Episode 12: How to Athena Swan (Part 1: Self-assessment team and discovery)

If you haven’t been directly involved in Athena Swan at your organisation, you might be wondering: what does it actually take to get an Athena Swan Award? How is joining SAGE any different from taking part in other gender equity programs?

To answer these questions, we speak to returning guest Dr Lucie Joschko, Manager, Staff Equity and Diversity at Monash University.

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A transcript of the episode (edited for readability) is available below.


00:03 Mei Leow
Hi, you’re listening to Think Difference. Before we begin this episode, we’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, who are the traditional custodians of the land on which the SAGE offices are located. We also pay our respects to the people of the Kulin nations on whose land Monash University’s major campuses operate, and acknowledge and welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are listening today.

Maybe you’re a staff member or student in higher education and research. You’ve seen posters or emails around that show your institution is part of SAGE, has an Athena Swan award, or that they’re running certain activities as part of their Athena Swan action plan.

Or maybe you’ve read a news article about gender equity that mentions SAGE. You’ve probably guessed that SAGE is a program for improving gender equity diversity and inclusion. But what does it mean when an organisation signs up to SAGE? What do they actually have to do?

In this episode, we’ll look at the steps involved in achieving SAGE accreditation. There are three levels of Athena Swan Awards: Bronze, Silver and Gold. During the SAGE Pilot, which ran from 2016 to 2019, participating institutions applied for the foundational Bronze accreditation. SAGE subscribers who have achieved their Bronze Award are now working towards an Athena Swan Silver award.

Achieving a Bronze Award doesn’t mean that an institution has solved gender inequities. Rather, Bronze is awarded for identifying inequities and coming up with an action plan, with clear timelines and targets, to remove these inequities.

It’s less about focusing on what has been done and much, much more about learning what more needs to be done.
So when an institution joins SAGE and start applying for a Bronze Award, their first move is to collect and analyse data on where inequities might exist within the organisation.

Once they know where the inequities are and what systemic and cultural factors contribute to those inequities, they can design tailored actions to address those specific issues.

To tell us more about the Discovery and Action Planning phase, we have Dr Lucie Joschko, the Manager, Staff Equity and Diversity, at Monash University. Lucie has been part of the Athena Swan journey at Monash since they first joined SAGE in 2015.

02:23 Lucie Joschko
At the very start, we divided our project timeline into three phases: Discovery, Consultation and Completion. And we refer to these when we were reporting progress to our key stakeholders, including reporting on our expenditure, because each project phase had a slightly different emphasis, and so it had a different type of expenses and these phases really kept us focused as we try to organise our main activities in a logical order.

Discovery was largely about preliminary analysis of staff data, reviewing and assessing our established processes and policies and programs. Whereas consultation – so our attention turned towards communicating with the university community, inviting people’s input, establishing working groups, organising workshops, focus groups, and running survey.

The Completion phase was our rather plain title for the final few months that we knew we had to dedicate to drafting and redrafting, and then seeking the university’s endorsement of our application and our action plan. And this had its unpredictable detours. Overall, from our first Athena Swan Committee meeting in February 2016, it took 25 months to submit our application in March 2018.

03:34 Mei Leow
As the name suggests, the self-assessment team, or the SAT, is the main group of people who are responsible for assessing the institution’s current state of gender equity and preparing their institution’s application for an Athena Swan Award.

To give the self-assessment team enough time to do this, institutions must wait two years after they join SAGE before they can submit their application for an award.

03:59 Lucie Joschko
It’s funny because at the start, we were puzzled by the mandatory two-year period of self-assessment. Because after our preliminary scan of the criteria, we concluded this work can’t possibly need more than six months. Now, in hindsight, having gone through the process… I can only return to my earlier comment that you should not think of the final product as the application document itself, it’s what you uncover along the way; what you choose to do about it.

You certainly could produce a 10,000-word application in six months, but I guarantee you would not institute a real transformation and end up with a comprehensive, evidence-backed action plan.

So let’s talk more about Discovery. As the name already indicates, Discovery was dedicated to gathering information and learning – learning about Athena Swan, about the requirements of the framework. And as Athena Swan was brand new in Australia and our self-assessment team was just formed, a substantial proportion of our time was learning, attending SAGE workshops – generally figuring out the process.

The self-assessment team started with information-gathering at the start, with initiatives that STEMM faculties had in place. We were exchanging information, researching best practice. We were assessing what policies and data sources existed at our university. But eventually, after the first few months, I think the metaphorical fog had lifted, and we got into a rhythm of things.

One of the activities that we found particularly useful at this time is that from a list of 20 or even 30 Bronze applications that we were able to access from the UK (and now these are also available from Australian SAGE members), we divided them among our committee members to review the content, discuss at our meetings, what we learned. Go into details, what we like or disliked about each application. We would comment on the format, language, clarity, presentation of data or the actual action plan.

