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And they’re off!

Published: 22/06/2016

The starting gun has been fired for the extended Athena SWAN Charter, and new award winners have shown admirable pace, says Professor Helen Beebee.

Prof Helen Beebee, Athena SWAN Charter patron

Professor Helen Beebee, Athena SWAN Charter patron

I’m delighted that the very first Athena SWAN awards have been made in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL). It’s a fantastic achievement for the recipients, of course, but also a fantastic achievement for Equality Challenge Unit, whose staff have worked so hard for several years to make this happen.

The inclusion of AHSSBL has not been the only way in which the Athena SWAN scheme has been expanded. From November, all applications will have to address gender inequality more broadly – covering areas where men are underrepresented as well as women – and, relatedly, professional and support staff.

I really welcome these changes.

While the proportion of women studying at undergraduate level in engineering and technology and in computer science languishes below 20%, so does the proportion of men studying education and subjects allied to medicine (including biomedicine and physiotherapy).

And the support staff who make the wheels of academics’ and students’ daily working lives run smoothly are predominantly women.

These figures often reflect deeply-rooted stereotypes about what constitutes men’s work  and women’s work that any progressive 21st-century society should regard with a huge amount of suspicion.

There are of course those who are, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about attempting to address the underrepresentation of (in particular) women, or disagree with the motives behind it. But even here – perhaps especially here – I think the Athena SWAN charter has achieved an enormous amount by getting gender issues into the mainstream of university discourse.

In the sciences, those who want to sit back and do nothing have been challenged to justify their position in a way that was, in most universities and academic departments, unthinkable 15 or 20 years ago. It’s great to now see the same thing happening across AHSSBL subjects as well.

Congratulations to the new award holders in AHSSBL. You’ve got out of the blocks with admirable speed, and you’re a great example to everyone limbering up behind the starting line. I’m looking forward to the first AHSSBL presentation ceremony!

Professor Helen Beebee is Samuel Hall Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manchester. She was director of the British Philosophical Association from 2007 to 2011, during which time she established the BPA and Society for Women in Philosophy UK’s joint committee for women in philosophy, which she co-chairs with Jenny Saul.