Athena Swan Charter

Many will hopefully be aware that the Athena Swan Charter recognises commitment to advancing women’s careers in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, Medicine) employment in higher education and research. In fact its scope is even wider – quoting from the website, it covers:

  • women in academic roles
  • progression of students into academia
  • working environment for all staff

As the University Executive Board member with responsibility for Athena Swan, I’d like to engender a strong commitment to this initiative during 2015 and beyond. Everyone will hopefully be aware that the University, having attained Bronze status, will be submitting an application for Silver in November of this year.

Kirsty Steed drew my attention to a very interesting blog article about a recent conference at Swansea University. I won’t reiterate the details – you can read the blog here – but there are some salient features that are worth noting. Of particular relevance was a discussion regarding the award of Gold status to Imperial College’s Chemistry Department. The blog highlights seven ‘tips for success’, in summary:

1. Be welcoming: Say good morning and good night! To everyone.

2. Cut out hierarchies: e.g. academic and non-academic staff, postdocs vs faculty.

3. Be social: Have more parties that are inclusive

4. The little things matter: Senior staff/Heads of Departments need to set these standards by spending time with all staff and students, investing in everyone, not just the powerful. Make new staff feel welcomed, valued and integrated.

5. Be inclusive: It’s not about a list of ‘women’, ‘foreign students’, ‘support staff’ – you’re either inclusive or not.

6. Prioritise help for the ‘majority in need’: It might be new mums, but equally it might be new dads! Help these people get back on track – nothing costs more than a member of staff who doesn’t write grants: allow your returning staff the space to do this by funding a postdoc/technician to help them out for a few months so the staff member can focus on their grant writing.

7. Be honest: Expose the humanity of your department so you know what the problems are, and work out how to improve. Determine where unconscious bias is creeping in – we all do it! Personal bias results in bad decision making.

I hope you will agree that our working environment would be a much better place if we followed these guidelines. I would argue that we are already working on some of these, but with regard to point 2, a particular hobby-horse’ of mine is the attitude of academic staff to administrators. I have lost count of the number of times during my career that I have heard (and indeed seen in print) disparaging remarks about support staff from academics. This is surely unprofessional and pointless. If we are truly committed to Athena Swan, we need to ‘walk the talk’.

Having noted all this, in a faculty such as SAgE the focus must be on women’s careers, since as we know there is huge gender inequality in the majority of our schools. So what can we do? Having chaired close on 100 academic appointing panels since arriving in Newcastle about 3 years ago, I have constantly been struck by the small numbers of women applying for roles. We can shrug our shoulders and suggest that the problem arises further down the chain – not enough girls taking STEMM subjects at school and so on, but that’s missing the point. In short, we need to take positive action. However, we must be careful to distinguish this from positive discrimination. To illustrate, if we advertised a role for women only (or indeed for a particular ethnic group), then this would be illegal. I would also argue that it is undesirable, since in  a meritocracy surely the best person for the role should get the job. However, if we advertised a role that is geared for someone who has taken, or may need to take, a career break, then this would be positive action rather than positive discrimination. Moreover, it is perfectly acceptable, and in my view very desirable, to highlight opportunities to under-represented genders and convince them to apply for the role.

These are just a couple of ways in which we can address the imbalance. I’m sure there are many more. I’d welcome thoughts from anyone – I will be organising a series of events over the coming year to discuss possibilities and opportunities, with the aim of creating a culture of positive action.


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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