excited to be sharing the details of the updated Charter with the sector on 30 June.

We will host a number of dissemination events during July-September 2021 to explore the transformed UK framework with the sector. Please register your interest here and more details will be shared when the event plans are finalised. We look forward to seeing you.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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