Episode 13: How to Athena Swan (Part 2: Consultation and action plan)

To solve gender inequity, we need to know what is happening and why it’s happening. Dr Lucie Joschko shares how Monash University conducted focus groups and surveys to reveal the whys. The result is a robust Athena Swan action plan, but implementing this plan requires a huge team effort across the 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.

What does an institution have to do to get an Athena Swan Bronze Award? The short answer is: a lot, actually!

In the previous episode, we talked to Dr Lucie Joschko, the Manager, Staff Equity and Diversity at Monash University, about the steps involved in achieving SAGE accreditation, starting with the Discovery and Action Planning phase.

Lucie told us about how Monash set up their self-assessment team, also known as the SAT. We also heard about the kinds of data they have to collect and analyse – data on how many people are entering, leaving or getting promoted at the institution, for example.

But quantitative data is just the tip of the data iceberg. It’s great for describing what is happening at an institution, but not so good at explaining why.

Without knowing why some groups of people are entering or leaving more than others, it’s hard for institutions to come up with a good plan for improving their attraction, retention and progression of underrepresented groups.

Because of that, as part of their Discovery process, institutions will also consult directly with their staff and students to gather lots of qualitative data.

In Part 2 of this episode, Lucie will tell us how Monash ran focus groups and surveys as part of their ten-month-long consultation process, and how they put together their Athena Swan application and action plan.

01:50 Lucie Joschko
Consultation phase was really critical to the Athena Swan accreditation process. We had to engage staff on a range of gender equality issues and communicate our finding.

From my experience, consultation was by far the most rewarding, engaging part of the accreditation process.

So some of the things we did during the Consultation phase: we commissioned focus groups, we developed and administered staff equity and diversity survey.

We identified opportunities for early implementations or quick wins. They really are a fantastic way of communicating value of the program early on.

We hosted workshops and forums for staff. We established working groups and we commenced drafting action plan.

I will mention a little bit more about the focus groups and working groups because they made an enormous difference to our self-assessment process.

Focus groups were one of the most interesting, rewarding and insightful activities we did as part of Athena Swan. I might not have known that at the time when we were trying to schedule people into multiple sessions, but looking back at what the focus groups achieved, I highly recommend that you do them too.

In large organisations like Monash, I think inevitably there is a tendency to prioritise surveys over focus groups because focus groups gather data from only small groups of people.

They might not give you the representative sample from your institution, and you can say they also take longer to conduct than a survey, but in turn you get incredibly rich data.

The findings from our focus groups backed up all the evidence from Athena Swan in relation to the status of inequalities in STEMM. And the report that was prepared from the focus groups provided a strong business case for the university leadership why we are part of the program.

03:31 Mei Leow
There’s a lot to consider when planning focus groups.

03:35 Lucie Joschko
So first the questions you want to consider is whether you should conduct focus groups before or after your survey, assuming you are planning to do both. We did both. There’s no right or wrong because focus groups and surveys will still provide you with insightful data, irrespective which one goes first.

But the reason we chose to run focus groups ahead of the institution-wide survey was that we thought that findings would really inform the development of our questionnaire.

We also discussed the value of repeating the focus groups after the conclusion of our survey, so that we could maybe try to dig deeper into reasons behind certain responses or data patterns in our survey.

But at the end, we did not find it necessary because of the high number of survey respondents who engaged in the optional open-ended comments, so that gave us plenty of qualitative data to analyse.

04:21 Mei Leow
How do you choose facilitators for your focus groups? Is it better to go with an internal or external facilitator?

04:28 Lucie Joschko
Well, nothing stops you from conducting focus groups yourselves, and it’s certainly more cost-effective. But we opted for an external consultant to remove any possible hesitation of who-knows-who, to simply encourage participants to openly share their views and experiences, and also because to do this really well – our capacity was already quite stretched at the time.

So we were extremely fortunate to have found a consultant with a very in-depth knowledge of gender equality issues in the higher education sector.

And secondly, select your facilitator carefully. I think whether it is one of your staff or an external facilitator, the focus groups deserve a person with credibility and experience.

05:07 Mei Leow
What about the questions themselves? How structured or unstructured should they be, and what should we ask about?

