How might the Athena Swan Process Emerge?

When groups of (comparative) strangers sit around a table, it is impossible to predict what will emerge in the way of new ideas. Readers of this blog will not be surprised to know that I think diversity – of background, skin colour, discipline and gender – may all lead to better decisions than a monoculture is liable to produce, but that list should probably also be extended (in academic circles at least) to cover type of institution and geographical base. I have been involved in various committees over the last year that have been of this form, a group of folk unfamiliar with each others’ points of view coming together to draw up some suggested actions.

One example is the REF Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel that I am chairing (although it’s not the only one on my mind currently), but as its conclusions are not yet confirmed I cannot write specifically about this. What I can say is that, working with the group has been a pleasure. Given a task that I thought would be immensely challenging the group has, I believe, come up with some constructive ways to ensure interdisciplinary research gets a fair hearing in the REF assessment and, just as importantly, ways that individuals and institutions can have confidence in that this is so. If we get this right than I hope we will see a larger number of submissions covering the wonderful interdisciplinary research that the UK produces submitted to the exercise than happened last time around. The proof of the pudding is of course still to come. Panels – and institutions – may turn out to hate what we propose!

Nevertheless, I am happy to suggest that I believe a group of people, many of whom had never met each other before and who came from a wide range of disciplines, geographies and institution types, were able to dream up ideas far more constructively and creatively than each of us individually would have been able to achieve. That process is what I think ‘emergence’ in this context is all about.  Described like that it is really a physicist’s idea, as expressed in this (non-technical) piece from a few years ago written in the Conversation by a pair of Australian physicists Andy Martin and Kristian Helmerson and summed up as:

“Emergence” describes the ability of individual components of a large system to work together to give rise to dramatic and diverse behaviour.

AdvanceHE, which is the new organisation into which the Equality Challenge Unit has recently been incorporated, will need to be conscious of this as it puts together its announced panel to review the way the scheme operates. Last week saw another account by a woman who had fallen out of love with the Athena Swan process and who had publicly resigned from her local committee, explaining why she had done so. I wrote about my own growing concerns earlier this year, worrying that it had assumed a too-rigid structure that was no longer fit for purpose. It had started out as such a force for good: encouraging departments and whole universities to reflect upon their practices. However, what is perhaps becoming clearer as more and more institutions submit their lengthy, detailed documents, is that culture change to embrace inclusion and diversity whole-heartedly needs far more than pages of graphs of changing numbers. Perhaps the easy wins have been won.

Changing the timing of seminars is great in small ways, but it doesn’t eradicate unconscious (let alone conscious) bias at every stage on the career ladder. Ensuring that there is a proper induction process for new starters and that there is a social once a month to which everyone is invited is not the same as ensuring that those women or other minorities who wish to progress are not knocked back by unsupportive management, with comments along the lines of ‘you’re too emotional’ or ‘it’s not your turn’ and other incredibly soul-destroying remarks. All too often these spill forth to the dismay of the recipient, as I and many another could testify. Perhaps we are moving on though.

Take letters of reference and the way these can be subtly – or not-so-subtly – gendered. I have written about these several times. Firstly, back in 2012, I wrote an opinion piece for the THE; subsequently (February 2016) I wrote a blog for the Guardian,  where I was more explicit about the sorts of comments I had seen. Neither of these articles got a great deal of traction. However my most recent offering on the subject (December 2016) has been very different. First appearing on these pages it got reprinted on the THE website where it got strongly picked up – including references in the national press. The THE continues to promote this article over Twitter, most recently in the last couple of days, and Twitter continues to spread the word about it. Perhaps in this case, 5-6 years on from my first commentary on the issue, the idea has really begun to bite and people are far more conscious of the dangers in their own writing as well as in other people’s. This is definitely an intangible, and one that is hard to imagine could ever be visible in an Athena Swan submission, however much the process is revised, but it is the kind of thing that really is likely to make a difference: if people stop applying, however unconsciously, different adjectives to men and women, appointments and promotions panels will find it easier to treat all candidates equally.

