The progress from our 2014 Silver to 2019 Gold Athena Swan award wasn’t straightforward. By reflecting openly and honestly in the spirit of the awards, I hope we can inspire, encourage and help drive change across our wider sector.
I’ll focus on our journey and the two most common questions I’m asked; measuring impact and beacon activity.
Feedback is vital for learning
Often with Athena, there’s an individual or small group of people who lead progress in the awards and once the monumental effort of the paperwork for an award is completed, it’s easy to lose that focus and momentum. It’s no one’s fault - people have role rotation, other things become critically important. Being brutally honest, we temporarily lost that momentum and when we submitted for our Silver renewal in 2018 we weren’t quite ready and were unsuccessful (we had our years’ grace period to resubmit).
Our failure felt crushing to me, but much more importantly it gave us feedback that allowed us to reflect and build a sustainable model for driving forward both Athena, and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) more broadly in our Faculty. For anyone who’s submitted and not achieved an award; please don’t be disheartened. We’re proof that the feedback is key for identifying your challenges and enacting sustainable change.
If you hold an Athena award:
Review your feedback and ensure you address this when you put together your next application.
If you don’t hold an Athena award:
Reach out to others in your discipline who do, or other departments in your own institution to learn from their experiences and feedback.
When we reviewed our feedback, the key point in measuring impact of our activities was achievable within the timeframe. Combined with several conversations from other award holders about what beacon activity was, we set our goal and applied for Gold.
We had lots of good processes and activities, but we hadn’t fully collected data to measure impact. As a Faculty of Engineering we’re very comfortable with quantitative data (anything we could plot on a graph!), but we needed to give further thought to our qualitative data (lived experiences). Both are important in getting to the heart of EDI and provide measures of impact.
Quantitative data can tell you if you have a “pipeline problem” where you have differing experiences between men and women (or other groups for wider EDI considerations). Qualitative data helps you learn how to mend that pipeline by listening and understanding how to improve these processes. For example, following our Staff Survey we held focus groups to understand the experiences of colleagues in more detail and worked with them developing actions addressing key themes.
What is beacon activity?
You probably already have beacon activity! If you’re doing it well, it’s “business as usual” to you. This is where we struggled to identify and recognise our achievements.
Beacon activity is sharing local innovations in advancing gender equality outside of your home department and should be throughout a good Athena application, so highlight it throughout your text – not only in the Beacon Activity section of the form!
I kept a page in my notebook and recorded beacon activities over the year leading up to our submission date. I recommend talking to colleagues in other areas of your institution for their perspective This will help identify best practice activities, that would otherwise be overlooked because they’re your everyday normality. Then think about how you’ll share your innovations to make them beacon.
Our Gold is a milestone, not a finishing line. Embedding Athena in our Faculty structures ensures that we keep our momentum.
We split our action plan into four sections, each with a dedicated and diverse team focused on turning it into reality. Each working group reports progress to our Faculty EDI Board quarterly. The Board has representation from across our Faculty areas, job families and levels; providing insights and steer to our EDI activities. Effectively our self-assessment team (SAT) continues after an Athena submission.
The Faculty EDI Board reports directly to our Faculty Executive Board (where the Chair of the Faculty EDI Board is a permanent member), ensuring that our strategic direction reflects our commitment to EDI principles.
Questions to ask yourself
If you’re thinking about how to put together your Athena submission, or want to keep that momentum going, these are a few questions to get you thinking.
- Is Athena and EDI work shared by a number of people, or is it dependant on the efforts of one or two people?
The latter isn’t sustainable – having a team and being able to share the load is key.
- Do you have both quantitative and qualitative data?
If you rely on one over the other, how can you expand and improve?
- What one piece of beacon activity can you identify right now?
Keep a notebook or document handy and note your best practice down as you talk with colleagues.
- How is Athena and EDI embedded into your structures?
This is key to keeping momentum going and ensuring your action plan aligns with strategy.
We passionately believe in sharing what’s worked for us, so that we can make Higher Education a better place for all of us.
Leah Ridgway is an Associate Professor in Electronic Engineering within the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham UK. They are the Faculty Director for EDI and led the Athena Gold Award success.