Leadership Value of Athena SWAN

The Athena SWAN Charter recognises that Vice Chancellors, Directors and other institutional leaders are critical in achieving gender equity progress across their institutions.

Many leaders of Athena SWAN Award-holding institutions have chosen to support gender equity and inclusion beyond reasons of personal conviction. These leaders recognise that gender equity and gender diversity are pivotal to increasing scientific excellence. Here we focus on cases where institutions hold an Athena SWAN Bronze Institutional Award, the award being piloted in Australia.

In 2014, the Equality Challenge Unit, who run the Athena SWAN Charter in the UK, commissioned research involving interviews with a group of institutional leaders. The report titled, The Rationale for Equality and Diversity, also assesses the impact of equity and diversity strategies, including Athena SWAN and the new Race Equality Chartermark. The following case studies show the central contribution institutional leaders make to improving equity and diversity, and how Athena SWAN is enhancing the work of research institutions.



University of Lincoln

The University of Lincoln has risen rapidly in the university league tables since it started work with the Athena SWAN Charter. The Times Good University Guide 2014  described this as “The most dramatic transformation of a university in recent times.” Equality and diversity is perceived by the university as “vital” to this success.

The proportion of female academic promotions has risen from 25 percent to 45 percent in recent years. There have been three senior appointments of women working flexibly with a combination of part-time and working-from-home options.

In 2013, 97 percent of staff agreed that they were aware of the university’s equality and diversity policies and 87 percent felt respected by managers.

The University of Lincoln has been an Athena SWAN member since 2008 and has held a Bronze Award since 2014. In the quote above, Professor Mary Stuart, Vice Chancellor of the University, notes that the work undertaken to improve gender diversity as part of their Athena SWAN Bronze Award helps the institution push the frontiers of knowledge.

Newcastle University

Five years after joining the Athena SWAN Charter, employees at Newcastle University voted their institution one of the best places to work in the Times Higher Education Best University Workplace Survey 2014. The university ranked in the top five on measures of leadership, recommendation for working at the university, work-life balance, and providing a fair deal for its employees.

During the period that the University was working towards an Athena SWAN Bronze Award, the number of female professors has increased from 76 women in 2011 to 90 women in 2013. This is an increase of 18.4 percent in two years.

Professor Chris Brink, Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University, emphasises that the Athena SWAN process leads to excellence:

We value diversity because we are committed to excellence and we recognise the existence of inequality as a concomitant social challenge, to which we undertake to respond… Sociodiversity is valuable to the intellectual environment in the same way as biodiversity is valuable to the natural environment.

Newcastle University has been an Athena SWAN member since 2009 and has held a Bronze Award since the same year.

Aberystwyth University

Within three years of joining the Athena SWAN Charter, the Executive team at Aberystwyth University had achieved a 50/50 gender mix.

As part of its work towards an Athena SWAN Bronze Award, the University has also undertaken focused work to encourage women to apply for academic promotion in greater numbers. The University has introduced a two-stage process involving an expression of interest and mentorship which has proved successful. After one female applicant was judged to be so strong by the promotions panel that she was promoted directly to a higher level (Reader) than the one she applied for (Senior Lecturer), this sent a powerful message that encouraged more women to put themselves forward for promotion. Subsequently, in 2014, this led to a noticeable increase in the number of women applicants applying for academic promotions at the university.

Aberystwyth University has been an Athena SWAN member since 2011 and has held a Bronze Award since 2014. Reflecting on the Athena SWAN journey, Professor April McMahon, Vice Chancellor of Aberystwyth University, says that as a leader, she is a living symbol for gender equity within her institution:

I am not so much an advocate for widening participation, but an advert for it.

Royal Holloway, University of London

Principal Professor at the University of London, Paul Layzell, plays an active role in fostering leadership and talent, and personally chairs the academic promotions committee. He ensures the equal opportunity statement is read out at the start of each meeting which “helps to empower new people on the committee to speak up.” Professor Layzell, says that equity is central to the business of higher education: “Universities are in the talent management business.”

As part of the University’s commitment to Athena SWAN, the number of women senior lecturers rose over four years from 27 percent in 2009 to 38 percent in 2013. Twenty-four percent of professors are now women, compared with the sector average of around 21 percent.

Royal Holloway, University of London was ranked first in UK and fifth in world for Times Higher Education world rankings for international outlook (both for staff and students).

Royal Holloway has been an Athena SWAN member since 2009 and has held a Bronze Award since 2010.

Cardiff University

In the Times Higher Education world rankings for international outlook, Cardiff University was ranked highest among the UK’s Russell Group (a collective of research-intensive universities). The high rank is for standards including both staff and students. Cardiff was also voted the best university in the UK for international student satisfaction in a 2013 European-wide survey.

These high rankings are supported by the University’s work with the Athena SWAN Charter.

Since receiving an Athena SWAN Award, the proportion of women receiving a first class degree in Cardiff rose from 16.5 percent in 2012, to 20 percent in 2013.

Cardiff University has been an Athena SWAN member since 2006 and has held a Bronze Award since 2009. In the quote below, Professor Terry Threadgold, Pro Vice Chancellor Staff and Diversity, reports that gender diversity is crucial to fostering excellence and supporting the University’s aim to become “a world-class university.”


Gender Equity & Scientific Excellence

The tangible benefits that flow from consistent engagement in equity and diversity strategies include an increase in the number of women students successfully completing STEMM degrees; a greater proportion of women in leadership roles; and increased workplace satisfaction and sense of inclusion. The institutional leaders who have signed up to the Athena SWAN Charter see the work of gender equity and gender diversity as central to their institutional success.

With consistent engagement, gender equity and diversity becomes quintessential to research excellence. The Rationale for Equality and Diversity report notes:

the more integral equality and diversity is seen to be to the success of a university, the less easy it is to separate out its impact. It becomes part of the institutional DNA and an important (but not the sole) contributor to its success.