Eradicating Gender Stereotyping: How can Athena Swan Awards Help?

There is nothing like seeing gender stereotyping through reverse eyes to highlight its stupidity. Women are used to intrusive, inappropriate questions about their looks and dress, even in professional situations (see this recent story about Russian astronauts for an example); they are used to being judged by criteria quite different from men, be it about being aggressive rather than assertive or being expected to be the one to sort out the childcare and the laundry. But, turn these statements around – as Twitter user @manwhohasitall does – and it really brings it home. Look at these recent examples of his (I presume given the twitterhandle) wit:

  • TODAY’S QUESTION: Is it time we focused on male politicians’ POLITICS instead of their hair, clothes and parental status?
  • To all intelligent men. Don’t be AFRAID of your intelligence! It’s OK to be a man and be intelligent. Some women actually find it attractive.
  • I have absolutely nothing against male chief executives, as long as they are able to make tough decisions.
  • Dad with a career? Pay attention to your eyes. Dark circles from lack of sleep can make any man feel insecure & come across as incapable.

And, most relevant to this blogpost:

  • “I don’t like being called a ‘male scientist’. I’m just a scientist,” says Ben. Aren’t some people funny? He IS a male scientist!

The trouble is, it’s still too easy to see these comments as ‘normal’ when referring to women – in the media or in person. Should I, for instance, in participating in a recent ‘photo opportunity’ highlighting three successful young researchers who all happened to be female, have made a fuss when the photographer referred to them not as ‘intellectual’ but as ‘attractive’? It feels churlish in a way; the male photographer meant no harm (I know that’s no defence), probably thought he was being complimentary, and yet it is totally demeaning in a professional context.

For university departments these fundamental issues need to be addressed. Producing lists of committee members where the women are marked with an {f} (as happened in my own university until rather recently) or asterisked (as I saw in a separate external list just this week) immediately implies everyone else is male by default (and yes I know we’re not necessarily binary either, but I think we have to start there). Whereas it is as well to know what the gender make-up of a committee is, marking the men with an {m} and the women with an {f} removes the presumption that if you’re not male you’re odd.

We should be sure that people are judged solely on merit, not filtered through the eyes of what is deemed appropriate, whether they talk in a low- or high-pitched voice or happen to have an elderly parent or a toddler to worry about. We should be aware that student surveys tend to view male lecturers as more knowledgeable and professional (see here and here) so that such ratings should be used with extreme caution in internal reviews; that women who attempt to negotiate a higher salary are penalised and hence a gender pay gap is likely to persist for the foreseeable future without compensating action being taken by the management; that women are often assumed to be unambitious and, particularly if they are mothers, less competent than men of similar standing but this is, indeed, an assumption not based on evidence; and that someone who talks loudly and at length doesn’t necessarily know what they’re talking about more than someone who is less domineering (indeed, it’s often the opposite) and should be treated accordingly.

University leaders at every level need to bear these and many similar issues in mind when it comes to appointments, promotions and career opportunities. Bigger – be it grant income, h index or group size – does not necessarily mean better. Those who are the arbiters of people’s fates need to be much more conscious of the subtleties of what merit and success look like, not fall back on measures that are increasingly shown to be unhelpful and systematically disadvantaging certain sections – notably including women – in academe.

Athena Swan committees and diversity leads/equality champions (according to the language an institution uses and the structures they put in place) should act as the conscience for these leaders. They are able to raise examples of both good and bad practice that they come across; to share action plans across departments and to make suggestions for improving the working environment for everyone. But more particularly, they can be the conduits for passing on information to the leadership about local issues that are specific rather than systemic. These may relate to poor behaviour in a pocket of a department – inappropriate posters, comments or actions that don’t amount to harassment but do amount to a difficult atmosphere. They may be down to a particular research group having seminars at 1730 and then heading off to the pub, thereby excluding parents or those who don’t believe the pub is a comfortable place to hold research discussions. Or they may arise because certain parts of a large department are failing to apply recommended practice about matters such as (KIT) Keeping in Touch Days and requests for part-time or non-standard hours of work leading to uneven responses to such requests.

