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New report adds to the Athena SWAN review evidence base

28 Aug 2019 | “There is strong evidence that the Charter processes and methodologies have supported cultural and behavioural change – not just around gender equality, but equality and diversity in all its forms.”

A new report by Ortus Economic Research and Loughborough University examining the effectiveness of Athena SWAN the charter that recognises the advancement of gender equality with regard to representation, progression and success is published today.

The report highlights the positive impact of the charter to date and offers robust evidence to inform the independent review of Athena SWAN which was launched by Advance HE in 2018. The review is being led by a Steering Group chaired by Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, Vice-Chancellor and President of Brunel University London and President of Universities UK.

The report, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society and the Department for Health, focusses on five key aspects of impact in UK higher education and research: gender profiles, recruitment and promotion of women, culture change, engagement with the charter in the sector, and experiences and perceptions of the awards process and charter implementation.

The key findings include:

  • 70% of higher education providers in the UK have engaged with the Athena SWAN Charter. (The majority of those that have not engaged are speciality arts schools.)
  • The charter is most effective as a tool to ensure that practices and policies present no disadvantage to any member of staff or student, targeting cultural change.
    -  93% of ‘champions’ believe that the charter has had a positive impact on gender issues in their university, department or research institute
    -  78% believed the charter had a positive impact on equality and diversity issues
    -  78% believed the charter had a positive impact on the career progression of women.
  • When compared to departments/institutes with a silver or bronze award, women in ‘gold’ departments/institutes are more satisfied with career progression processes and flexible working practices.
  • Strong evidence that the charter processes and methodologies have supported cultural and behavioural change – not just around gender equality, but equality and diversity in all its forms.
  • A wide range of impacts around gender balance have been reported. These include an increase in the number and proportion of women in academic and research posts, from the most junior to the most senior, though there is evidence that such impacts can take time to materialise. 
  • Considerable challenges which threaten ongoing engagement, including resource requirements and lack of leadership support.
  • The amount of work required to deliver a compelling application is seen as unnecessarily burdensome. 
  • Significant problems faced in acquiring, analysing and reflecting on the required data with the workload overall being a very significant overhead.
  • Participants perceived some issues with the assessment process including the limitations of a paper-based review.and the need reduce the amount of time input required for panels, to provide more consistency of assessment and to blend consideration of written material with visits to departments and institutes in order to facilitate a more rounded assessment.
  • In submitting departments, there is a trend towards promotions to senior lecturer/reader and associate professor becoming more gender balanced over the period leading up to submission. At departmental level, there is also a trend towards an increase in the percentages of women shortlisted and appointed.

Dr Louise Wood CBE, Director - Science, Research & Evidence, Department of Health & Social Care, said, “Further progress in equality, diversity and inclusiveness in the research community will be vital to enabling science to tackle society’s biggest challenges and to promoting innovation. I welcome the report and the evidence it adds to our understanding of the positive contribution the Award has made to advancing gender equality, as well as aspects needing further attention. NIHR stands ready to work closely with Advance-HE and HEIs to furthering the ambition to attract, develop and retain more women in research.”

Lauren Couch, Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Wellcome Trust, said: “Wellcome is committed to contributing to the evidence base for what works in diversity and inclusion and this was a key reason for us supporting this evaluation of Athena SWAN. We are aware that women continue to be under-represented at more senior levels in health research and we hope the findings of this study will encourage universities to take further steps to address the barriers they face. We are particularly interested to see the findings about the role of Athena SWAN in culture change and look forward to seeing what lessons can be learned to improve wider research culture and a more sustainable research system for all.

“While this report focuses mainly on gender equality, we know that experiences do vary and we are committed to taking an approach that considers the overlaps between minoritised groups.  Wellcome’s Diversity and Inclusion team will be prioritising work on race and ethnicity and disability in the year ahead. Two key findings from the report will inform our work. Firstly, is noteworthy what the evaluation highlights about the importance of senior leaders as champions of diversity and inclusion work. Secondly, we are concerned that the burden of diversity and Inclusion work too often falls on the shoulders of those from minoritised groups. We hope to see funders and universities proactively addressing these issues.”

Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, Chair of the Athena SWAN Steering Group, said, “I welcome this comprehensive report. Its publication is timely, with the Athena SWAN Charter review having just opened its formal consultation process. The report highlights the extent to which colleagues across the sector value the impact the Charter has had since its inception in 2005.

“Our review aims to make the Charter still more effective in delivering the transformative impact the Charter explicitly sets out to achieve. This new report, together with the views we are gathering from staff across higher education, will provide further valuable sources of evidence to inform the ongoing review. I encourage colleagues to grasp the opportunity to contribute to the formal consultation.”

Alison Johns, Advance HE Chief Executive, said, “This is a very important and well-balanced report which I am sure will provide rich and substantial evidence to inform the independent review and support our future improvements to the Athena SWAN Charter.

“Athena SWAN is a positive agent for change. Our aim is for the great strides that have been made in equality to be accelerated through an even more effective, engaging and pragmatic Charter. I hope this report encourages universities and research institutes to participate in the review’s formal consultation.”

The formal consultation process of the independent Athena SWAN review is open now and is scheduled to close 12 September.

There are currently 164 Athena SWAN members, holding 815 awards between them.

The full report is here.

Notes to Editors:

For further information, please contact William Syms, Head of Communications, Advance HE william.syms@advance-he.ac.uk 

Advance HE’s Athena SWAN Charter was established in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research.

In May 2015 the charter was expanded to recognise work undertaken in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL), and in professional and support roles, and for trans staff and students. The charter now recognises work undertaken to address gender equality more broadly, and not just barriers to progression that affect women.

In 2018, the Advance HE Board commissioned an independent review of Athena SWAN to ensure that it is fit for purpose and to advise on the process, policy and positioning of Athena SWAN in the UK.  The review is being undertaken by a Steering Group chaired by Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, Vice-Chancellor and President of Brunel University London and President of Universities UK. The Group is considering and making recommendations on the purpose and remit of Athena SWAN; the requirements for each level of recognition; the application process and the administrative burden it places on institutions; the assessment of applications and the training and workload of assessors; and perceived inconsistencies in the review process. More information can be found here.

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