Not Athena SWAN again! The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In one of today’s dual posts, we get the personal opinion of Suzanne Madgwick, a research fellow in ICaMB, about her experiences and the pros and cons of Athena SWAN.

The following opinions are all my own and not necessarily those of ICaMB, other good opinions are available; no men or women were harmed during the preparation of this article.

4th of November 2013 was the first time I heard the term Athena SWAN. An email dropped into academic inboxes, a message which has no doubt been rolled out in one form or another across countless institutions throughout the country. Something along the lines of: Inequalities between male and female academics which may exist need to be addressed ….. For many granting bodies this is becoming a major issue …….. NIHR have made it very clear that only institutions with at least an Athena Swan Silver Award will be eligible ……… others may follow …….. Self-Assessment Team …….. Application ……Volunteers’



Three thoughts ran through my head

Primarily confusion, in this position I can’t think of a time when I have felt discriminated against. Where has the notion that gender inequality exists in ICaMB come from? Whether I succeed or fail is based on many things; academic ability, resilience, character, free personal life choices and of course luck among others. I cannot currently identify a factor that could be singled out as a gender barrier. Sure, we work in a traditionally male-dominated environment but this is changing, gradually yes, but as far as I can see without conflict or resistance. Might it then be damaging to try and force this?

Secondly, why is there a possibility that government and charity money may in future only be awarded to institutions with a specific award? Is this necessarily the most responsible spend of money? When did the best research team stop being the one with the best idea? Given that there is increasing evidence to suggest that the most productive teams exist within flexible, progressive environments with good levels of female and male representation, again, are we not moving towards this anyway?

My final thought at the time was ‘Uh oh, I’m bound to be ‘asked’ to volunteer for our self-assessment team, this will be awkward’. But I reasoned that whilst I failed to see the existence of a problem I should help the department in an application. The Athena SWAN charter has us backed into a corner and whether I agree with it or not, in some way we will all benefit from an award.

Picture417 months on, I am now trapped in the frustrations of a Jekyll and Hyde type situation. I cannot ignore the fact that I still have these same objections and many more to boot. But I am also pleased to have become increasingly aware of the immense good that can come from a team striving to make improvements in relation to points 2 and 3 covered by the Athena SWAN charter.

The Good; in particular, but not limited to; mentoring schemes for both personal development and career progression, events for early career researchers to help identify and inform funding opportunities, promotion of flexible working hours, technical support and relief from additional duties for staff returning from leave, the formation of a team to identify, sponsor and encourage people who are able and talented but perhaps lack the self-promotion needed to reach the next level ……. and so on and so on. Brilliant! Everybody who has the ability and would like to, has an equal opportunity to stay in science. Creating a more flexible, inspirational working environment for all seems like a great idea, but continually lumping this together with ‘women’s issues’ is putting off a significant proportion of our workforce.

The Bad; nothing listed here is simply a gender issue, they are team issues and I am frustrated that all of these great positive changes are eclipsed by a much more visible yet awkward approach to addressing point 1.

Yes, there is evidence to suggest that women are sometimes a little more risk averse, less likely to put themselves forward for promotion, but this is by no means exclusive. If we have a mechanism in place to champion and support the different needs of all people, each and every time they need it, is this not equality without the need to keep using the word “women”? I can’t help thinking that there is a good dose of hypocrisy in all the ‘positive actions’ and events which are seen to be just for women. In the short term it’s generating friction and in the long term it certainly doesn’t seem like the best strategy when preaching fair play.


Athena SWAN is suffering an image crisis. To the people who are not engaging in the initiative, I can’t blame you. I’m uncomfortable with the image of Athena SWAN and I would assume I’m supposed to be a benefactor. Despite all the good, we are alienating people; they assume it’s not for them, or like me, they don’t see the barrier. Can we consider for a moment that when we’re feeling energised and determined in our careers that it might be a little insulting to tell us we are being discriminated against and may need extra help? Prior to Athena SWAN I felt that my position was born of the factors that I have listed at the beginning of this article. Only now do I look around and wonder.

I’m beginning to get the feeling I have an ‘Athena SWAN’ label. I don’t want to highlight anybody in particular but I am not alone here. It doesn’t take much of an internet search to find high profile women making comments about feeling that recently they’ve been asked to speak more and more about women’s issues and less and less about science.

Of course women are different, 80% of us will have children and not even the power of Athena SWAN can switch over the uterus. But my children are my children, my choice, not a dent in my or my husband’s career. I have taken several years off; I am several years behind a peer who has not taken time out and this is as it should be. But, also as it should be, there were options available to me to return to science. I’m very pleased to report how well supported I have been in this, as I’m sure are the cohort of men who have also gained Career Re-Entry Fellowships.

The Ugly; the corridor murmuring. I’m not going to participate in anything to do with Athena SWAN but I’m going to moan about it anyway. But perhaps people feel they can’t speak up, the ugly side of political correctness. Please challenge us, we may agree with you. I am reminded of Hilary Lappin-Scott’s final phrase at last year’s equality in academia event “best use of all our talent”. Our self-assessment team is not balanced. We are getting lots of things right but we are also getting some things wrong, these are then the points that go noticed. We have certainly tried to concentrate on charter points two and three, but I for one feel very uncomfortable about the fact that we are hamstrung by the need to address all three.

