“Be the change you want to see,” is a phrase commonly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, although it’s generally agreed that his actual words were a much more complex and spiritual reflection about inner transformation. Regardless of its origins and spiritual meaning, the phrase has particular resonance with me, because it takes me back to a watershed moment in my life that is, in many ways, connected to this blog, which marks my appointment as Chair of the new Athena Swan Governance Committee.
What was the moment that had such a profound effect on me? Well, it was a STEM outreach event for Year 9 girls to which I had been invited as a role model at a time when I was mid-career, along with five other women working in various STEM roles. At the start of the session, the facilitator asked each of us to stand up and explain in a single sentence why we had agreed to attend the event. I stood up and found myself saying that there were very few women in senior roles in higher education and that I wanted to see that change. As I sat down, I felt the words lingering in my head. Verbalising this thought had already begun to set in train a complete re-evaluation of what was important to me and its long-lasting impact was to inspire a commitment to step up and be that change that I wanted to see. Less than five years later, I became the University of Reading’s first female Deputy Vice-Chancellor.
“Be the change you want to see,” is also apposite as I take on the role of Chair of the Athena Swan Governance Committee. An independent review of the Athena Swan charter published in March 2020 (The Future of Athena SWAN) set out to ensure that the Charter continues to be an effective driver of gender equality practice in higher education. It recognised the role of the Charter in embedding accountability and supporting good practice within the sector, but it also set out a clear mandate for change, which will encompass its scope and governance, the award structure and application process, the assessment criteria and relationship with the sector. The report recommends practical changes to streamline the application process and an overhaul of the assessment process to ensure consistency and transparency of decision-making. There is no doubt that an evolution of the Charter is due and that this should be driven forward at pace, whilst consulting with the sector and building confidence and trust.
The practicalities and procedural changes proposed are relatively straightforward, but the recommendations are in no way superficial. A broadening of scope to reflect gender as a spectrum is a step-change which will require significant consultation. I’m sure I’m not alone in being uncomfortable about the starkly binary nature of gender equality targets in my institution. It’s time to evolve and the Charter has a key role to play in that evolution. It will also address issues relating to intersectionality of gender with other protected characteristics. It’s been widely acknowledged that while Athena Swan has been a major driver of gender equality for white women, it does not address the additional barriers that exist for women of colour in academia.
This has something of a personal element for me; as a second generation British-Pakistani, I grew up in a culture heavily skewed towards valuing boys and it was clear to me from an early age that my life choices were going to be restricted. Being able to pursue an education was not a given and there were genuine cultural barriers, which required a level of personal determination and persistence to overcome. Yet having overcome these, I find myself in a sector in which I sometimes feel I have to work twice as hard to ensure that I’m not simply seen to be filling a diversity quota.
I grapple with the challenge of simultaneous visibility and invisibility. This was recently evident when I was an invited speaker at a conference where, unusually, there was another female Asian invited speaker. We didn’t look alike, but on two occasions during the conference, someone mistook her for me, even though we had both given lectures on completely different topics by then. The fact that these individuals did not seem to be able to see past our skin colour was deeply unsettling. The wider consequences are even more troubling; if progression within my discipline requires my peers to acknowledge my work, invite me to conferences, look out for my papers, follow me on twitter etc., how much harder is this going to be if they only remember my skin colour? The diversity results for UKRI funding data from 2014-2019 published last month indicate that award rates were on average 2% lower for female Principal Investigators (PIs) and that award rates for white PIs were consistently higher than those for PIs from ethnic minorities, with the difference ranging from 2-9%.
Bhopal and Henderson’s review on ‘Competing inequalities: gender versus race in higher education institutions in the UK’ captures the privileging of gender over race in addressing inequalities in higher education and argues that conflating them would dilute some of the hard-won achievements in race equality. Clearly, there is much thinking to do, and I welcome the indication that the Athena Swan Charter is preparing to face this challenge.
When I think about what success might look like for the Charter, it’s not just about the numbers and the data. I see success as a sector which views a Charter mark as an audit and improvement tool rather than an end product, a sector which is open to sharing good practice, and a sector which is genuinely committed to dismantling inequality. I look forward to the next stage in the journey of the Charter, which will see it adapt to a changing world, and I feel truly privileged to be part of the change I want to see.