What is the Athena SWAN Charter?

The Athena SWAN Charter was established in 2005 by the UK’s Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) 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.

ECU's Athena SWAN Charter covers women (and men where appropriate) in:

  • academic roles in STEMM and AHSSBL
  • professional and support staff
  • trans staff and students

In relation to their:

  • representation
  • progression of students in academia
  • journey through career milestones
  • working environment of all staff

Once an organisation signs the Charter it can apply for an award. Heriot-Watt University has held an award since 2013, and the process is iterative; an award lasts four years. To get an award the University had to reflect on its current culture, practice and processes and draw up an Action Plan to deliver improvements by November 2016. Once the University had an award, its Schools were able to undertake the work required to apply for their own awards, allowing them to consider local and discipline-specific issues.

Why is Athena SWAN needed?

There is substantial evidence highlighting gender imbalance within academia.

Athena SWAN identifies the following as its key principles:

  1. We acknowledge that academia cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of all.
  2. We commit to advancing gender equality in academia, in particular, addressing the loss of women across the career pipeline and the absence of women from senior academic, professional and support roles.
  3. We commit to addressing unequal gender representation across academic disciplines and professional and support functions. In this we recognise disciplinary differences including:
    1. the relative underrepresentation of women in senior roles in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL)
    2. the particularly high loss rate of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM)
  4. We commit to tackling the gender pay gap.
  5. We commit to removing the obstacles faced by women, in particular, at major points of career development and progression including the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career.
  6. We commit to addressing the negative consequences of using short-term contracts for the retention and progression of staff in academia, particularly women.
  7. We commit to tackling the discriminatory treatment often experienced by trans people.
  8. We acknowledge that advancing gender equality demands commitment and action from all levels of the organisation and in particular active leadership from those in senior roles.
  9. We commit to making and mainstreaming sustainable structural and cultural changes to advance gender equality, recognising that initiatives and actions that support individuals alone will not sufficiently advance equality.
  10. All individuals have identities shaped by several different factors. We commit to considering the intersection of gender and other factors wherever possible.
Why might a woman's experience of a career in higher education and research be different from a man’s?

Some of the biases that under-represented groups can face include:

  • Unconscious bias
  • Conscious bias
  • Homophilia – people like to be with people like themselves
  • Ambivalent prejudice – hostility towards people in non-traditional roles
  • Stereotype threat – underperformance through stereotype anxiety
  • Confirmation bias – tendency to favour information that confirms our preconceptions
  • Halo effect – one trait influences our perception of another
  • Conflict of interests – bias towards people who have helped or can help us

The gendered nature of caring also presents challenges.

How does this present itself?

Some examples include being:

  • Less likely to be selected/nominated
  • Less likely to self-nominate
  • Less likely to have time to work extra hours, travel, network
  • More likely to have had a career interruption
  • More likely to be part-time or fixed-term contract, less likely to be appraised or given access to development opportunities
What can be done?

Working with the Charter is helping universities across the UK identify and follow best practice. The main areas where good practice can make a difference are:

  • Appointment and selection
  • Promotions
  • Career Development
  • Career Development for Early Career Researchers
  • Workplace Flexibility
  • Career Breaks
  • Organisation and culture

If you want to get more involved, please contact your local lead.