About Athena Swan

What is the Athena Swan Charter?

The Athena Swan Charter was established in 2005 by the UK’s Equality Challenge Unit, and has been run by Advance HE since 2019. The Charter sets out 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.

The 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. To achieve and retain its award the University has to regularly reflect on its current culture, practice and processes and draw up an Action Plan to deliver improvements. We aim to deliver our current University Action Plan by November 2020. Since the University has an award, its Schools have been 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 Higher Education. In November 2020, Senior Leaders across the UK including Heriot-Watt University's Principal Professor Richard Williams, renewed their commitment to gender equality via a refreshed set of Athena Swan Principles:

In committing to the principles of the Athena Swan Charter, we recognise that we join a global community with a shared goal of addressing gender inequalities and embedding inclusive cultures.

Each institution, research institute and department has different gender equality challenges and development priorities. These priorities should be developed based on an understanding of the local evidence-base and national and global gender equality issues.

In determining our priorities and interventions, we commit to:

1. adopting robust, transparent and accountable processes for gender equality work, including:

a. embedding diversity, equity and inclusion in our culture, decision-making and partnerships, and holding ourselves and others in our institution/institute/department accountable

b. undertaking evidence-based, transparent self-assessment processes to direct our priorities and interventions for gender equality, and evaluating our progress to inform our continuous development

c. ensuring that gender equality work is distributed appropriately, is recognised and properly rewarded.

2. addressing structural inequalities and social injustices that manifest as differential experiences and outcomes for staff and students

3. tackling behaviours and cultures that detract from the safety and collegiality of our work and study environments for people of all genders, including not tolerating gender-based violence, discrimination, bullying, harassment or exploitation

4. understanding and addressing intersectional inequalities

5. fostering collective understanding that individuals have the right to determine their own gender identity, and tackling the specific issues faced by trans and non-binary people because of their identity

6. examining gendered occupational segregation, and elevating the status, voice and career opportunities of any identified under-valued and at-risk groups

7. mitigating the gendered impact of caring responsibilities and career breaks, and supporting flexibility and the maintenance of a healthy ‘whole life balance’

8. mitigating the gendered impact of short-term and casual contracts for staff seeking sustainable careers

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 responsibilities such as 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.

Key information

Tina Donnelly