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Impact of equality charters

Advance HE's equality charters are based on an effective methodology that can make a real impact.

Much more than a tick box exercise, the charters aim to be a catalyst for cultural change and to make a real impact for staff and students.

Making a measurable difference

In 2011 Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) undertook an internal evaluation of the Athena SWAN Charter, which found clear evidence of the impact that is had at institutional level and for individuals.

The research identified impact on organisational structure and culture change, with increases in the proportion of women, better representation of women on committees, improvements in the transition from postdoctoral researcher to first academic post, improved working practices to support career progression and growth in women’s networking across institutions.

An effective approach

As Athena SWAN continued to grow, and was referenced by others as a requirement or expectation, ECU wanted to further examine the effectiveness of the charter in advancing women’s careers, the impact on culture and attitudes and the sustainability of those changes.

With this in mind, in 2013 we commissioned a team from Loughborough University to undertake a comprehensive, independent assessment of the impact and benefit of the Athena SWAN Charter on participating higher education institutions and on the wider sector.

We were particularly interested in discovering differences across award levels and disciplines, and also investigating the differences between members and eligible institutions that are not part of the charter.

The Loughborough research team found considerable evidence of the positive impact of Athena SWAN on the career development and satisfaction of women working in STEMM as well as evidence of the value of Athena SWAN as a driver for improving gender diversity.

  • In many areas institutions and departments that hold an Athena SWAN award were more advanced than those that did not.
  • There was evidence that some changes in culture and attitude had been achieved, and considerable evidence that the changes that were implemented as a result of the Athena SWAN process were sustainable.
  • There are positive differences between departments achieving different award levels.
  • It isn’t just academic staff who benefit. Administrative and technical staff in silver departments felt they had more support for their career development and progression than in departments without awards.
  • The research also identified a number of issues that continue to prevent women from reaching their full potential in the STEMM field. It found that there is yet to be a significant impact on postgraduate student experience, and little on the undergraduate population.
  • Although most respondents value the awards process and found the workload involved to be appropriate, some departmental champions feel that it creates an excessive burden.
  • Respondents raised specific issues with some aspects of the Athena SWAN process.

The report set out a number of recommendations for ECU that helped us refine and improve our processes. Developments focusing on several of the issues identified in the recommendations were made as part of the May 2015 expansion of the charter to art, humanities, social science, business and law disciplines.

Supporting cultural and behavioural change

In 2018, Advance HE commissioned Ortus Economic Research and Loughborough University to evaluate the impact of the Athena SWAN Charter across the higher education and research sector to determine its effectiveness as a vehicle for sustainable change, and to identify areas for further development.

The report, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society and the Department for Health, focuses on five key aspects: gender profiles, recruitment and promotion of women, culture change, engagement with the charter in the sector, and experiences and perceptions of the awards process and charter implementation.

The key findings of the 2019 evaluation include:

  • There is strong evidence that the charter processes and methodologies have supported cultural and behavioural change – not just around gender equality, but equality and diversity in all its forms.
  • 70% of higher education providers in the UK have engaged with the Athena SWAN Charter. (The majority of those that have not engaged are speciality arts schools.)
  • The charter is most effective as a tool to ensure that practices and policies present no disadvantage to any member of staff or student, targeting cultural change.
    • 93% of ‘champions’ believe that the charter has had a positive impact on gender issues in their university, department or research institute
    • 78% believed the charter had a positive impact on equality and diversity issues
    • 78% believed the charter had a positive impact on the career progression of women
  • When compared to departments/institutes with a silver or bronze award, women in ‘gold’ departments/institutes are more satisfied with career progression processes and flexible working practices.
  • In submitting departments, there is a trend towards promotions to senior lecturer/reader and associate professor becoming more gender balanced over the period leading up to submission. At departmental level, there is also a trend towards an increase in the percentages of women shortlisted and appointed.
  • A wide range of impacts around gender balance have been reported by those engaged with the charter. These include an increase in the number and proportion of women in academic and research posts, from the most junior to the most senior, though there is evidence that such impacts can take time to materialise.
  • There remain challenges which threaten ongoing engagement, including lack of leadership support and resource requirements, with some applicants considering the amount of work required to deliver a compelling application to be unnecessarily burdensome.
  • Participants perceived some issues with the assessment process including the limitations of a paper-based review.

The findings and recommendations of the impact evaluation will inform the independent review of Athena SWAN and support future improvements to the Charter.