What is Athena SWAN?

The Athena SWAN Charter is an evaluation and accreditation program that has been running for over a decade in the UK, with tremendous success in enhancing gender equity for science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM).

Through Bronze, Silver and Gold Awards, the Charter recognises excellence in employment practices that advance and promote the careers of women and gender minorities in STEMM subjects.

The Athena SWAN Charter is governed by 10 principles that encourage institutions to ensure that women from diverse backgrounds as well as underrepresented groups are best positioned to reach their full potential.

Institutions join the Charter with their executive leader signing up the Principles of the Charter. The institution subsequently works towards an Athena SWAN Award, which in Australia involves over two-years of activities to gather evidence and address gender equity and diversity issues within their organisation. They begin by appointing a team of scientists, students and professional and support staff who collect and analyse data to identify gender and diversity issues within their organisation. Institutions must also consult broadly with their STEMM academics, staff and students to identify gaps between policy and practice.

The Athena SWAN Charter evolved in the UK through two interrelated activities: the Athena Project, led by women academics, and the Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN) that worked to establish a national charter for gender equity. Below is the history of the UK Charter and an overview of the Award outcomes in the UK.

History

The Athena Project, which still operates today, began as a group of dedicated women academics who worked to advance the representation of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). The Project would go on to support the Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN) to create a national charter to promote women in STEMM, especially with a view to getting women into leadership roles.

The Athena Project was the initiative of a small network of distinguished women in science aimed at achieving practical change for women in STEMM.

Beginning in 1999, the founders of the Athena Project focused on actions that could deliver results quickly. Simultaneously, they worked on sustainable actions over the longer term, through engaging institutional leaders, developing grassroots networks in the scientific community and recognising and promoting good practice throughout the sector.

One of the local networks for the Athena Project, the Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN), proposed a National Charter for Women and Science.

In 2003, SWAN was bestowed a Royal Society Athena Award for its work. The following year, the new UK Resource Centre for Women and Science (UKRC) offered support to the Athena Project to develop what became the Athena SWAN Charter.

Growth of the Charter

The Athena SWAN Charter officially began with ten member institutions coming together to launch Athena SWAN at the UK Institute of Physics on 22 June 2005. Vice Chancellors of these universities would vow to uphold six Athena SWAN Principles – the guiding framework for action against gender inequity.

The Charter would go on to be managed the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU).

In 2006, the first awards were conferred. The success and influence of the program has grown throughout the UK higher education sector.

One decade later, there are 137 institutions who belong to the UK Athena SWAN Charter, predominantly higher education institutions, with a small but rising number of research institutes.

In May 2015 the scope of the Athena SWAN Charter was expanded, incorporating four new principles covering intersectionality and support for transgender staff and students, as well as a renewed commitment to staff in professional and support roles. At the same time, the Charter was further extended to address gender equity in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law disciplines.

Today, membership of the Athena SWAN Charter is based on commitment to adopting its ten key principles for gender equity.

In the video below, Chief Executive of the ECU, David Ruebain, discusses the growth of the Charter, how Athena SWAN works in different types of institutions, its impact in the UK, and its international reputation.

Athena SWAN Awards

Institutions join the Charter with the expectation of working towards an Athena SWAN Award, beginning with a Bronze Institutional Award. 

Institutions begin their application process by forming a Self-Assessment Team (“SAT”) who coordinate in-depth data collection and analysis to examine an institution’s policies, practices, and workplace culture. The results are presented in an application that must identify key issues, gaps and opportunities affecting gender equity and diversity. The application also includes an Action Plan to address gender equity problems.

The application undergoes peer review. If successful, Awards are valid for four years and must then be renewed, with demonstration that the Action Plan has been met, or upgraded if the institution can show strong evidence of impact. Departments are also eligible to apply for Awards if their institution is granted a Bronze Institutional Award.

Departmental Awards will not be trialled in Australia until after the current SAGE Pilot is completed.

The criteria for the Gold Institutional Awards were announced in June 2015, though the application and documentation have yet to be released.

Current Athena SWAN Award Holders in the UK

Higher Education Institution smallThere are currently 93 institutions that hold Athena SWAN Awards in the UK. The majority of these are held at the Bronze level, with only nine Awards held at the Silver level.

Bronze Awards require institutions to demonstrate a solid foundation for improving gender equity in STEMM throughout their institution.

Silver Awards require institutions to demonstrate a significant record of activity and achievement towards improving gender equity. This can typically take many years. Among those institutions currently holding a Silver Award, the average time between joining the Charter and achieving a Silver Award was six years.

The process for obtaining Gold Awards was opened in June 2015. Gold Awards recognise a strong record of activity and achievement, sustained progression, demonstrable impact and leadership in the sector. No institutions have yet received a Gold Award.

Table 1: Athena SWAN Institutional Awards

Award category Gold Silver Bronze All awards
Higher Education Institutions 7 73 80
Research Institutes 2 11 13
Institutional Awards Total 9 84 93

Once an institution has gained a Bronze Award, individual departments within that institution are eligible to work towards a Bronze, Silver or Gold Award. Only seven departments have obtained a Gold Award, and none has been awarded since 2013.

Table 2: Athena SWAN Departmental Awards

Award category Gold Silver Bronze All awards
Institutional Awards 9 84 93
Departmental Awards 7 128 309 444
Total Awards 7 137 393 537

Athena SWAN in Australia

The SAGE Pilot is a trial of the Athena SWAN Charter within the Australian context. The decision to pursue the SAGE Pilot emerged at the SAGE Forum held in November 2014. Over 140 senior leaders convened at the Australian Academy of Science to review how to best achieve cultural change within STEMM. Athena SWAN was seen as the most ideal coordinated program to retain and promote the research excellence of women scientists in Australia.

Another international Pilot of Athena SWAN has already been undertaken in Ireland. Australia is the first nation outside the UK and the Republic of Ireland to trial Athena SWAN.

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