Athena SWAN bronze: the Edinburgh Napier experience #SAGEPilot

Athena SWAN bronze award logoThis morning (or I should say ‘evening’ for those in Australia) I took part in a webinar hosted by Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE). First the SAGE team asked me about my experience of leading Edinburgh Napier University to successful achievement on the institutional bronze Athena SWAN award at first attempt in 2014.

Afterwards I answered some questions that were submitted by members of the Australian academic community who were watching the interview live.

In this blog post I summarise the main points that I made in the interview, and address the questions that were posed by the audience. I also include some additional detail that may of interest to those working on institutional Athena SWAN submissions, both in the UK and Australia. A video of the webinar is also available on the SAGE YouTube channel.

Setting up of the Edinburgh Napier Athena SWAN Self Assessment Team (SAT)

Twelve people had expressed an interest in contributing to the work of preparing a bronze Athena SWAN submission prior to my appointment as Academic Champion for Athena SWAN at Edinburgh Napier University at the end of 2013. One of my first actions was to check the profile of this group as a whole to determine whether or not it was balanced in terms of individuals’ gender, role, career stage and departmental affiliation. I also wanted to be certain that together we had collective experience of different patterns of working and career breaks, representation of staff from two-career families, and staff who had had recently been involved in recruitment and promotion at the University (as applicants and as panel members). It was also important that senior management was represented on the SAT.

Following the audit of the original twelve volunteers, eight remained on the SAT. A further eight were recruited either through direct approach or nomination by departmental heads (now known as Deans following a staff restructure in 2105). For further detail on the formation of the SAT please see pp. 9-15 of the bronze submission document.

Athena SWAN SAT 2014

Some members of the Edinburgh Napier Athena SWAN SAT in 2014

We started work on our bronze submission document in early 2014. It was difficult to know how to divide up this work at the start. This was largely because we were simply unaware of one anothers’ strengths and interests. Since we had never embarked on a piece of work such as this before, it was also not obvious how to share out the work in a sensible way. However, over time it became clear where our talents lay, and individuals and sub-groups volunteered for particular tasks as we reached them in our plan of work.

Some sub-groups were more easily identified than others. For example, on the SAT we had three academic staff who teach statistics and maths so they became members of the stats sub-group. Others sub-groups emerged, such as one to run our focus groups. Here we knew that we needed to have reps for each of the focus groups to do the local planning at the three main Napier campuses. So our starting point here was to identify two SAT members at each campus to act as the points of contact.

The means by which members were rewarded for their work on the SAT varied according to practice within their home Departments and Schools. Some were given a specific workload allocation for serving on the committee; for others, the work was regarded as part of a general allowance. Of course, ‘softer’ rewards are often a strong motivation for involvement in this type of work. In this case SAT members were pleased to be involved because of their personal commitment to the Athena SWAN principles and improving equality in the workplace in general. There was also recognition of reputational reward to be won through achieving a successful outcome for our bronze submission (which can also be cited in future promotion and job applications).

Challenges of collecting, analysing and presenting institutional gender equity and diversity data for our submission document

Our first main challenge as a SAT was simply getting to know each other and finding an effective way to work together. Another challenge, which emerged when we started data collection, was that we underestimated how long that this would take. Indeed, there is a further issue here: identifying where the relevant data for the submission document is held in the University.  University information systems, such as those managed by Human Resources, were not set up with Athena SWAN in mind! The delays that we experienced in accessing data sets, collecting relevant data, and conducting the initial analysis meant that it took a while before we had any preliminary findings to discuss in our SAT meetings.

Professor Dame Julie Higgins presents the Edinburgh Napier award

Professor Dame Julie Higgins presents the Edinburgh Napier bronze award in June 2015

The writing of the submission document was also tricky for a number of reasons. These included: the complexity of the data to be presented, the short time period between collection of data in the second engagement phase and the submission deadline; the number of people who contributed content to the draft document; and the strict word count. In practice the final version of the file was the output of one author (me) working with contributions supplied by colleagues. It helped that I know how to use some of the more sophisticated features of Word. I am also fortunate in having a colleague who has worked in publishing and was able to show me additional advanced word processing features. I also became very crafty in the presentation of information in tabular format to avoid falling foul of word count limits.

University-wide staff engagement in the SAT’s work

Edinburgh Napier Athena SWAN screensaver

In October 2014 all University PCs displayed this screensaver

Our engagement activity can be seen in two phases: that completed from January to June 2014 alongside early data collection and prior to data analysis, and that completed in October 2014 after we had completed our data analysis (mainly achieved in the summer vacation from June to August 2014). For a summary of our internal engagement activities please see pp. 15-18 of the submission document.