05:14 Lucie Joschko
Well, guided by the Athena Swan framework and the topics we had to address in our Bronze application, we developed the semi-structured questionnaire that provided the degree of consistency for all focus groups, but also gave the facilitator the flexibility to explore any new topics or themes that participants would raise.

The findings were presented to us in a really comprehensive 60+ pages report that shone light on culture, barriers to career advancements, reasons for attrition…

It was really eye-opening, very insightful.

05:47 Mei Leow
No matter how many focus groups you run, as with putting together a self-assessment team, it’s important to make sure that you’re capturing a diversity of people and experiences.

05:57 Lucie Joschko
We started with 10, approximately 5 participants per group, but later we added two more sessions for staff from faculties that were not represented in the initial groups.

We added a session specifically for staff at regional location, and later again, we also held a separate session for LGBTIQ staff.

I’d like to give you this tip as well. Name your focus groups more broadly. In our advertising, we refer to the focus groups as Athena Swan focus groups, but at that time, there was no sufficient awareness for what is Athena Swan (especially for staff outside of STEMM) to associate it with gender equity.

It was the reason why we chose to run two focus groups later on specifically for staff from humanities, arts and social sciences because we were very keen to compare their experiences.

06:45 Mei Leow
When the Athena Swan Charter was first established in the UK, its focus was on improving the careers of women in STEMM; that is science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.

Similarly, the SAGE pilot focused mainly on STEMM academics. However, post-pilot, SAGE expanded its scope to include non-academic staff as well as staff and students from all disciplines, including the humanities, arts and social sciences – sometimes called the HASS disciplines for short.

Lucie agrees that this is a good move.

07:17 Lucie Joschko
When we ran our focus groups with those faculties, some of those challenges they’re experiencing are more dramatic than STEMM.

A lot of our HASS faculties don’t even have equity, diversity [and] inclusion committees and it makes you realise that gender equity is not about numbers of the gender balance.

If women are overrepresented, [it] doesn’t mean they don’t have challenges. In fact sometimes, the bias and the practices that exist in those areas were more rampant than what STEMM experienced.

And so the expansion of Athena Swan framework beyond STEMM, I think, is really important. So we now invited representation from HASS on our committee.

We also included our colleagues from Monash University in Malaysia. They’re not part of Athena Swan, but it just shows that we’re embedding it really in everything that we do, and that should not exclude people simply because they don’t fall under the definition that was originally given to us.

08:15 Mei Leow
If you’re running or participating in an Athena Swan focus group, it’s important to be mentally prepared.

08:22 Lucie Joschko
The last thing I would like to mention is that when your focus groups are finished and you receive the final report, be ready to learn about all the dark corners of your institution.

Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of positive feedback on our existing initiatives, policies and programs.

But what stood out to me is that there were comments about the combative, almost aggressive culture that made women reconsider their career options – accounts of masculine culture that made women feel locked out of networking or career-building opportunities.

I was quite alarmed by those findings, but I think if the purpose of the focus groups was to unearth all that was wrong, it certainly did the job.

In a way, we also reflected on this in relation to the type of people who are most likely to volunteer as focus group participants. And it’s highly probable that these opportunities tend to attract people who have big stories to tell.

09:13 Mei Leow
At the time that Monash University was applying for their Bronze Award, there were over 30 different sections in the application, covering topics such as recruitment, promotion, parental leave and culture, just to name a few. Athena Swan leaves no stone unturned.

Lucie shares a bit about coordinating such a large team effort.

09:33 Lucie Joschko
11 months in, we established 5 working groups through expressions of interest. Staff were able to nominate what topic of the Bronze application they would like to collaborate on.

We aligned the working groups thematically according to the main topics in the application. We had about 40 staff join. The working groups were led by selected committee members.

They met as often as required outside of our committee meetings, and then we hosted three workshops so all working groups could come together and present their progress to each other.

They would report on what the university does well, where they think the main gaps are, and they talked about their proposed actions to address this.

It was really energising to see so many people – and again, such a diversity of perspectives – to give their time to collaborate and to help us progress our goals.

The only downside of having 30 or 40 people actively collaborating on one application is that you receive drafts or sections that are written in vastly different tones, different styles. You will likely encounter duplication of ideas because they were not necessarily looking at other draft sections.

