Women in Science
Founded in 2005, the Athena SWAN charter was established to advance women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine employment in higher education and research [Athena Swan Charter].
In July 2011 the Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies announced that the National Institute for Health Research would only expect to shortlist medical schools for biomedical research centre and unit (BRC/BRU) funding if the school holds a Silver Athena SWAN award.
In May 2015 the charter was expanded to recognise work undertaken in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law and in professional and support roles, and for trans-gender staff and students. The charter now recognises work undertaken to address gender equality more broadly. The University of Oxford is committed to the Athena SWAN initiative.
Some of the women we interviewed were involved in activities and initiatives related to Athena SWAN and there were mixed views about how it worked in practice. Some spoke enthusiastically about changes that have taken place in the University and how their own departments had avoided making it either a ‘box ticking’ exercise or an initiative that was solely focussed on women. Barbara said ‘The stress on women is right, but the cultural change will come from changing the males. So it’s very important that the stress of Athena SWAN is on all members of the department, not only the women’. Several women reflected positively on how the improvements generated by Athena Swan benefited everyone.
At October 2015 all of the University’s departments in Medical Sciences and Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences held Athena SWAN awards: 18 at Silver and nine at Bronze. Find out more at: http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/eop/gender/athenaswan/
Charlotte had mixed feelings about Athena Swan (see 'Concerns and criticism' below), but here she describes how it helped her and her colleagues become aware of important issues like unconscious bias.
Leanne is leading the Athena SWAN initiative for the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism. She strongly supports equal opportunities and career progression for everyone, including administrators and laboratory managers. She is enjoying the work involved.
Barbara thinks Athena SWAN is a very good initiative because it has made senior people in her department aware that some of her junior colleagues were feeling a ‘bit neglected’.
Departments had often changed the times of core and senior management meetings or seminars to the middle of the working day rather than early morning or late afternoon.
Small changes that Helen B said ‘contribute to making you feel more valued in the workplace’. Tamsin has found changing the seminar times to earlier in the day has created different networking opportunities that she can engage with.
Anna thinks that the ‘carrot’ approach of linking funding to best practice has been instrumental in effecting change.
Divisional and departmental initiatives
Jennifer used to work in a lab but is now an Athena SWAN advisor and facilitator. She said that she is still using many of the skills that she learnt in the lab, including data analysis, communications and writing. She described some of the changes that are taking place in the Medical Sciences Division.
Jennifer explains that Athena SWAN has encouraged departments to introduce Personal Development Review for all staff. Part of Jennifer’s role is also to organise a new divisional wide mentoring scheme.
Sometimes the process of applying for the Athena SWAN charter has drawn attention to the need for substantial changes while in other cases it has just streamlined existing practices. One woman thinks that the process of getting people to engage with Athena SWAN in her department has been useful because it has uncovered a degree of bullying. She thinks that both men and women are bullied but she thinks that this is one reason why women in particular are not ‘moving forward’. Kylie has found the process interesting and it has encouraged her to think more about ‘how to work with people who are motivated by different things and how to get the best out of the team while being sensitive to work hours and practices’. She feels the initiative has become a central concern in her department and ‘it’s become a friendlier place since we first started talking about these things […] There is more of a sense that we’re all working together’.
The National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU) won a Silver Award in recognition of their established good practice. As Director of NPEU Jenny said that the process of applying for an award has helped the Unit to be more systematic, more organised and more robust in their approach when considering issues such as the make-up of committees or return to work after maternity leave.
Other initiatives are taking place to help redress unequal opportunities in the University. This includes efforts to increase the number of nursery places available. At the moment The University has the highest level of childcare provision in the HE sector, but there is still a great shortage of places and a long waiting list. A number of possibilities for the development of further provision for child care are currently being explored.
Other initiatives to help to redress unequal opportunities include efforts to make sure that new positions are widely advertised, as well as thinking about the visibility of women in seminar series, on committees and in pictures, websites and documents.
The University offers numerous courses to support equality in the work place. For example, The Oxford Learning Institute has a course on unconscious bias. This is an online introduction to understanding the subject and its relevance to working life. Brief tests to check ‘implicit assumptions’ about attributes such as age, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender and much more, can also be taken online via a website run by Harvard https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.
‘Equality and Diversity’ is another on-line course hosted by the Oxford Learning Institute on behalf of the Equality and Diversity Unit and published by external company, Marshall ACM. It can be taken in people’s own time and at their own pace. People who had attended these courses, or taken the online tests, often suggest they are surprisingly enlightening.
Some women expressed concerns that the need to achieve a Silver level through Athena SWAN applications might have some negative unintended consequences, for example if people assumed that appointments or promotions were to fulfil ‘quotas’ rather than being made entirely on merit, which as Alison B says, may make a woman’s achievements ‘slightly less sweet’.
Concerns and criticism
While everyone we talked to had heard of Athena SWAN a few women said that they didn’t really know much about it, and were not sure whether there was any evidence that it makes a difference.
Some women were also concerned about the amount of work it involved, particularly for senior women who tended to be asked to regularly participate. Alison N said ‘Finding the balance between supporting the achievement of a better balance in gender and managing your own career I think is really hard for senior women’. She hopes that this will change as more women gain senior roles.
A further concern was whether departments were only making changes because they know that funding will be adversely affected if they don’t achieve an Athena SWAN Silver Award. Jane L thought the goals were ‘laudable’ but didn’t like the repetitive process. Some worried it might turn into a ‘box ticking exercise’, requiring a lot of work from the academic lead as well as department and division administration in compiling statistics and running annual surveys. Elspeth, who was very supportive of Athena SWAN, sometimes worried that it might become ‘window dressing’ rather than the cultural change that is needed.
Hazel explains her thoughts about Athena Swan and some of the concerns she has.
Women who had been directly involved in recent Athena SWAN initiatives had numerous examples of the ways in which their departments had improved work life for men and women. Irene R had been sceptical about Athena SWAN until she got involved and understood that cultural change was really necessary.
Jamie commented that some people have criticised Athena SWAN as a ‘political instrument’ but she said, ‘I think any way these things get done, great. Sure it would be great if everything just happened because everyone thought it was wonderful but if it’s not going to happen that way and it’s something that’s going to benefit people then if it happens through a political instrument, great’.
Athena Swan Charter, Equality Challenge Unit, http://www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan/