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Transformation of women’s careers in universities with Athena Swan

20 Mar 2024 | Anne Ridley Anne Ridley, former Head of the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine (University of Bristol), shares her experience of four Athena Swan applications in two different universities and discusses the improvements to women’s careers made by the Athena Swan Charter.

When I was appointed as a group leader at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, I was the first and only female Principal Investigator (PI) there. I had a four-month-old baby and my second daughter arrived 18 months later. I juggled being a mother (attending school assemblies and many concerts) and growing a laboratory through grant funding and publishing papers, as well as travelling the globe to speak at international conferences and universities.  

I have often been invited to talk to graduate students about my career as a woman, which I hope inspired some of them to pursue academic careers. I also enjoy participating in several formal mentorship schemes to mentor younger woman to achieve their next career goal, which is often a promotion step. It is always rewarding to see their successes. 

Athena Swan 

As I have taken on more leadership roles, my experience as a working female scientist and mother motivated me to support and develop the careers of the next generations of female scientists. When my Department and Faculty at King’s College London discussed putting in their first Athena Swan application in 2014, I was the most senior woman and keen to be the lead on the Department application and to contribute to the Faculty application (which obtained a Silver Award in 2018).  

I chaired the Department SATs and coordinated our successful applications of a Bronze award in 2015, and Silver in 2016. We were considerably helped by advice from a female Provost, who was an excellent role model.  

Our awards reflected the many changes that we made in the Department, including transforming our Senior Management Team to add female deputies and to develop future leaders. I am delighted that two of these women have subsequently become Head of Department and another is now an Associate Dean, reflecting the transformational changes that the Athena Swan scheme has made to woman’s careers in academia. 

Transformed Charter 

When I moved to the University of Bristol in 2018 to become Head of School/Department, I was surprised that they did not yet have a Bronze Athena Swan Award. I worked with the existing and excellent SAT to support the successful award in 2019.  

By the time we came to apply for a Silver Award, the transformed Athena Swan Charter had been introduced. I was pleased to see that the new scheme considered the careers of all staff and all genders in the School, because I had always felt the emphasis on female academic staff in previous applications had been non-inclusive. It was great to extend our SAT to add technical staff and professional services staff, and that it was co-led by two women in academic and professional services roles. We engaged with a wide variety of staff and students to build long-lasting changes to equality, diversity and inclusion in the School. The shorter more focused application of the transformed charter was also very welcome and enabled us to emphasise the improvements we had made better. This led to our successful Silver Award in 2023. 

The Athena Swan Charter inspired us to ensure all recruitment panels reflected the diversity of the School and included women and men. This has led to the recruitment of more women across all career pathways to the School.  

We instigated training in acceptable behaviour to improve understanding of how our behaviours can unintentionally upset others. We supported more female staff to successfully apply for promotion. We also introduced Café Culture sessions, which has enabled all staff to contribute to improving the ethos of the School.  

Future challenge 

A challenge for us in the future is to ensure an equitable distribution of workload across our staff members. We want to continue to mentor staff to improve their contributions to the School and enable them to achieve their career objectives, while maintaining a good balance between work and their varied roles outside of work.  

Overall, I am delighted to have worked with two different universities to improve the careers of women. I have been and continue to be inspired by senior role models and to see how many universities in the UK are now led by women, when I started my career as a lone female group leader. Fortunately, I was mentored by several men who were leading the way in recognising and encouraging women to pursue academic careers. 


Anne Ridley was Head of the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Bristol from 2018 -2023.

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