When we combined all drafts into one document, it tripled the permitted word limit and when reading the full document for the first time, there was really little cohesion. So the task of consolidating the different sections and applying a consistent tone of voice really took a long time.

It certainly made me ponder whether it would not have been easier if a small group of two or three were charged from the start to do the write-up.

11:05 Mei Leow
Most of the work by the self-assessment team and the working groups would be happening in the background, in addition to usual research and teaching activities.

How did Monash make sure that the rest of the university knew about their participation in Athena Swan, and how they could get involved and support it?

11:21 Lucie Joschko
We hosted events and forums for staff. We really made sure we asked senior leaders to take part. That was particularly important when we did presentations that had to convey the sense of commitment the university had to Athena Swan.

11:37 Mei Leow
Monash also made it a point to clearly mark things like their parental transition workshops as part of their Athena Swan work.

11:44 Lucie Joschko
Whenever possible, we did not miss opportunities to label relevant activities as Athena Swan initiatives.

We also did quite a few presentations at departmental meetings to speak about Athena Swan objectives, to show data.

We produced gender equity video, which was a beautiful piece featuring Monash staff talk about what is gender equity, why it matters and what we should do.

And whilst we were busy with 50 other things, we invested time into building our web presence. I think that’s really important.

12:12 Mei Leow
The Bronze award represents setting a plan and a foundation for future work, but that doesn’t mean institutions have to wait until they receive an award to start implementing actions, or ignore all the work they’ve done up to that point.

And Monash was definitely eager and ready to go.

12:28 Lucie Joschko
In fact, this is one of the differences between UK and Australia that I came to appreciate the most.

Our action plan did not need to be exclusively forward-looking. We were able to propose and implement actions early and still include them in the action plan.

So to share with you a couple of examples: addressing unconscious bias. We knew this would not happen overnight and we had to start early.

What we soon learned that it’s not as much about unconscious bias awareness training that makes difference. It’s about developing competencies of inclusive leadership and knowing how to build inclusion to harness the benefits of diversity.

We did not go with the first or the second facilitator. We were very careful. When we found the right fit, the feedback on the inclusive leadership training reached the Vice Chancellor who also asked for the whole Executive group to be trained.

13:16 Mei Leow
Monash didn’t stop at unconscious bias and inclusive leadership training.

13:21 Lucie Joschko
The other thing we did was targeted support for parents. This was in addition to our policies and guidelines designed to support staff with caregiving responsibilities.

We acted on results from our staff survey and focus groups, and implemented a series of actions such as sessions designed to support the transition of staff from parental leave to work, sessions for new fathers.

We invested into communicating what is already on offer because despite having about 22 dedicated parenting rooms, barely one-third of our staff expressed in our survey that they would feel confident how to find it.

13:55 Mei Leow
Applications for Athena Swan Bronze Awards are assessed by peer reviewers. There’s a lot of information to get through – you can see for yourself on the SAGE website, where all the applications are published.

To make the workload more manageable for reviewers, applications are subject to a word limit. This can make writing the application challenging for institutions.

After conducting an in-depth investigation of their organisation, they have to decide which findings are the most important to present.

14:25 Lucie Joschko
We did a reasonable job reducing it to 20,000 words – from 20,000 words to about 12, but cutting the last 20% or 10% was really tough.

I think because a lot of our original content was describing the positive work that our university was already doing to support gender equity and then highlighting opportunities where new actions should be introduced.

When you face the task of reducing your word count, it really goes against your instinct that you should be removing descriptions of all the wonderful initiatives you’ve had in place for years and you want your peer reviewers to know about.

But what the peer reviewers are in fact looking for is your honest reflections and identifications of gaps, above anything, and what actions then you will implement to address this.

So in cutting our word count, we had to let go of a lot of good stuff and simply accept the notion that we ought to prioritise content about gaps and barriers that continue to exist to women’s successful participation in STEMM.

If you have participated in other accreditation programs in the past, you know that the focus is typically on talking about what you have in place and demonstrating your achievements.

So the expectation naturally was that our Bronze Award application would similarly present all kinds of success stories, and instead we ended up presenting a document that seemed to highlight gaps and inequalities on almost every page.

