Changing the Departmental Mind-set

Another bumper batch of Athena Swan awards have just been announced: ever more universities and departments are participating. With the hint of financial consequences looming from RCUK funders for those STEM departments that don’t demonstrate commitment to improving the climate for women (indeed, regarding diversity in general) to add to Dame Sally Davies’ unequivocal statement regarding Clinical Schools, the increase in engagement is unsurprising. Nevertheless, fewer than two thirds of the HEIs with STEM courses are signed up. But does an award really mean a department has its culture sorted? And what does it take to get an award?

Last week’s post about preparing Athena Swan applications over on the Guardian HE Professional blogs by Cardiff’s Paul Brennan sparked some debate on Twitter, probably far more than the tweets I actually saw myself; I thought I’d chip in with my own thoughts about the importance of the awards.

There are 3 points I’ve heard raised I’d specifically like to consider:

  1. It is a tickbox exercise for a department that actually makes no real difference on the ground.
  2. It is difficult for a department to do things different from the central policies, so it’s hard to make a convincing departmental case.
  3. The problems for women aren’t down to the University, but inherent in the nature of an academic’s job.

If you/your department thinks these awards are merely tickbox exercises you’ve either not read the submission template or you’re setting yourself up to fail. Maybe you’ll get away with it this time, but if nothing changes before you apply for a renewal things will go pear-shaped for you and the award will be removed. This is already happening to departments so the evidence is there. A submission requires an analysis of statistics at every level from undergraduate to professor: how many women do you have at each grade and how has this changed over recent years? Out of these numbers should come some suggestions for where trouble spots or bottlenecks are and that should inform the action plan that needs to be produced. If undergrad numbers are healthy but perhaps there are practically no postdocs – why not? Thought needs to be given to what can be done. Sometimes it’s the little things that make significant differences: induction to settle newcomers into a department and thought given to the timing of seminars so that everyone feels welcome coupled with inclusive social events. Some things take more time and energy: setting up appropriate mentoring systems and a work-load model may be quite labour intensive for someone but have pay-offs down the road. Each department has to think what needs to be done to eradicate their own particular problems. It’s most certainly not one size fits all.

Presumably those who complain it’s a tickbox exercise imagine that some HR person can simply jot down a few ideas and get the Head of Department to sign it off without any intention of seeing the action plan through. My experience within Cambridge suggests very strongly that committed academic leadership is crucial and that if it is only administrators who get stuck in then change will not happen. In that case the submission should fail; if it doesn’t fail the first time it is hard to imagine a convincing case could be made 3 years down the road that the action plan had been carried out leading to improvements in culture, so a renewal should be out of the question. The very fact that the template requires thought to fill in, means that – unlike a benchmarking exercise when you are simply asked something like which of the following do you already do/intend to do – a tickbox mentality will get you nowhere.

The second point above was one I saw on Twitter and one I now find a little strange, although I can recall a time when I thought like that too. In Cambridge we have central bodies and committees that make policy decisions: these would cover items such as parental leave, rules about applying for part-time working, how additional circumstances like having young children are to be factored in promotions applications and E+D requirements for members of departmental REF panels. These are not department-specific actions but university-wide policies, all of which can be made more (or less) beneficial to women. These are the sorts of things that would be entered into the University submission for an award. At the departmental level actions should be planned that reflect what local policies are likely to work.

I mentioned the timing of seminars. It might be possible to have a University policy that no seminar can occur after 4pm, but it makes more sense for a department to work out timings that their staff find convenient. The type of support that may be most effective is likely to depend on the make-up of the workforce – lots of postdocs or practically none, for instance. If there are lots of postdocs, local policies should make sure they get appraised, informed about training opportunities and given some career advice. Those sorts of issues have nothing to do with central ‘policy’, all to do with considering what members of the department, including undergraduates, find good or bad about the specific place; a local questionnaire might be a good place to start in order to find out.

Turning now to point 3, this is perhaps the most subtle of the list. I think that what the person who raised this is implying is that an academic job is basically incompatible with things they value, such as work-life balance, or possibly being a mother (but presumably not with being a father). That may indeed be the way many places operate. But need it be? What does ‘excellence’ mean? It shouldn’t simply mean being prepared to work all hours of the day and night, travelling insane distances just to prove that you can stand up in all the continents of the world during a single year to give conference presentations and building up a team of PhD students you have no time to treat as more than bench monkeys. A neat phrase I heard expressed at a meeting recently was that ‘you shouldn’t use airmiles as a proxy for excellence’ and I agree with that. No more than you should use a journal’s impact factor (groan) as a proxy for the quality of the papers published therein.

If a department/university is to be serious about improving the working environment for everyone, but particularly women, then careful thought needs to be given to promotion criteria to ensure that someone who works less than a 100% contract, for whatever reason, is judged on the work they do in that time, not against some notional norm of the over-committed. If someone has caring responsibilities that mean travel is difficult, then that should be able to be stated; perhaps as an alternative to physical appearances at meetings, invitations received could be counted. If someone is particularly good at pastoral care or outreach then there should be an appropriate value put on it, relieving them of some other ‘chore’ or administrative task or by reducing their teaching load. Let’s face it, many individuals don’t want to take on pastoral care (and some shouldn’t be allowed near it). It isn’t a task that should be regarded merely as an optional extra but as a positive benefit to a department; those that take it on should therefore get appropriate recognition.

