Equality badges, Athena SWAN and what university departments are doing wrong

By Seirian Sumner (@Waspwoman), Senior Lecturer at University of Bristol and Soapbox Science co-founder


An Athena SWAN award is becoming the equality badge of honour for UK university departments and research institutions. It recognises and celebrates good employment practice for women working in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM). There are three tiers of Athena SWAN awards: Bronze Award is about detecting and recognising the problems, and generally getting your heads in gear to start on the road to equality. The Silver Award is about celebrating progress and showing ambition. Gold Awards go to departments with evidence of sustained achievements in equality and who show further aspiration to improve. But it doesn’t stop at Gold! Any award is just the beginning of a process not the end; and the action plan is key to improving. Athena SWAN is one facet of a wider agenda to improve equality, diversity and welfare in the STEMM work environment.


Yesterday I attended a Gender, Leadership and STEMM Conference, with Athena SWAN at Swansea University, hosted by the inspirational Prof Hilary Lappin-Scott.  My mission was to glean some gems for my School’s Athena SWAN Bronze application, at Bristol University. Hilary gave the opening address, and I was delighted to see her showcase her involvement with Soapbox Science as part of Swansea University’s agenda to tackle gender equality issues at her university.  Swansea’s inaugural Soapbox Science was a roaring success this summer; watch out for their plans for 2015!


It’s the next speaker that I really want to talk about. Prof Tom Welton has led Imperial College’s Chemistry Department to the dizzy heights of winning a Gold Athena SWAN Award. He was invited to tell us the secrets of his department’s success in ‘going for gold’. Tom is an incredible speaker. He sat in a chair. He used no Powerpoint. But his bad language, outlandish stories and staged confidentiality kept the entire room enthralled and entertained for over an hour. But this wasn’t just entertainment. This man and his staff have made some revolutionary changes to the culture, ethos and working environment of their Department. We sat on the edges of our seats, desperate to infuse ourselves with his charisma and absorb his pearls of wisdom!


Tom presented many examples of good practice. Many are just common sense, but I’ve collated them into seven top tips on how to achieve equality, respect diversity and generate a fair, ‘human’ working environment in academia.


1. Be welcoming! Say good morning and good night! To everyone. Ask everyone to prop their doors open. There’s nothing more alienating than a shut door.


2. Cut out hierarchies: e.g. academic and non-academic staff, postdocs vs faculty. Change the names/labels and structures of your meetings to be inclusive rather than to fragment your community.


3. Be social: Have more parties that are inclusive – not everyone drinks alcohol!! Try biscuits, donuts…..or seeds and podded peas for the health conscious!


4. The little things matter: Senior staff/Heads of Departments need to set these standards by spending time with all staff and students, investing in everyone, not just the powerful. Make new staff feel welcomed, valued and integrated by having your Head of Department/School greet them personally on arrival, arrange for them to meet other staff, each day, each week, and again week after week after week – because repeated interactions are what it takes to get to know someone. Show respect and investment in your undergraduate students: Heads of School, why not deliver your new undergrads their first lecture yourself: students are important enough for this!


5. Be inclusive. It’s not about a list of ‘women’, ‘foreign students’, ‘support staff’ – you’re either inclusive or not. It EVEN includes middle class white heterosexual men! Categorizing your employees/students fragments the community and encourages animosity between groups. Acknowledge and celebrate all festivals: don’t just send out festive emails at Christmas, recognize the religious festivals of all your staff support and academic) and students.


6. Prioritise help for the ‘majority in need’: It might be new mums, but equally it might be new dads! Help these people get back on track – nothing costs more than a member of staff who doesn’t write grants: allow your returning staff the space to do this by funding a postdoc/technician to help them out for a few months so the staff member can focus on their grant writing. It might seem expensive, but if it means that staff member lands a £800k grant or two, it makes economic sense.


7. Be honest: Expose the humanity of your department so you know what the problems are, and work out how to improve. Determine where unconscious bias is creeping in – we all do it! Personal bias results in bad decision making.


You can find these and other tweets from Tom’s talk on our @SoapboxScience twitter feed #TomstoptipsforGOLD


Tom has proved that his simple manifesto of common sense humanity works. In other words, an Athena SWAN GOLD award is essentially a badge that says your colleagues behave respectfully, fairly and with the courtesy expected from common sense humanity to all, irrespective of gender or any other minority group or ‘category’ one might perceive. So why aren’t we doing this already? We’re all human. Is the academia work-place really lacking so much in mutual respect and social dignity?

