Equity & Diversity in Science: Lessons from Athena SWAN by Professor Hazel Hall

Professor Hazel Hall is the Athena SWAN Champion at Edinburgh Napier University. She spoke with SAGE about how her team achieved an Athena SWAN Bronze Institutional Award on their first attempt in November 2014. An Athena SWAN Bronze Award recognises that an institution has started substantial work to eliminate gender bias and that it is working to create an inclusive culture for all. To apply for an Award, institutions must collect and analyse gender equity data; consult with staff and students on their findings; and recommend a four-year action plan to target gender equity and diversity issues arising from their work.

Professor Hall, who is Professor in the School of Computing, spoke about the composition of her Self-Assessment Team (SAT), and the challenges they faced collecting and analysing gender equity and diversity data. She also discussed how the SAT developed their action plan with input from staff across their institution. She also took questions from our audience live on social media.


The Self-Assessment Team (SAT)

Professor Hall came on board as Athena SWAN Champion in November 2013, joining a pre-established 12-person SAT. She recognised that the SAT needed diverse perspectives, positions and experiences. The team was reduced where there was an overlap of existing interests, experiences and abilities. Next, the SAT recruited additional members to ensure there was a mix of gender, career stage, level of seniority and representation from STEMM schools across the institution. The SAT looked for people with recent experience as applicants and panellists for recruitment and promotion, as well as part-time work, flexible work and two-career families. They found additional members through direct approaches to individuals, or through heads of schools which did not have representation on the SAT.

They also looked for a mix of skills. Professor Hall found her background in social science extremely helpful for analysing the qualitative data. A statistics working group was formed with statisticians and mathematicians to analyse the quantitative data.

Data collection and engagement

The SAT were surprised to learn how much was involved in simply collecting the data, which are drawn from existing institutional databases. The SAT must establish quantitative trends on gender equity, such as:

  • how many women are employed at different levels;
  • how many women versus men take parental leave and return to work;
  • the take up of flexible work arrangements;
  • induction, training and outcomes (if women undertake a leadership course does it lead to them securing a more senior role?);
  • representation in committees;
  • workload allocation and recognition of teaching, research, administration and other roles;
  • gender bias in promotions and in other processes.

Professor Hall says:

“It is a huge job collecting that data. I can’t overemphasise that.”

With data collection taking longer than expected, the work of the SAT fell into three phases. The first phase was about engagement. Beginning in February 2014 and going to July 2014, members of the SAT spoke at meetings across the university and engaged individual schools about Athena SWAN, its purpose and and why gender equity and diversity work is important.

Edinburgh Napier Athena SWAN Team receiving their Bronze Award from Dame Julie Higgins in June 2015
Edinburgh Napier Athena SWAN Team receiving their Bronze Award from Dame Julie Higgins in June 2015. Photo: Hazel Hall

The team emphasised that Athena SWAN was not simply about getting women into senior roles. Even in schools where there were a relatively high number of women in leadership roles, gender equity challenges could be identified in other places, such as in overall numbers across the faculty.

Once most of the quantitative data was collected, the SAT began their second phase of analysing the data. This was done during summer vacation from July to August 2014.

The third phase was about validating their findings through further engagement and consultation.  The SAT used survey and focus groups to create an action plan based on consultation with staff. Professor Hall describes that in this phase:

“We could go back to our university and say ‘This is what we have discovered. This is what we think it means. What do you think it means?’”

The SAT applied for small pools of funding through Edinburgh Napier’s 50 year celebrations to host a celebration dinner at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. One hundred and fifty people attended, including many female graduates, to hear a represention from renowned astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, along with the University’s Principal, the Director of Equate Scotland and Professor Hall speaking on their gender equity work.

Data analysis and actions

The Edinburgh Napier team completed their Athena SWAN submission very quickly, but one of the hurdles they hit along the way was that they underestimated how long it would take to collect their data. This included both their quantitative data on the representation of women across their institution as well as their qualitative data collection. The latter involved surveys and focus groups, which required additional time for ethics clearance and to recruit participants.