The meaning of ‘excellence’ leading to progression needs to be reconsidered at a senior level, moving away from the traditional narrow definition to something more all-encompassing. This will not only be to the benefit of the individuals concerned, but also to the long-term benefit of the department. That stage of being sucked dry by young children (or elderly parents) is usually only short-term; on the other hand the benefits of supporting individuals through that stage will be felt for years thereafter. Staff members relegated to second-class citizen status and made to feel unwelcome and sub-standard because of a short-term reduction in productivity will be likely to give up. Then their worth, as well as their sense of self-worth, will be correspondingly reduced, to a department’s detriment.

If an individual can be made to feel that a department is supportive but the needs of the job make progression impossible, then something is sadly awry. I suspect this is just another manifestation of the deficit model: fix the person not the system. Athena Swan applications are just the moment to challenge this mind-set, and should be used to push for change. However, there is no doubt that change will only happen if the senior leadership are really committed to it. It all comes down to that, at the end of the day.

(By the way, for anyone who is confused, my name is Athene and I have nothing whatsoever to do with the awards. The similarity of name is an unfortunate coincidence, although it’s fooled some eminent people into thinking the awards are somehow ‘mine’. Nor have I ever sat on any of the judging panels, so what I’ve written above is my personal perspective having been involbed in the process in my own university and department, as well as talked to others elsewhere about their submissions and aspirations.)

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9 Responses to Changing the Departmental Mind-set

  1. Jenni Burt says:

    Thought-provoking post as ever, especially from my experience as a female, part-time, Cambridge researcher with young children. I am indeed one of those individuals who is frequently “made to feel that a department is supportive but the needs of the job make progression impossible.” My immediate team are fantastic and many of us have young children and understand the pressures. However, promotion criteria, as explained to me, appear to be entirely dependent on the quantity of high-impact (sigh) papers I can produce in my evenings and weekends, when I am catching up on other aspects of work, rather than a more holistic consideration of my wider role and contribution – and what it is possible to achieve without having a clone. When senior staff emails start at 5.30am and finish at midnight, I can often be found wondering whether I shouldn’t start helping out at my friend’s bakery as an appealing alternative. However, I am heartened that there are senior people out there who recognise these challenges. Thanks to Athene for raising them.

  2. Jenny Koenig says:

    Thank you for addressing these points – I have heard them made a number of times. There is a real skepticism that it will lead to significant changes in attitudes amongst those with the power to make appointments. But it is a good start and we have to start somewhere!

    I wondered, do you know if there are any plans to ask women “on the ground” what they think about the Athena Swan process? It must be fairly straightforward to interview women in departments that aren’t taking part in the Athena Swan process and those that are to see if there is any sense that genuine changes in attitudes are occurring. It would be really difficult to do this in such a way that these women feel able to voice their opinions openly.but if this could be overcome I think it would be really valuable.

  3. Pat Morton says:

    Our team have been supporting / working with department al applications at SHU as well as the university award – and I would endorse what Athene has said. Departments involved report the process itself is helpful – and most under-estimate the amount of effort needed at the beginning.
    With regard to Jenny’s question – I believe Loughborough have been appointed to carry out an evaluation of the Athena SWAN and speaking to academics not involved is part of that research. From our experience at SHU, communication and buy-in from departmental staff is very important – as is academic leadership.

  4. James Lush says:

    That’s right, Pat. Jenny’s question is indeed a very good one and is intended to be one of the questions answered by the Loughborough team.

    (I recently joined the Equality Challenge Unit to work on the Athena SWAN Charter)

    If anyone is interested in joining a panel, please let us know! (

    And thanks to Athene for continuing to raise these important points in such a clear and persuasive way.

  5. Jenny Koenig says:

    I see from the assessment panels that there is no mention of PhD students or post-docs being on the panel. Is that an oversight or would that not be appropriate? It might be worth asking people involved in some of the women in science organisations (eg DJ Trust, CamAWISE etc).

    I think the way that PhD students and postdocs see their department reacting to these sorts of initiatives is really important. I can remember when the SET Fair report reached the tea room in my then department about ten years ago. The three senior male academics sitting around drinking tea saw the front cover, realised it was about women in science, made a disparaging comment to do with “what are they complaining about” and changed the subject. They didn’t even open it or read the summary. You can imagine the effect that had on me at the time. Especially since I’d been interviewed for the report and had been quoted in it.

  6. Sharon Cahill says:

    The post is so helpful and timely as our University is about to engage in this process. I am hopefully that ‘real change’ will come and benefit all who work in the university – women – men – staff and students. I was reading yesterday how there are so few women lawyers and those that stay in the profession seldom move up the ladder but that change is afoot in their discipline, it feels to me that in academia we have a similar problem. Sincerely I hope that my involvement and that of my colleagues ensures that our University takes a critical stance to this process and sees it as an opportunity rather than a tick box exercise. Will keep you posted

  7. Geologist says:

    Wish we had something like this in the USA!!!

  8. Clare Hooper says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful post on this. I’d heard of the Athena Swan awards but didn’t know much about the sorts of thing they track, so this was helpful.

    Your comments put me in mind of something a professor in my field (computer science) said some months ago: years earlier, there was a discussion in his department about diversity, rewards, impact assessment, and the departmental culture. He jokingly suggested that people who worked extra hours should have their research impacts scaled back to correspond to what they’d have achieved if they’d stuck to a 40 hour week… a tongue in cheek comment, but some serious issues to be unpacked behind it.

  9. Nigel Brown says:

    Spot on again, Athene. Having served on an Athena Swan panel and been at a University with a Gold departmental award, I agree that it is no tick-box exercise and needs real leadership and commitment. With that, it should be simple for any department to gain a Bronze award; Silver is more challenging. Many of my colleagues in Arts and Humanities also see the need, and think it a shame that the scheme is limited to STEM subjects.

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