The key is that it doesn’t happen over night: you need the drip, drip, drip approach and commitment for the long haul. So what are most of us (in academia generally) are doing wrong?


1) Championing for equality is rarely led from the top. Equality (Athena SWAN) champions/leaders are too often junior academic staff members (usually women), or they are non-academic/administrative staff or equality and diversity officers. Equality champions need to include people at the top of the academic food chain –  senior professors with insights into their department, Heads of Departments, or recent past-Heads, Heads of Faculty, Deans. These people have a deep understanding of their work place and their staff, they have the power to impose change, set standards, and they probably also the charisma and management skills to chivvy their staff along to achieve the change. Moreover, it’s only when you start getting involved with the real people in your Department first-hand that you get a proper appreciation of the problems and how to rectify them. As Tom said, the drip, drip, drip approach is what works – a champion for change needs to stick at it for the long haul and not go away! But, for championing equality to be attractive proposition for senior staff whose concerns lie more with grant funding and REF impact plans, it needs to be valued, recognised and supported. Achieving equality and fairness in the workplace is not just about ticking the Athena SWAN award box and drawing up a SMART Action Plan: it’s about creating a nurturing, energised and fair working environment for real people with real feelings and real lives. Universities must to invest in the support and resources that the senior staff need, to provide them with the incentive to take this long-term responsibility on and to take it seriously. As one Athena SWAN member of staff told me yesterday: “Gold awards go departments with Heads of Departments/Deans who buy fully into cultural change”.


2) Positive action is confused with positive discrimination.  Understandably, men in academic may feel threatened and uncomfortable with initiatives like Athena SWAN and Soapbox Science, whose manifestos explicitly state their focus on women. But, the statistics are clear: there is a leaky pipe in science, with women haemorrhaging their way out the door before realising their career potential. These women are not leaving because they are ‘bad scientists’. They are as talented, innovative and amazing as the men they leave behind. Undoubtedly, scientific break-throughs are being missed/delayed because we are not retaining our best scientists, irrespective of their gender. So, we need to do something to get to the root of the problem and balance the playing field.  No person wants to be promoted because of their gender (or because they belong to a minority): a fair environment is one where rewards are won based on merit and achievement, irrespective of gender. A common misconception is that equality initiatives are about positive discrimination. This is wrong: they are about positive action. Positive action provides everyone with the support and encouragement they need to get on with their careers in a fair and nurturing environment. Research shows that women benefit from that extra encouragement and support more than men, and the reassurance that a career break or working part time doesn’t mean they lose their place in the game.  Equally, men need the reassurance that leaving early to pick up the kids from day-care, or working part-time to look after an ageing relative, is acceptable behaviour for a serious academic. Indiscriminate positive action is what we should be focusing on. It just so happens that right now, in our culture, women are likely to benefit more from this support than men. As more fathers take up the opportunity of 6 months parental leave with their newborn baby, the focus on women will become less important. In the future, I think we’d all like to see Athena SWAN becoming an explicit champion for equality in science, not just women. But for now, they have good reason to focus on women.


3) Hierarchies and habits constrain mutual respect and social cohesion. Society thrives on hierarchies and convention – they help us compartmentalise tasks, relationships, improve productivity and reduce the complexities of countless interactions and choices to a more manageable number. But hierarchies and habits also constrain compassion, brood displeasure, fragment communities, encourage alienation and breed isolation. To nurture full respect and humility within an academic environment, we need to break down those barriers and hard-wired habits. At first, this takes courage from everyone and demands mindful consideration of consequences: those at the bottom of the pile need to know when is it acceptable to break form; those at the top of the pile need to recognise when it is necessary to break form.  But there are many scenarios in an academic department when habit and hierarchy breaking would be exceptionally easy and highly effective. Cut through the career and pay strata, and invite everyone to important decision-making meetings, social events, networking groups. People will end up self-selecting on the basis of their interests, what they get out of it and personal goals.  Break habits by sitting somewhere different, having lunch at a different time to interact with different people. Break the cliques, increase the flow. Social interactions are powerful events – a smile in the corridor, a few words in the lift, sharing a packet of biscuits with the office next door, can radically change the atmosphere of a work place. It might even spark a few ground-breaking scientific ideas…

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