So what’s to be done? How should Athena Swan adapt in the face of criticism and its own awareness of present shortcomings? David Ruebain has written that there is to be a review of the Athena Swan processes to see how they can be adapted to be fit for purpose at the present time. If we are to change the academic landscape to something that is truly inclusive there is much work to be done. But perhaps there is a tension (not unlike how people perceive the REF) between what is measurable – the raw numbers themselves, changing numbers over the years, explicit actions – and the environment which is, after all, what really matters. Good policies are not enough but how do you assess the intangible atmosphere and, equally important, how do you assess whether there are toxic pockets of resistance?

So, this review panel will have its work cut out to come up with a refreshed scheme that can address the concerns that are being increasingly expressed. Let us hope that the group of individuals overseeing this process (of which, I will admit, I am one although I have no knowledge as yet who else is involved) can demonstrate ‘emergent properties’, and approach the problem from multiple viewpoints to come up with constructive solutions. Athena Swan, as a scheme, evolved from a very informal beginning, initiated within the Athena Project; its early history can be found here . Self-assessment and not lots of forms was the name of the game back then. It is easy to see why such an informal process is no longer fit for purpose. But nor do I believe the doorstep amount of paperwork required, not always with full support from the leadership, is the right way to proceed.

Time will tell whether in this case a good and operative solution really does emerge from a panel of disparate ‘experts’ getting their heads together, but it is crucial that it does.


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4 Responses to How might the Athena Swan Process Emerge?

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for this Athene. I have always tried to emphasise that the award (Athena SWAN) is not the aim of the E&D process. Culture change is and the award will come as a consequence of that. Not focusing on the award is all important here, but that can be difficult if pressure is coming from “on high” to achieve, which is something I have experienced in the past. That achievement of an Athena SWAN award depends largely on your institutional view of the awards. I have seen the target being driven by the need to ensure that we can apply for grants in the future – should the funding councils change their rules. This surely cannot be the aim of such a process? Institutions have to be more committed to the changes in attitudes, that you mention, in order for real change to take place. University leaders need to adopt more reflective and empathetic approaches to their management style, and they need to listen to the diverse range of opinion to see the scale of the problems (and the positive things that are working). All too often I have heard emotional arguments being ignored, when the situations can be very emotional indeed.

    On the writing of reference letters I was recently asked to provide one for a promotion in a Canadian university, and the guidance stipulated that I was not allowed to use gendered language. Having that guidance was extremely helpful, not just for this particular letter, but also for the future. I now consciously avoid using he/she in my letters, and refer to title only. This helps me to refer only to their achievements, and perhaps not unconsciously to their gender (I hope).

  2. Colin Finlay says:

    StEM is under threat from the envious, equality – of – outcome crowd. Considering the lack of outcome equality seen in offspring with the same genetic inheritance and the same home environment, how can we expect it to span diverse racial groups?

    • As might be expected I don’t agree with the views expressed, particularly in the linked article which smacks strongly of white male privilege feeling aggrieved. It is not a discussion of why diversity isn’t good in STEM, only argues that money spent on such programmes then doesn’t go to the usual suspects. However, in the interests of balance I publish the comment and link.

      • An says:

        You are rather fast to dismiss the comment and article. I find the article rather one-sided and the comment rather creating a knee-jerk response myself. That being said, in the promotion of equality for all, I find that there are only two ethical approaches for this: irradication of discrimination (for example via implementing practices with evidence that it reduces discrimination, like using structured interviews in which each applicant gets the same questions in the same order) and getting more people of underrepresented groups to apply. The equality of outcome claim that the comment writer makes I find correct: you cannot make one wrong (discrimination) good with another wrong (positive discrimination). That you simply dismiss the article as “white male privilige feeling aggrieved” is intellectually sloppy.
        I hope to promote you to some honest thinking and academic discourse instead of keeping your heels stuck at the equity point-of-view.

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