Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Athena SWAN Success Brings New Challenges

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Athena SWAN Success Brings New Challenges

Article excerpt

The equality charter's influence, take-up and ambitions are growing, writes Holly Else, but so are expectations

The Athena SWAN charter may be poised to spread its wings and take flight Down Under by setting up a similar scheme for Australia, but back at its nest serious changes are afoot.

Come January the Equality Challenge Unit, which runs the charter, will no longer receive funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and will move to a subscription model for its work with English universities.

In other changes at the organisation, it was announced earlier this year that the flagship charter mark designed to promote the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) has been expanded - as first proposed in 2013 - to include arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law departments.

The STEMM award, which is now in its 10th year, has already been rolled out to institutions in the Republic of Ireland, and talks are under way with other countries in addition to Australia. Research organisations that are not affiliated to a university can now apply for the awards, and the ECU is also developing a new racial equality charter mark, following trials that began in 2013.

David Ruebain, ECU's chief executive, told Times Higher Education that Athena SWAN had reached "a critical mass".

There is a "zeitgeist" around the gender equality agenda, he explained. Outside academia, for example, the 30% Club is aiming to ensure that by the end of 2015, 30 per cent of the members of boards of FTSE 100 companies are women.

"A lot of people are talking about it, of all political persuasions in many countries, so there is a groundswell of support that has also assisted us in growing the Athena SWAN charter," Mr Ruebain said.

But with the expansion comes "huge challenges" as well as opportunities, he added. Athena SWAN has expanded from a "fairly small modest voluntary initiative" that received 35 applications in its first year to a programme that attracted nearly 500 applicants in 2014.

"When I joined the ECU in 2010 we had 0.6 of a [full-time equivalent staff member] working on Athena SWAN," he said. It now has five people centrally and more based elsewhere, and "the push on the team is huge".

Stakes continue to rise

In addition to the management and coordination of hundreds of peer reviewers to look at each application in depth, awards must be moderated to ensure consistency in decision making, and an appeals process has been introduced.

The fact that there is now much more at stake when institutions apply for the charter mark has driven the need for these measures. In 2011, Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, said that medical schools without an Athena SWAN silver award would not be eligible for Department of Health research funding. Since then, Research Councils UK has mooted the idea of tying research council funding to the membership scheme.

Some outside the ECU view the expansion with trepidation, citing concerns about whether it will be able to keep up with the workload involved. Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, said that the research community is anxious about whether the move to expand the range of charter marks will "dilute the Athena SWAN brand that has been so effective in improving the gender climate so far". …

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