And this exercise exposed us to how institutions could address the same criteria differently. It really showed us that we should expect the development of our application and action plan to take some thinking. And of course, it was a great way for our SAT members to start contributing and to start building rapport with each other.

About nine months after our first SAT meeting, we officially launched Athena Swan at Monash with an event for all staff. And you may ask, why so late?

Well, the event was not just to announce that we joined SAGE and this program. We took the opportunity to present findings from our preliminary data analysis and talked about the objectives of the framework and where Athena Swan at Monash was expected to make the difference.

The timing, I think, worked quite well as it led quite smoothly to the opening of our consultation activities, because many of our attendees from that particular day in fact turned out to be enthusiastic contributors in our working groups that we established soon after that.

06:48 Mei Leow
Let’s get back to the self-assessment team. We know what they do, but where do its members come from? What kind of people does an effective self-assessment team need?

06:57 Lucie Joschko
The goal is to convene a group of people who will be able to bring their whole selves into the process: a group that will be authentic, engaged, committed and actively champion the cause. And you may very well call on colleagues you already know or ask for nominations from your faculty Deans.

But don’t be shy to state upfront that you are looking for diversity. Diversity of experiences, both professional and personal backgrounds, career stages – try to achieve representation of experienced decision-makers as well as early-career researchers.

Seek members who faced specific barriers in their academic career. Staff who dealt with career interruptions, who have caregiving responsibilities, who entered academia late or through non-linear career journey, who recently underwent an academic promotion process. Staff who work part-time, don’t have a tenure, staff from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. People with disability, staff who experienced work as members of the LGBTIQ community… the list could go on, and I’m certainly not suggesting you need to be able to tick all of these boxes, but rather diversity of perspectives.

If you invite them and intentionally include them, it will absolutely enrich your discussions. It will help you explore topics through the lens of intersectionality.

In terms of size, our committee fluctuated between 15 and 20 members, and I thought that size was just right. We have five STEMM faculties plus a large biomedical discovery institute at Monash. So we’d have at least two representatives from each area. We also have at least two to three representatives from HR and a student representative.

08:30 Mei Leow
Institutions must also consider how the self-assessment team, and Athena Swan in general, will interact with other units so that the project has the institutional support and oversight it needs, without duplicating existing work around gender equity, diversity and inclusion.

08:46 Lucie Joschko
In regards to setting up a governance structure, we knew we needed to establish a reporting line to the Vice Chancellor. We in fact noted it as one of our action items, and we put forward a paper proposing that SAT becomes a sub-committee of the university-wide Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which is chaired by the Vice Chancellor and then reports the Vice Chancellor’s Executive group. During the same time, Athena Swan at Monash prompted STEMM faculties to establish their own faculty-level diversity and inclusion committees.

It certainly helped that two of us, then Deans, had prior experience with the Athena Swan framework from working in the UK. They were ready to support it from day one. And we then wrote the role of faculty chairs of Equity Committees into our terms of reference to ensure they were represented, and they subsequently formalised our channels for communicating our progress to STEMM faculties, you know, disseminating relevant information and inviting input.

One of the biggest, most important questions to ask early is: where does Athena Swan fit in your institution?

We were already progressing objectives of our Gender Equality Strategy and Action Plan. We had gender equity targets in place; we would annually apply for external recognition programs such as the Employer of Choice for Gender Equality or running programs such as women’s mentoring, senior women’s shadowing, a research grant program for women who are primary caregivers.

We would maintain a centre of expertise in gender equality, LGBTIQ inclusion, and managed our legislative reporting. So we had a lot going on for a team of two people, and when Monash signed up to participate in the Athena Swan program, it was very clear that its objective supported our existing gender equality programs. It aligned closely with our targeted focus on STEMM, but it absolutely generated workload that necessitated the discussions around expanding the team.

Initially we hired an Athena Swan coordinator to provide administrative support around committee meetings, organising events or collecting information. But it soon became apparent that admin support is not enough. We really needed to create a role that would be more senior, have a high degree of autonomy, strong analytical skills, knowledge of gender equity issues, someone who would be able to lead productive stakeholder engagement.

So I think this is the lesson we learned is the position description we initially created was not suitable, and it is important that you consider the needs and the demands of your diversity and inclusion teams. It’s also important that you consider not developing any new role in isolation.

We initially had a role that supported Athena Swan, not the pre-existing gender equity work. And we really learned that Athena Swan cannot be treated as a separate project in isolation, away from all other existing gender equity programs or initiatives at your institution – certainly not in a way that would allow you to maximise the opportunities at hand, and that is simply because Athena Swan and your gender equity strategy have a symbiotic relationship.