15:49 Mei Leow
This is why it takes real courage and leadership to join SAGE, because similar to Lucie’s experience with running focus groups, leaders must be prepared to confront their institution’s weaknesses.

Ultimately, SAGE and Athena Swan aim to encourage institutions to continuously improve their performance on gender equity, diversity and inclusion, and this requires proactively looking for areas where they need to do better, as much as it is about recognising progress along the way.

16:18 Lucie Joschko
Our action plan was organised thematically to align with the Bronze application and the themes in it.

We included a rationale at the start of each section to help readers understand the context and evidence for these actions, just in case they were not accessing the whole document, the whole application, and they were reading the action plan without the additional content.

16:39 Mei Leow
It’s not uncommon for Athena Swan action plans to have over a hundred actions. These actions involve things like revising policies, changing reporting practices, and developing new schemes or programs, so it takes people from many departments across the whole university to make these happen.

All these people need to know what they’re supposed to do and who’s responsible for keeping things on track.

17:02 Lucie Joschko
When assigning accountabilities, we had quite a few different stakeholders, including Deans of STEMM faculties.

But most action items really required input or support from HR, policy teams, recruitment teams, promotion teams and of course, staff equity and diversity.

Two or three months before the submission date, we instituted a reference group consisting of Deans in STEMM, the Provost and few other senior leaders who were invited to provide feedback on earlier drafts and make comments before our documents were forwarded for formal approvals.

I think this was extremely helpful when we put the submission forward to the Vice Chancellor’s Group, because the action plan was already socialised among the key stakeholders.

17:44 Mei Leow
Getting different people to look over the action plan is also important for making sure that the actions themselves are the right ones to try.

17:52 Lucie Joschko
I think that final draft really benefits from having a HR perspective in it because of the content around policies, which often academic staff would not know about.

It benefits from having an academic input, somebody from a more senior role, and it was our project lead Professor John Carroll.

Because again, you might have questions about establishing processes in place, where the senior leader might say we do have the process, but what we don’t do well is communicate it, for example.

The working groups were able to really put in the enthusiasm and commentaries, but it had to be tamed as well, to say we in fact have that in place.

We had people recommending to us that we establish a formal process for requesting flexible work. That’s legislative – of course we have it in place.

They just didn’t know it existed because academics tend to negotiate flexible work informally with their supervisor. And if that becomes a block – they were not aware of a formal policy being in place.

So whilst inviting this broader input from a lot of staff, I would really recommend that you think carefully who are the final people putting that submission together, because they have to have that knowledge of what truly is in place and what is feasible to introduce.

19:07 Mei Leow
Finally, Lucie reflects on what the Athena Swan journey has meant to Monash.

19:13 Lucie Joschko
And it really has been a journey in so many ways. I find this metaphor quite fitting to the whole process.

Most of the time our eyes were firmly planted on the destination, which was the submission date, but at the end I believe the final product – the key benefit, if you will – was not the complete application and the submission itself, but rather, the transformation we began to witness as part of the program and the momentum Athena Swan generated in our academic community and beyond.

When I reflect on the main benefits of participating in Athena Swan, we certainly learned a lot about the factors that affect women’s participation, and support or hinder career advancement in STEMM.

Although they were not necessarily groundbreaking discoveries because the research literature supported our findings all along, it was the collection of data that confirmed our university is not immune to women’s attrition from scientific research, and that achieving positive change requires collective efforts: staff of all genders, including academic staff, researchers, supervisors, decision-makers, leaders as well as different HR teams.

Rather than championing this change from just one area of the university, whether this be your diversity and inclusion team, the transformative effect in my opinion was in the collaboration and advocacy of many different groups at the same time.

But the obvious, most tangible outcome of the whole journey was the set of evidence-driven actions that we were able to introduce with the aim to further advance gender equality at the university.

I’m confident that the action plan we developed at Monash as part of the framework is sufficiently robust to help start dismantling the systemic barriers for women’s participation in STEMM.

But I also know this work will take longer than the four-year validity of our action plan. The end date, I guess, is not the final destination either.

21:01 Mei Leow
That was Dr Lucie Joschko, the Manager, Staff Equity and Diversity from Monash University. If you want to join 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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