Professor Hall suggests that beginning the plan for qualitative data collection earlier (to obtain ethics) would have allowed more time to run additional focus groups and to achieve a higher return rate on their survey.

The Action Plan incorporated the SAT’s consultations with staff. This involved four major areas of work:

  1. Ensuring sustainability and adequate resources for gender equity work going forward
  2. Actions to improve data collection
  3. Responding to the SAT’s findings, such as the under-representation of women on particular institutional committees
  4. Further initiatives to improve the gender equity environment in their institution, such as establishing a gender equality network, and working towards a mentoring scheme.

One of the SAT’s key actions was to regularly review their Action Plan in the light of changes in their institutional culture. As a result, the SAT have recently revised their deadlines for some of their actions, and identified ways to strengthen other plans, such as measuring the impact of the gender equality network that has since been established.

Professor Hall authored the submission, allowing her to edit the input from SAT members and streamline their final application prior to submission. She recommended finding ways to visually represent large amounts of descriptive analysis in a brief table could reduce the word count of the application and make it easier for peer review panellists to read. Examples of how she did this can be found in the Edinburgh Napier Athena SWAN Bronze Application.

Viewer questions

We had some great questions from our viewers in the lead up to the event and during our discussion. Professor Hall answered some of these live, and followed up other questions on her blog.

Professor Marilys Guillemin, who leads the SAGE Pilot Athena SWAN work at the University of Melbourne, asked:

What are some strategies to best acknowledge the contributions of the SAT members? How do we ensure that the Athena SWAN work does not unintentionally reinforce gender inequities if women end up doing a disproportionate amount of the work?

Professor Hall explained that workload allocation at Edinburgh Napier is decided by individual schools, although as the Athena SWAN Champion, a portion of her time was officially allocated to the work she did towards the application. She recommended that other members of her team similarly have their time allocated in their department’s work model, but unfortunately she had no way to confirm that this was done.

She spoke of the importance of esteem measures to recognise the work of the SAT, and the value placed on Athena SWAN success for academic promotions and in recruitment for other positions.

She also spoke about the importance of involving men, and having a gender-balanced team leading the work. One way to achieve this is by emphasising that caring is not only about children, but also is increasingly involving caring for elderly parents.

Not everybody has children, but most people have parents, or have had parents. So making the work environment better so that you can include caring roles as part of your everyday life affects everybody. It's not just women, it's men as well. - Hazel Hall
Making the work environment better to include caring roles


Another key tool for engagement is demonstrating that diversity creates a stronger workforce:

“If we have better equality in the workplace, we should end up with a better workforce, because truly talented people will come through, because they’ve got the opportunity to do so. So it strengthens the teams that we work with, because we get more talented people on the team. Also, there’s loads of research that shows that more diverse teams are more successful.”

Students are not an explicit focus of the Bronze Institutional Award (they are a big focus of Departmental Awards). Nevertheless, Professor Hall explained that their SAT used their application as an opportunity to engage students. They included a postgraduate student representative on their SAT. They also kept students informed through Edinburgh Napier’s Connect Network for engineering and computing students. They have since built a stronger focus on students as they prepare for Departmental Awards, including a representative from the student association on their institutional SAT.

In the UK, once institutions achieve an Institutional Bronze Award, their departments are eligible to apply for Departmental Awards. (Australia is only currently piloting Institutional Bronze Awards but will look to developing Departmental Awards after the current pilot.) Departmental Awards can lead to profound local changes to the academic “pipeline,” as they focus on the needs of students and professional and support staff in addition to academics and researchers. Now having their Bronze Award, the Edinburgh Napier SAT team wrote a briefing paper to explore Departmental Awards, which Professor Hall presented to a committee of Deans. Three of six schools now have their own SATs in preparation of their Departmental Award applications.

Barbara Nattabi, a member of the Athena SWAN Self-Assessment Team at the University of Western Australia, asked:

Could you share some of the indicators you have used to monitor the effectiveness of your SAGE project and some of the meaningful actions used to address areas of inequity?