The Athena Swan awards have proved to be a significant factor in encouraging conversations about diversity issues and disseminating examples of good practice. As long as they continue to be about facilitating such conversations and internal reflections their importance will remain. If any institution starts to use them, not as the motivator for debate and action but as simply a tick-box exercise which has to be gone through for the colour of the logo on their headed notepaper their worth will instantly be diminished. Departments need to keep their eyes on the primary goal of creating a more equal and creative workplace and not being fooled into believing that an award confers some sort of prestige and that no further work is needed.

Athena Swan has to be about a work in progress. Every submission’s action plan is only a staging post on the road to eradicating inequality. It is unlikely that, in my lifetime at least, there won’t be more that a department can do to improve gender equality (and that’s before we start on race or disability issues). Think of the action plan as just the beginning of the work, not the end itself.


Help us do science! I’ve teamed up with researcher Paige Brown Jarreau to create a survey of Athene Donald’s Blog readers (as well as 49 other blogs) during October and now running till Nov 20th. By participating, you’ll be helping me improve my own blog and contributing to SCIENCE on blog readership. For completing the survey, readers will be entered into a draw for a $50.00 Amazon gift card (100 available, or guaranteed 2 per specific blog included in this survey), plus FREE science art from Paige’s Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a t-shirt and other perks! It should only take 10-15 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here:


This post was originally written for QMUL’s Institute of Dentistry E+D pages.


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4 Responses to Eradicating Gender Stereotyping: How can Athena Swan Awards Help?

  1. Louise Pryor says:

    Deborah Tannen has a good take on this: Marked women, unmarked men at It’s a thought pattern that’s remarkably difficult to avoid, even when you are aware of what’s going on.

  2. Thanks for raising the importance of Athena SWAN awards in promoting gender equality. I’d welcome your thoughts on one factor that is holding women back, which is the kick-back that they get if they do raise objections when people make stereotyped or deprecating comments about women in science. In your example of the photographer who was unintentionally offensive, you ask if you should have made a fuss, but don’t say whether you did.

    Most women are reluctant to speak out in such situations, as the usual response is to be told that one is being shrill, on a witch-hunt, or unable to take a joke. If you do make a fuss, you are likely to end up under attack. If things get onto social media, you will end up targeted by trolls.

    Women need advice on how to manage such situations. I hope that, as Athena SWAN’s impact is more widely felt, it will become less necessary, as the whole scientific community becomes more aware of these issues. Meanwhile, should we just keep quiet?

    • No I didn’t, Dorothy, and it bothers me that I kept quiet. On the other hand it was a celebratory reception and I think had I spoken out it would have jarred and been wrong for the occasion. It is far easier to speak out in formal situations such as round a committee table. In that case I would urge readers not to speak out for themselves necessarily, but to do so for others. It really is up to the Chair in that situation to pull up anyone who makes these sort of casually/inadvertently deprecating remarks. But still, sometimes these things happen so fast and fleetingly it’s difficult.

      I agree it is often very hard for the person concerned to object. Whether they’re explicitly described as shrill, or just mentally marked down, they should be able to rely on colleagues to do it for them. Yet, as I say, on this particular occasion (although I’ve done it often enough elsewhere) I failed. Probably that’s why I inserted it here as an ‘admission of guilt’.

  3. Steve says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve found Athena SWAN to be very useful in my department, University.. We were just awarded Bronze but I’m more interested in changing culture and making a better workplace for all. It can drive through growth and help bring about a better working environment. One thing I will say is men need to speak out more against other men who use inappropriate language or persist in machismo in the boardroom, interrupt women when they are speaking and generally downgrade their opinions. Inappropriate language should of course be challenged, but there are far more subtle ways in which women are treated poorly in the workplace. Athena SWAN has at least forced me to reflect on why we have male dominated meetings, why women may not have comparable CVs and how difficult we make it for them to progress in our institutions. We are all human beings and deserve respect in the workplace. Too few men speak out and as it’s often men who are at the top (despite our best efforts) they have a responsibility to do this.

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