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Culture change with Athena Swan

20 Sep 2021 | Pavel Ovseiko Pavel Ovseiko, member of the Advance HE Athena Swan Governance Committee, argues that Athena Swan may not have entered the Oxford English Dictionary yet, but it is already a household name, changing the way we think, speak and act in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion.

Our Interim Associate Director for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, David Bass, introduces a blog series which explores new aspects of the transformed UK Athena Swan Charter.

We’ve worked with our members to transform the UK Athena Swan Charter and ensure it is streamlined, developmental and supportive. Building on and reflecting the recommendations of the independent review of the charter, we have incorporated four major themes. These are: the consideration of intersectionality; a more inclusive approach to 'gender as a spectrum'; a new, standalone application form especially for professional, technical and operational staff and a brand-new Culture Survey for university departments. 

In this blog, Pavel Ovseiko, a Principal Investigator and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford’s Radcliffe Department of Medicine, and a member of the Advance HE Athena Swan Governance Committee, discusses the introduction of a culture survey and assessment in the transformed Athena Swan Charter. 

Pavel draws from the academic literature and his own experience at Oxford, reflecting on what is culture, how does it impact on individuals, and how do we go about measuring and changing it.

David Bass, Interim Associate Director, EDI

Pavel Ovseiko, Senior Research Fellow in Health Policy and Management, University of Oxford

Pavel Ovseiko is a member of the Advance HE Athena Swan Governance Committee and Senior Research Fellow and Principal Investigator in the Radcliffe Department of Medicine, University of Oxford, where he leads a multi-disciplinary programme of research and policy advocacy on gender equity and diversity. Find out more about Pavel's work here

Image of Pavel Ovseiko

In the classic reference on Organisational Culture and Leadership, Schein considers culture in an evolutionary perspective as a product of social learning. Schein defines culture as “a pattern of shared assumptions learned by a group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as a correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems”.

In another key reference on Diagnosing and Changing Organisational Culture, Cameron and Quinn argue that organisational culture represents “how things are around here” and is reflected by “what is valued, the dominant leadership styles, the language and symbols, the procedures and routings, and the definitions of success that make an organisation unique”.

In our academic, professional, technical, or operational roles, we experience organisational culture in daily interactions with our colleagues and associates. When we identify with the ways in which things work in our organisation, we feel included and inspired to achieve our professional objectives. For example, when we identify with the dominant leadership styles in our organisation, we interact with our colleagues and superiors more effectively and aspire to assume more responsibility ourselves.

However, when we do not identify with how things work in our organisation, we feel left out, frustrated, and often burned out. For example, if we value collaborative working, but success in our organisation is predominantly defined in terms of individual achievements, we feel excluded, find ourselves unable to get to the next level in our careers, and even consider leaving our organisations or professional roles for better opportunities elsewhere.

Given that organisational culture is based on evolutionary social learning, groups who have been historically under-represented in organisations may feel that their contributions are not valued and that they are disadvantaged in their career advancement. This is particularly true in higher education and research organisations. For example, although my organisation, the University of Oxford, has evidence of teaching as early as 1096, women were first granted full membership to the university only in 1920.

As many universities and research institutes commit to ensuring equality and inclusion for all their members regardless of their gender, race, and other protected characteristics, it is important to assess organisational culture from the equality and inclusion point of view. This can be done using a variety of methods, including interviews, focus groups, and surveys. In the context of large higher education organisations, surveys are used more commonly than other methods because staff culture surveys allow taking into account views and experiences of a large number of faculty and staff.

Culture surveys are usually constructed to measure several dimensions of organisational culture that are relevant to improving staff experiences and organisational performance. For example, my colleagues and I surveyed nearly 5,000 faculty and staff in medical and social sciences at the University of Oxford to understand how to accelerate women’s advancement and leadership while creating a more supportive and inclusive university culture for all faculty and staff.

We found that women’s experiences of the university’s culture were less positive than those of men on 6 out of 12 dimensions of culture for those in medical science departments and 10 out of 12 dimensions of culture for those in social science departments. Importantly, when we conducted our study, all medical science departments had joined the Athena Swan Charter and implemented action plans to attain Silver awards, but no social sciences departments had done so. Therefore, a more positive culture in medical sciences is likely to have been associated with the implementation of Athena Swan action plans.

Other research also points to the association between implementation of Athena Swan action plans and improvements in women’s advancement and leadership. A study that examined female representation rates in managerial leadership in the entire UK higher education sector over five years found that institutions participating in the Athena Swan Charter experienced greater and faster growth in female representation and that institutions holding Silver awards performed better in university rankings than Bronze awardees.

Another study that examined women’s advancement and leadership in the UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centres demonstrated association between the implementation of Athena Swan Silver action plans over five years and a rise in the number of women in mid-level leadership positions and the proportion of funding going to women.

What is more, Athena Swan interventions benefit not only female academics and researchers, but also all faculty, staff, and students. In a study that analysed 16 departmental Athena Swan Silver action plans at the University of Oxford, my colleagues and I found that 88% of the intended beneficiaries of Athena Swan interventions by gender were all genders indiscriminately, 11% women, and 1% men. While academics and researchers were the intended beneficiaries of 52% of Athena Swan interventions, 48% of Athena Swan interventions targeted either all faculty and staff, or students, or professional, technical, and operational staff.

Although positive changes associated with the implementation of Athena Swan action plans are often small and require time to occur, they are pervasive, affecting the way we think, speak, and act in our organisations, ie the very essence of organisational culture. In addition to research, I see manifestations of pervasive Athena Swan culture change in my daily interactions with colleagues.

Reflecting on the implementation of Athena Swan in our organisation, a colleague noted that now Athena Swan is a standing item on the agenda of all important divisional and departmental meetings. Planning meetings for a grant application, a chief investigator remarked: “It’s not Athena Swan to have meetings before 9:30am because we can unconsciously exclude colleagues doing the school run”. Athena Swan may not have entered the Oxford English Dictionary yet, but it is already a household name, changing the way we think, speak, and act in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion.

Overall, positive changes associated with Athena Swan and the pervasive nature of these changes affecting the very essence of organisational culture give me confidence that Athena Swan helps create more equitable and inclusive organisational cultures in higher education and research.


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