So if you are able to bring in an additional resource to support the work on the Athena Swan accreditation, I recommend that the new role includes responsibilities for the broader gender equity or staff equity, diversity and inclusion work, so that Athena Swan objectives can be progressed in tandem with this work. And I cannot possibly express in numbers how many actions or changes we were able to implement, because Athena Swan was not a project in isolation. Its objectives essentially became embedded in all of our work.

12:17 Mei Leow
Once an institution has put together their self-assessment dream team, they can start to tackle data collection and analysis.

12:25 Lucie Joschko
Now, during the Discovery phase, we began collecting and analysing a wide range of staff data and approached it more from an exploratory perspective rather than strictly producing the set of charts and tables that would go into our application one day.

We would examine various data and debate what they mean, and I think that process helped SAT members build their knowledge base as well. And as you already know, the whole accreditation framework is highly reliant on data.

12:50 Mei Leow
The great thing about being a higher education or research institution is you can recruit lots of highly skilled researchers and scientists to be part of your self-assessment team. But sometimes, this can be a double-edged sword.

13:03 Lucie Joschko
In a meeting or workshop, a group of people who are absolutely data-driven, who have highly developed analytical, curious minds will make endless suggestions on how one data set can be cut different ways, or connected to another data set, or presented across all kinds of variables, or tested for their statistical validity.

So at times the challenge for me was not the data analysis itself, but the skill to tame this enthusiasm to a degree so we could actually agree if a data analysis of a particular topic was sufficiently complete and we could move on.

13:36 Mei Leow
But even with an enthusiastic team of data experts, wrangling so much data is an enormously challenging task.

13:43 Lucie Joschko
I think there are two reasons for feeling generally overwhelmed when it comes to data. Either you will face difficulties accessing certain data sets and you might feel impatient or even frustrated that it should be easier – and in this case, don’t forget that you are able to acknowledge these gaps and address them in your action plan – or you will experience an overwhelm by the sheer amount of institutional data at your fingertips that you almost don’t know where to start.

I think we were in the latter category, and that doesn’t speak for our inability to tackle data in a methodical way, but rather the realisation of the amount of work associated with data analysis and data presentation – especially when this initial work relies on a person or two to lead it.

14:24 Mei Leow
What can institutions do to make this process easier? Lucie has four tips. Tip number 1:

14:30 Lucie Joschko
Be strategic before diving into sea of data. Define what questions you are trying to answer within each area so that you have a clear marker when you have achieved it.

Also when you plan to look at historical trends, add more years to your data than the required three years. It won’t take more time to run a report that provides the same data for five or ten years, and will save you a considerable amount of time when someone decides later on that you wish you could examine a longer historical trend.

And I should add that going back substantially further in your historical data is, of course, optional. It’s not a necessary step in your self-assessment process, but will definitely help you understand the pace of progress in the ever-so-slowly increasing proportion of women in senior roles.

Whenever possible, I like to go back 20 years, which really helps you appreciate the distance travelled. Because when it comes to equity interventions, changes just take years to manifest.

15:26 Mei Leow
Tip number 2.

15:28 Lucie Joschko
The other tip is involve your HR data analyst in your discussions. I mean, it’s quite obvious – this person will be your quickest way of identifying what is available in terms of data and what is feasible to build, if it’s not available. And if you value and involve this data analyst in your discussions and your meetings, magic can happen.

15:46 Mei Leow
Tip number 3.

15:48 Lucie Joschko
Identify gaps early so new data reports can be developed. Very likely, you will come across a topic or an area where certain data are not readily available for analysis. And ideally, you would seek to rectify it.

So my recommendation is to have a go at creating a list of all data sources that you will need, identifying what is available to you from recruitment to promotion to professional development, carers leave uptake, parental leave, staff exit data and so on. Because if you identify gaps early in the self-assessment cycle, it is more likely that if that data can be put together for you – even if through a more painstaking manual process – there will be sufficient time for the report to be developed.

16:29 Mei Leow
Finally, tip number 4.

16:31 Lucie Joschko
Lock in definitions early, such as what the departments fall under the definition of STEMM to avoid redoing data, because we were there. We went back and forth a couple of times and it cost us time.

16:45 Mei Leow
So we’ve heard about how to set up a self-assessment team. We also got an idea of the quantitative data that they have to compile and analyse, with the help of the institution’s HR team.

Now, quantitative data is extremely valuable if you want to know how many people are entering, leaving or rising through the institution’s ranks. But it’s not so good at explaining why some groups are entering, leaving or progressing at different rates. For that, institutions need to consult directly with their staff and gather some qualitative data.

Join us next time for Part 2, where we’ll ask Lucie what the consultation process looked like at Monash, and how they put together their Athena Swan application and action plan.

In the meantime, if you want to be part of the discussion on gender equity and diversity, tweet us @SciGenderEquity. You can also subscribe to the podcast via Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Stay tuned for more stories on gender equity and diversity. Bye for now.

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