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.)

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.)

In the second engagement phase (October 2014) staff responded to the findings of our data analysis by completing a survey and taking part in focus group discussions. In some respects this work was an exercise in triangulating and validating our findings. Next time we plan to start this work a little earlier so that we have plenty of time to prepare for the launch of the engagement activities (some of our work on this occasion took longer to pass through the ethical approval process than envisaged) and attract greater participation in the activities.

Athena Swan Dinner, Royal Society of Edinburgh

Keynote speaker Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Of particular note in the second period of engagement is a high profile event hosted on 14th October 2014 as part of the University’s 50th anniversary celebrations: a dinner at the Royal Society of Edinburgh to celebrate Edinburgh Napier’s women in STEMM. This was a grand occasion with world-renowned astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell as the keynote speaker. (For a review of the event see the blog post by Frances Ryan, a research student from the School of Computing.)

Given that the work for the bronze submission is focused on staff, we did not put a great deal of effort into student engagement at this stage of the University’s Athena SWAN work. However, this is not to say that we ignore our students! We have always had a postgraduate student rep on the SAT, and invite a rep from the Edinburgh Napier Students’ Association to attend our meetings. There are also a number of initiatives around the University to encourage the networking and mentoring of under-represented student groups, particularly our female students following courses in STEMM subjects (including the Connect network), as can be seen on p. 59 of of the submission document.

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.

Development of our 22-item Athena SWAN Action Plan

The 22 items in our institutional Athena SWAN Action Plan (see pp. 61-75 of the submission document) have three levels of priority:

  1. Actions essential to the continuation of the University’s Athena SWAN work
  2. Actions to respond to findings from the data analysis completed in 2014
  3. New initiatives to progress Athena SWAN at the University

One of our key actions is that concerned with departmental awards: Devise plans for prioritising Athena SWAN departmental award applications (Action 3A). This was initiated in April 2015 as soon as we knew that we had bronze accreditation. The first activities involved the Action sponsor (the Dean of the School of Computing) raising the issue of departmental awards with Deans of Schools. In November 2015 I wrote a formal briefing paper on departmental awards for presention to all Deans of School by the University Vice Principal. This included a guide and proposed timeline for the Deans to progress work towards Athena SWAN departmental award submissions within their Schools. I also recommended that local Athena SWAN Champions be appointed in each School with a workload allocation of one day a week to complete their duties. By January 2016 (the deadline for the completion of the action) the Deans of School were able to articulate their plans. At the time of writing (May 2016) all six schools have Athena SWAN School Champions, four SATs are active, and three have firms plans to submit their departmental award applications in time for the November 2016 deadline. I am particularly pleased that the work in our School of Engineering and Built Environment is being led by a male member of staff, and hopeful that this will encourage buy-in in disciplines where men dominate at all levels.

It is worth drawing attention here to Action 22: Review and refresh action plan on an annual basis. This has allowed our Action Plan to evolve. Our most recent review gave us the opportunity to reconsider some of our (rather optimistic) action timescales. We also strengthened the ambition of some actions. For example, Action 17E refers to the setting up of a gender equality network by October 2015. This was achieved: a network was established by the deadline. However, we would also like to monitor and review the activities of the network so as part of the review we reworded the action to reflect this.

The impact of our work to date

Since it’s only a year since we won our bronze institutional Athena SWAN award and began to implement our Action Plan, it is probably a little early to make claims for the impact of our work. However, perhaps we can take some credit for the following:

  • Edinburgh Napier journalism graduate Gina Davidson won the Gender Equality Award at the Write to end violence against women awards 2015 for the piece she wrote after attending the 50th anniversary dinner.
  • In October 2015 the University of Central Lancashire announced that it had launched a networking group for women. This draws inspiration from the Connect network at Edinburgh Napier.
  • Changes made to policy and guidelines prompted by our Athena SWAN Action plan are now evident. For example, a recent call for new members of Court included mention of gender diversity in its composition. This is a result of the completion of Action 11C Review University policy on committee membership representation and implement changes where appropriate (see p. 67 of the submission document).
  • One of our female PhD students who attended media training organised by the SAT with Equate Scotland in October 2015 won the best presentation award (as well as best paper) at an international conference in January 2016.
  • We have been approached by a number of other institutions to help advise on their work towards Athena SWAN accreditation.

In the future it would also be good to know whether my participation in today’s webinar, and the writing this blog post, has helped inspire Australian institutions in their Athena SWAN work.

For access to all the resources from the webinar, including a Storify, please see

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