Gender Equity Benefits Everybody: David Ruebain on Athena SWAN

Science in Australia Gender Equity interviewed David Ruebain, CEO of Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in the United Kingdom (UK). ECU manages a range of equity and diversity initiatives in the UK, including the Athena SWAN Charter and the Race Equality Charter. Athena SWAN is a gender equity evaluation and accreditation program for higher education and research institutes.

David spoke with us about the importance of equity and diversity work and its growing prominence on the leadership agenda of universities, research institutes and businesses worldwide.

The effectiveness of Athena SWAN

Athena SWAN has been running for over ten years in the higher education sector in the UK, and more recently it has been piloted in the Republic of Ireland. External and internal evaluations of the Athena SWAN program highlight its effectiveness. In 2014, ECU commissioned Loughborough University to undertake an external evaluation of Athena SWAN.

David describes the results as “reasonably startling”:

  • Ninety per cent of institutional Athena SWAN champions reported that involvement in the Athena SWAN Charter impacted positively on gender equity issues.
  • Two thirds believed it had had a direct impact on women’s career progression.
  • Academic and professional staff alike reported positive differences in career satisfaction and development opportunities, and a greater sense of belonging.
  • Women reported improvement in their visibility, self-confidence, professional development and leadership skills.

David suggests this evaluation of Athena SWAN clearly illustrates the positive benefits of the program for workplace culture.

In the long term, the success of a program such as Athena SWAN will be measured by a change in the numbers of women in STEMM, particularly at senior levels. In the short term, success can be felt in more transparent workplace opportunities, increased fairness in recruitment and promotion, and a wider range of possibilities for people of all genders, in balancing their lives and careers.

Involving men in gender equity work

While women have understandably driven the bulk of gender equity work, David discusses why getting men involved is also important to its success in the long term. The majority of senior institutional leaders are men. Having allies involved in the work also accelerates its progress. It makes it clear that gender equity is core business for everybody, not a marginal issue. This is made easier when institutional leaders mainstream the issue and make gender equity core to their mission.

“Gender equity benefits everybody. It doesn’t only benefit women. By deconstructing traditional or normative roles about what each gender means, which is a fairly narrow view about work for men and work for women, it frees up the space for everybody.”

David suggests several reasons why men can benefit from being involved.

Firstly, men stand to benefit from the gains of gender equity. The external evaluation of Athena SWAN demonstrated benefits for all staff, regardless of gender. Men and women alike reported a greater familiarity with promotions and processes, and rated their universities higher for being fair employers, including when it comes to promotion and diversity.

Secondly, men get involved in this work for themselves, their co-workers, and the good of their organisations often find that undertaking this work can be an extremely positive experience.

One concern raised by skeptical male colleagues is that gender equity initiatives may dilute the merit system of scientific research. David suggests there is nothing inconsistent between Athena SWAN and merit.

David notes that there is substantial evidence showing that women are as equally capable as men in excelling in STEMM. The question remains: why are men and women not equally represented in STEMM disciplines? David suggests we need a “true meritocracy.” This does not mean a system that replicates existing privileges.

“If by merit what we mean is anyone who’s capable, or the most capable, should be given the environment to succeed in, then what we have, and what we’ve had, is unmeritorious.”


The Athena SWAN Charter was revised in 2015 to address intersectionality. Intersectionality is a theoretical framework popularised by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. It recognises that gender equity is impacted by many other identities, such as race and ethnicity, sexuality and disability.

David addresses the importance of intersectionality to the Charter. The ECU collect data on nine protected characteristics (such as race, sexuality and disability), in order to understand areas of under-representation and disadvantage. These statistics confirm that it is important to look at multiple identities and experiences to understand the “granularity” and depth of the issues. For example, British-born Bangladeshi students can face greater disadvantage than international students  from Bangladesh who study in the UK, since the latter group typically come from more middle-class backgrounds. Looking at ethnicity in combination with socio-economic status highlights how multiple factors impact on educational experiences and outcomes in science.

Recognising multiple overlapping experiences of identity is key to improving diversity in STEMM, since it allows approaches which address disadvantage in a nuanced way.

A business case for equity and diversity

David suggests that winning buy-in from senior leaders is “absolutely critical” to the success of equity and diversity programs such as Athena SWAN. Institutional leaders are motivated by a range of factors when championing equity and diversity, including:

  1. The imperative to be competitive, particularly in a global environment.
  2. Moral and ethical considerations.
  3. Funding and legislative requirements.
  4. A “political zeitgeist” that is making gender equity and diversity more essential.

Athena SWAN is just one aspect of a much broader move towards making equity and diversity core business. David speaks about the growing focus on these issues among political and business leaders. International bodies such as the United Nations and national governments, including in the UK and Australia, have made this agenda a central concern. In the UK, there are initiatives emerging in business, law, the health service and in other fields. In Australia, funding agencies and legislators have made gender equity in STEMM a priority.

“Gender equity is no longer considered just a luxury or an optional add on to the work of a leader. There are many reasons, business reasons, as to why leaders now must engage with the issue.”

Winning support from institutional leaders through the business case for gender equity and diversity has a flow-on effect across institutions. David suggests that there is an increasing recognition of the importance of equity and diversity to the mission of higher education and research institutions. Research commissioned by ECU examined the rationale for diversity in institutions. Researchers spoke with Vice Chancellors and Principals who were motivated by equity and diversity considerations. These leaders set a tone around the importance of gender equity which shaped their whole institution. Some explicitly make equity and diversity core to their institution’s mission by establishing objectives and targets. This had a powerful influence in advancing these issues.

David has several suggestions for how to engage institutional leaders in Athena SWAN. For example,

  • Examining the benefits of gender equity and diversity for leaders, institutions and their departments
  • Understanding the global environment in which universities operate, and the value of Athena SWAN for institutions seeking to demonstrate that they are “ahead of the game” in their employment policies and practices in order to attract the best staff
  • Recognising the imperative from funding agencies who increasingly see equity and diversity is essential for thinking about who they fund.

Most importantly, institutions do not want to be left behind or appear uninterested in these issues that are gaining such traction.

David Ruebain: "I think that modern successful, effective, excellent, high quality institutions embrace equity and diversity as part of their core mission in order to maintain their excellence in their work. And in the conversations I have with leaders I talk to them about how they can do that and why it matters."