The Leaky Pipeline; we can’t deny the ‘leaky pipeline,’ the drop off in the proportion of female scientists who progress from Postdoc to PI (though current ICaMB fellows are 47% female); the Athena SWAN initiative began with a need to address this. Nevertheless, we also can’t assume that we know all the reasons for the leak. Identifying these reasons is a big part of the challenge faced by the Athena SWAN self-assessment team. As crazy as it might sound, we do not all want to stay in science (though Bob if you are reading, I do). I have recently read that 88% of female PhD students do not want to stay in academia, but then neither do 79% of male PhD students. Surely through sponsorship, mentoring, flexible working etc., we can make sure that everybody who would like to stay in science has an equal opportunity based on merit, without making this an alienating gender issue.

This brings me back to our Athena Swan event last month where Professor Helen Arthur, Jill Golightly and Professor Melanie Welham all gave highly entertaining, outstanding talks about three very different very successful career paths. Sitting in my chair at the end of the afternoon I felt thoroughly inspired not because they are three inspirational women but because they are 3 inspirational people……. Only to then stand up and feel disheartened as turned and noticed the proportion of men in the audience. Have we done this? Has the Image of Athena SWAN has done this? With this in mind ……



5 thoughts on “Not Athena SWAN again! The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  1. Excellent discussion with which I fully agree (though I’m sure by virtue of my gender my opinion will carry less weight with some people). I particularly agree with the point that we don’t know why we have a leaky pipeline. There’s always going to be a drop out rate and to simply observe the picture and assert discrimination is absurd without knowledge of intentions and interests. Academic degrees are, after all, not for the express purpose of following an academic career.

    The general motives of this and similar agendas (all invoking quotas essentially) are in essence positive ones but their branding and constant focussing on but a single piece or side is their let down which will render them forever without total support across the board.

    A holistic approach to support everyone depending on their needs and not the categories they so happen to fall in to is much more appropriate and undoubtably more constructive for the system and those who wish to be a part of it.

  2. Thank you Suzanne for expressing so articulately many of the concerns I share regarding the emphasis of Athena Swan on ‘gender’. Athena Swan has presented a challenge to us all, in one way or another, and I think it is great that ICAMB are using the Blog to encourage people to openly discuss how these issues impact us. There may be more to lose than gain by this, but here are some of my thoughts. I hope everyone would aspire for funding, publication, recruitment and all other decisions in academia to be made without gender bias. Unfortunately, I have no doubt some biases in important decision-making do still exist, as exemplified in Nancy’s blog, and make some contribution to the lack of diversity in academia. Evidence would suggest that open application processes and diverse selection panels are probably the most effective ways to eradicate these biases and I welcome the efforts of Athena Swan assessment teams to try and make sure that universities implement these good practices in their decision making at every level. Unfortunately, some of the things that would increase the opportunity for everyone to be successful in their research eg. on-site parking, crèche facilities are not really things that can be implemented at institute level. Nevertheless, like Suzanne, I also appreciate and support measures, driven by Athena Swan, to provide mentoring and extra support to people, particularly during times when increased family commitments might otherwise permanently ‘lose them’ or seriously impact their chances of a successful academic career. However, alongside these admirable efforts to ensure a more level playing field for everyone, efforts to ‘artificially’ balance gender at conferences, in seminar series etc mean we are entering a world where it seems to me decision-makers are actually encouraged to exercise gender bias. Having always hoped that my gender would not be ‘noticed’ or in any way affect how I was treated as a scientist, it has been disappointing and demoralising to find this is no longer the case. Every invitation I get I now view with suspicion that I am being asked because of my gender rather than my science. This upsets me, both for the men unfairly missing out on these opportunities, and because, if this is also the perception of others, then I am fighting a losing battle to be recognised for my science alone.

  3. I am very proud that our institute strives to raise awareness for the issue of gender inequality in academia. I believe ICaMB’s application highlights great progress made until now and sets us on the right track. However, it’s the general public opinion of Athena Swan initiative that concerns me. As mentioned in the article, we have all heard the sarcastic comments in the corridors, which end up masking what it is willingly trying to be achieved. It ridicules and trivialises the commitment of the institute to the process before and after the application process. In my opinion, this patronises what is essentially a set of excellent people doing excellent work to further ensure we not only take care of our future, but of those considering science as a career. I agree with Ben that an holistic approach is needed, and I believe that could impact positively on how Athena Swan is perceived. I do know, though, that this is nothing but what it has been attempted to be achieved. However, diagonal reading of the many emails that clog our inbox with the word women in it can create the wrong impressions. I am not sure whether these issues are only a problem with branding or if prejudice is still the greatest barrier to overcome.

  4. Many thanks for this excellent article. I am an academic-clinician in a major research institution and I share many of these concerns. In fact, I have become increasingly worried about working in an environment that is fraught with intellectual dishonesty and a toxic atmosphere which does not encourage open discussion on these points.

    Yes, I a man. However,

    – my two sisters are highly qualified medical professionals and I was raised in an environment where girls were encouraged to pursue all their goals;
    – I believe passionately in equality and freedom of choice across the board of political issues;
    – I have worked with, have been supervised by, and have deeply admired many female colleagues over my 12 years as a medical professional and 8 years as a researcher.

    I think it is telling that someone with this background feels disenfranchised and concerned about the prominence of Athena Swan and the focus on point 1 of the charter, which has a strong flavour of discrimination against men and frankly, overt social engineering. All of this surely jars with the rigorous approach scientists, both male and female, apply to their thinking on important issues.

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