Charter for women a success, says Loughborough research team

A national awards scheme aimed at improving the careers of women in science, technology, medicine and maths (STEMM) in universities and colleges, has been a success, according to a Loughborough University research team.

Launched in 2005, the Athena SWAN Charter was created to encourage higher education institutions to address the attrition of women working in STEMM.

The SWAN Charter, run by the Equality Challenge Unit, gives out gold, silver and bronze awards at its annual awards ceremonies.

At this year’s ceremony, a record number of gold awards were handed out, and the first group of successful research institute members were celebrated.

And on the same day the research team announced the findings of their independent evaluation in London.

The researchers said the awards scheme advances gender equality and changes the working culture and attitudes within participating departments and universities.

Universities and departments that hold Athena SWAN awards are more advanced in addressing unequal representation than those that don’t.

The project was run by Dr Fehmidah Munir, Hilary McDermott and Carolynne Mason (SSEHS), Professor  Barbara Bagilhole (Social Sciences), and Mary Nevill and John Morris, who are now at Nottingham Trent.

Dr Munir said: “Higher education mirrors the general UK workforce pattern. Women are usually well represented in universities, but there is a lack of women in senior positions, particularly in academic posts.

“Disciplinary differences are also evident, with women best represented in language-based studies and worst represented in STEMM.

“STEMM subjects tend to be male-dominated and can be perceived as sexist places to work. This perception is sometimes accurate with biased workload allocation, and career development and progression evident between genders with male academics faring better.

“In STEMM departments that hold an Athena SWAN award, there is less gender bias and better career satisfaction for both men and women.”

Dr Munir said the awards had been recognised for their importance by the Department of Health, who say that the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) does not expect to shortlist in the future any NHS/University partnership for Biomedical Research Centres and Biomedical Research Unit funding unless the academic department holds at least a silver award. 

She added: “Funding bodies have recognised the disparity between male and female careers in STEMM subjects.

“Research Councils UK (RCUK) funding bodies are also thinking about following this lead. So Athena SWAN awards is good for both promoting women, reducing gender inequality and for funding.”

David Ruebain, chief executive of Equality Challenge Unit, said: “We are delighted with the findings of this independent evaluation. At a time when universities and departments have to target resources where they will make the biggest difference, I hope it will be reassuring to know there is independent evidence of the sustainable impact working towards an Athena SWAN award can have.

“However, we are not going to rest on our successes; we are going to continue to build on them. We welcome the recommendations for further development and improvement of the process that will ensure the charter remains effective and fit for purpose.”

The SSEHS has a silver award and the Loughborough University a Bronze.

Bronze Award holders demonstrate recognition of their challenges and have planned activities to address these.

Silver Award holders demonstrate that action has been taken in response to identified challenges, and are assessing the impact of these actions.

Gold Award holders demonstrate a substantial and well-established record of working towards equality in career progression in STEMM, and act as beacons of best practice.

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