Professor Hall explained that it is still perhaps too early to measure the impact of Athena SWAN at Edinburgh Napier, as it has only been around one year since they were conferred an award, but she pointed to a few areas where their work was having some influence. Another university had copied their Connect Network, plus, the need to ensure gender equality was highlighted in a recent call for new members of their University Court. More senior members of staff mention Athena SWAN in announcements. They have also focused on external engagement, and hope that their work has an impact beyond their university.

Professor Hall explained that a number of institutions have been driven by a misunderstanding that Athena SWAN accreditation would be necessary to achieve funding grants.

She elaborated in her blog:

In the first phase we (mainly me and the University’s Diversity Partner) asked for Athena SWAN to be added to the agenda of Faculty and School meetings so that we had an opportunity to get the message out that the work on a submission was underway. We were keen to emphasise that equality in the workplace concerns everyone. For example, we argued that it’s not just women with children who can benefit from initiatives that support those with caring duties: increasingly more of us will have to take on the burden of care for our ageing parents. We also promoted other reasons for engagement in Athena SWAN such as encouraging greater participation of talented female staff in the work of the University, and the documented value of diverse work teams.  (Other external drivers for Athena SWAN in the UK include competition between institutions for accreditation. There has also been a fear that all the research councils may mandate Athena SWAN accreditation in the future.)

The next question came from Dr Helen Maynard-Casely, Instrument Scientist at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), another of our Athena SWAN Charter members in Australia.

Professor Hall responds on her blog:

Our external engagement work (including an Edinburgh Fringe performance) is summarised on pp. 19-20 of the submission document. We take external engagement seriously, not least because we are keen to influence external gender equality agendas – especially those that will impact our future work. For example, we have members of the SAT who serve as Athena SWAN assessors for the UK’s Equality Challenge Unit, and regularly take part in external consultations. We can therefore help professional bodies and associations support gender equality by drawing attention to good practice in various aspects of their work such as formation of committees, selection of speakers for events, how they represent their membership in their publicity material etc.


Another question came from Dr Melanie Thomson, researcher and member of the Athena SWAN team at Deakin University.

Professor Hall writes:

We didn’t experience any strong negative reactions to embarking upon this work at Edinburgh Napier. However, we did encounter questions about the necessity of undertaking it in groups where there was strong representation of women in senior roles. For example, attention was drawn to the School of Computing where (in 2014) the Head, the Director of Research, the School lead for teaching and learning and two of the four research Centre Directors (myself included) were all female. It was important to counter such arguments by explaining that Athena SWAN is not “a scheme to help promote women to senior posts”, but has a wide remit related to equality in general. (In the example given above, it is also worth noting that in the same School in 2014 only 16% of lecturers were female. This figure hints at a pipeline problem in the future. In addition, of the five individuals cited in senior roles, only two had caring responsibilities for children.)

Hedy Bryant, Manager of Diversity & Equity and member of the SAT at Charles Sturt University used our Google+ page to ask about ways to engage staff and students.

Can you give me some idea of how you undertook regular communication with university community - staff and students - about the program/initiative?

Professor Hall says:

Thank you for listening in Hedy. The answer to your question is on page 19 of our Edinburgh Napier Athena SWAN Bronze Application.

Professor Hall elaborates on further examples for building engagement on her blog post about our webinar.

Below are further tips and discussion from our Twitter discussion during the webinar (#SAGEPilot).

About our Guest

Professor Hazel Hall is Director of the Centre for Social Informatics in the Institute for Informatics and Digital Innovation within the School of Computing at Edinburgh Napier University. Her main research expertise and teaching interests lie in information sharing in online environments within the context of knowledge management. She is Edinburgh Napier University’s Academic Champion for Athena SWAN, and led the University’s Athena SWAN bronze award bid in 2014, which resulted a successful outcome (at first attempt) announced in April 2015.

You can follow Professor Hall on Twitter as well as on her blog, where she writes about science and her team’s Athena SWAN activities.

Next time

Tune into the SAGE YouTube channel on 3 June 2016 to watch our next webinar with Atomic Energy, who will tell us about their experience with Athena SWAN as a research institute.