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Men: how will you commit to break the bias this International Women's Day?

08 Mar 2022 | Rob Bell For our International Women’s Day 2022 blog collection, #BreakThe Bias, Rob Bell, Athena Swan Coordinator at Imperial College London, shares his thoughts of working on gender equality as a man.

“But you’re a man.” I still remember getting this response at a conference early in my career, after I had introduced myself as Imperial’s Athena Swan Coordinator. This was perhaps the most overt reaction I’ve received as a man working on gender equality. While I may have been unusual at the time, I’m glad to say that I now have plenty of male colleagues contributing to and leading on gender equality work, including Athena Swan.

When it comes to working on gender equality, or other aspects of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), gender should be irrelevant. Beyond everyone’s personal responsibility in how they act and behave, we shouldn’t expect an under-represented group or those suffering from discrimination to solve issues, especially when it comes to institutional or systematic barriers. Gender inequality affects men too, and all genders need to be involved in addressing it.  

However, in practice, I think most of us would imagine women being the ones who are actively progressing gender equality, particularly when it comes to Athena Swan and in STEMM fields, and have examples to demonstrate this. But I do feel that things have changed since I started working on Athena Swan at Imperial over 10 years ago. At that time, I was often the only man in meetings (and only member of Professional Services, though that’s another blog post!) and only rarely was there another man who had formal responsibility for Athena Swan or some aspect of gender equality. Looking back on our data, I think all of our department Athena Swan leads were women.

Today, by contrast, almost half of our Athena Swan / EDI leads are men, with almost all our academic departments holding awards - and I think it’s important to also note that committees are developing formal remits beyond gender equality, and are acting on the whole range of EDI challenges and adopting intersectional approaches. I feel confident that I could engage in a positive and productive conversation about gender equality anywhere in the College. I can point out examples of active men across Imperial, such as Chris Peters, Mark Burgman and Nilay Shah. Stephen Curry, our Assistant Provost (EDI) is male, and our previous Provost, James Stirling, was responsible for increasing department engagement with Athena Swan, by setting a clear value on the role the Charter could play in removing barriers and addressing gender equality.

There is definite value for a university in using the Athena Swan Charter as an external framework. As with any such scheme, the value depends on the commitment and effort put in, but the Charter is useful in getting people and organisations to assess data, acknowledge bias, and develop actions to address their own specific issues.

Recently, I have been reflecting more on the Charter, and its value in progressing gender equality, thanks to Imperial’s involvement in the British Council’s Women in Science: UK-Brazil Gender Equality Partnerships programme. The programme involves UK universities sharing our experiences of Athena Swan with our Brazilian partners, to help them make progress their gender equality journeys. The Athena Swan Charter model has inspired activity and expanded across the globe, and Brazil may be the next country to adopt or adapt the framework.

From our initial meetings, it seems to me that there are similar gender equality challenges in Brazil, and Athena Swan could be a useful framework for the country. One of these challenges is the existence of cultural barriers about the importance and necessity of tackling gender inequality, and the active engagement of men. I’ve noticed that at the big online Zoom meetings organised by the British Council, it appears I am once again one of a small number of men involved.  

There are plenty of resources out there which cover the basic elements of effective allyship or becoming an active bystander. One of the things I’m often conscious of at meetings and events, for example, is to ensure that I’m giving the opportunity for women to speak first, and that I support and acknowledge their voices. To truly ‘break the bias’ around gender equality work though, we need men to take active and leading roles, be that through Athena Swan or other means.

So for all the men out there reading this blog, for this year’s International Women’s Day, how will you commit to ‘break the bias’?


Rob Bell has worked at Imperial College London on Athena Swan since 2010, assisting and advising on institution and department applications. He also acts as an Athena Swan Reviewer and Charters Associate for Advance HE.

Diversity Interventions 2022 conference

Taking place on 7-8 April in person and online, Diversity Interventions 2022 is an international conference hosted and co-convened by the University of Oxford, Advance HE, and Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Limited.

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