The Athena SWAN Charter and Your Career

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Equality Challenge Unit’s (ECU) Athena SWAN Charter has been encouraging and recognising commitment to advancing the careers of women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) employment in UK higher education and research since 2005.

10 years on, we have extended the reach of the Charter to recognise gender equality work undertaken in the arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law in the UK and Ireland, and with other international partners. It also has a broader focus that includes professional and support roles, and for trans staff and students. This is reflected in our new strapline: Championing advancement in gender equality. Our work is regularly cited as important and influential by leaders within and connected to the higher education sector, parliament and the media.

The charter provides a framework for institutions and their constituent units to identify key issues relating to gender equality specific to them, and put robust plans in place to address them. Often, potential applicants don’t realise the extent of their issues, such as a key block in the pipeline of women, until they look at the hard data required by the process. In other cases, open consultation brings important observations to light, such as what are sometimes huge differences in how women and men perceive their ability to progress in an institution or department. Once identified, these things can be targeted with a plan that covers the next few years. Applicants must renew their awards and demonstrate progress against their plan.

What it means for you

Activities relating to Athena SWAN can benefit all staff. The message that is consistently fed back to us is that particular practices that hold women back also affect men. Therefore, what’s ‘good for women’, is actually ‘good for everyone’, be it increased transparency in the promotions process, a culture that does not penalise part-time staff, or striving for a recognition and reward system that fosters collaboration and inclusivity. In turn, these benefits will also translate into more productive and innovative academic centres. The following quotes illustrate this point:

“We began a program of change in our practices and culture to enhance our position as a world-leading, research-led Chemistry Department. The Athena SWAN process has been immensely helpful in this... Our increased collaborative working has led to our Research Volume increasing from £8M in 2007-8 to £13M this year.”

Imperial College London, Department of Chemistry, gold Athena SWAN submission, April 2013

“Small changes caused a big effect in the department. From the introduction of high chairs in the cafeteria, to mandatory E&D training, and reviews of staff development and appointments. These resulted in an acceptance of “life beyond work” and an appropriate culture for a world-leading research laboratory in the 21st century. They benefit all, and preferentially the very many women scientists who visit, reside, or have been recently appointed to academic positions.”

Professor Val Gibson, University of Cambridge, Department of Physics (Cavendish Laboratory) – gold award holder, for the 10th Anniversary booklet, July 2015

For job-seekers, it can be really valuable to see how their prospective employers are engaged with these issues. In many cases (this practice is strongly encouraged by ECU), successful submissions are published online. This allows everyone to see not only whether or not an institution holds an award, but also what they have committed to doing. You can then ask about these activities at interview; what career development activities are planned, for example, or what is done to foster a culture of openness and support, such as for producing successful grant applications? Think about what is important to you and see what the institution is doing around that.

Beyond this, job advertisements themselves should give clues to institutions’ gender equality ambitions. Including the award logo is a start, but forward-thinking award holders will have considered whether the job role is necessarily a full-time post, or whether it could be filled on a part-time or shared basis. Furthermore, a 2011 study showed evidence that the wording of job advertisements influences how men and women respond to them. If an institution is looking for a “collaborative” rather than “dominant” or “competitive” individual, this indicates that they have given proactive thought to the risks of stereotyping.

When it comes to interview, we increasingly read about efforts institutions are making to be both more flexible and fairer. From taking caring responsibilities into account when thinking about your travel and timing, to ensuring that each panel member has undertaken appropriate training, institutions are putting strategies in place to make sure they hire the best people, rather than succumbing to unconscious bias such as a preference for men .

Turning this all around, you might be able to use participation in Athena SWAN to mark you out favourably in the hiring process. With the charter considered increasingly important, universities are raising the degree of scrutiny they place on candidates’ equality track records and aspiration – especially when it comes to leadership positions. Why undertake so much work if you are going to risk the erosion of this focus by future management? More and more, we read in submissions that a commitment to gender equality will be made a requirement for post-holders; a development which encourages the welcome mainstreaming of activities.

Improving the working environment for all

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.

This has positive implications for institutions that continue to engage, or come on board for the first time. There is a real opportunity now to capitalise on the equality agenda to improve the working environment for all staff, as well as work towards more diversity of representation at all levels.

Supporting this drive is ECU’s Race equality charter mark, which aims – in parallel – to focus efforts on improving the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic staff and students within higher education. As with gender, the continued existence of racial inequalities in higher education limits both minority ethnic individuals and the sector as a whole in fulfilling its full potential.

ECU is currently running a trial awards round with 21 higher education institutions. Following the trial, the charter mark will be open to all higher education institutions in 2016.


If you’d like to find out more, visit our website.

Statements from institutions that have engaged with the Athena SWAN Charter will be published in the 10th Anniversary booklet, following a celebratory event on 24 July 2015.


iD. Gaucher, J. Friesen, and A.C. Kay, Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality, J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 2011, 101 (1), 109-128 (2011)

iiC.A. Moss-Racusin, J.F. Dovidio, V.L. Brescoll, M.J. Graham, and J. Handelsman, Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students, PNAS., 109 (41), 16474–16479 (2012)


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