light at the end of the tunnel?

This week was pretty amazing. First I returned from more than 3 weeks away – **ON HOLIDAYS** – without email or internet (well not much anyway). As always, it was a mad scramble to catch up with things the first day back. And if I’m honest, I’ve still not quite caught up on everything.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon I traveled to Canberra to prepare for a very important meeting run by the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Forum. The SAGE Forum is an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science, and is chaired by two incredible scientists, Nobel Prize Winner/ARC Laureate Fellow/FAA/astronomer Prof Brian Schmidt (ANU) and ARC Georgina Sweet Laureate Fellow/FAA/mathematician Prof Nalini Joshi (Sydney Uni). The SAGE steering committee also comprises Dr Roslyn Prinsley from the Chief Scientist’s Office, Prof Sharon Bell DVC Charles Darwin University/author of previous reports highlighting gender inequity in academia, and Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and former Chair of the Academy’s Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum. And me. Regrettably Prof Caroline McMillen, VC and President at the University of Newcastle was unable to attend. What a team though. It’s humbling, inspiring and exciting in equal parts to be part of this incredible group.

The SAGE Forum Development meeting on Wednesday 31 July 2014 also included invited representatives from the following organisations:

  • Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes
  • Australian Academy of Science
  • Australian Research Council
  • Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
  • CSIRO
  • Defence Science Technology Organisation
  • Group of Eight Universities
  • Innovative Research Universities
  • National Health and Medical Research Council
  • Office of the Chief Scientist
  • Regional Universities Network
  • Research Australia Rural Research and Development Corporations
  • Universities Australia

We were all there to talk about gender equity in science, research and academia. To my knowledge this is the first time these organisations have been brought together to discuss this issue. We began with the data – presented first by Roslyn Prinsley showing that in Australia, in all fields of science and engineering, women progress through the pipeline at considerably slower rates than men. Then Sharon Bell presented new data supporting these figures and revealing that women are leaving in much greater numbers than men in large part because of the casualisation of the workforce, including the prevalence of short-term contracts in research and academia.

My contribution was to present on the Athena SWAN charter run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in the UK, which represents one possible model for addressing the systemic problems. Athena SWAN was established in 2005 in response to the chronic under-representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM), and the negligible change in progression of women in STEMM since the 1990s (i.e. the same issues we face in Australia). During my recent holidays in the UK I had the opportunity to visit the ECU in London and to talk with the CEO David Ruebain and the Athena SWAN manager Sarah Dickinson. They also very kindly provided me with information to present at the SAGE Development meeting.

The Athena SWAN Charter’s 6 guiding principles are simple:

1. To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation

2. To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation

3. The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine

4. The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address

5. The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organisation recognises

6. There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organisation

Athena SWAN members apply for awards that recognise attainment and leadership in gender equality. A University department can only apply for awards once the University has achieved a bronze award. Currently, there are 319 award holders (61 Bronze universities, 4 Silver universities, 162 Bronze departments, 85 Silver departments and 7 Gold departments).

Why is Athena SWAN different? Because of what it is NOT. It is not simply a box-ticking exercise to show that appropriate policies are in place (eg family friendly support packages, support for women returning from extended leave) although these are clearly important. Instead, Athena SWAN requires member organisations to:

1. Collect data on women’s progression within their organisation
2. Critically analyse that data
3. Identify reasons for exclusion and under-representation of women
4. Develop an action plan to address these reasons (so that action plans will necessarily be unique to each department)
5. Show progress over time

There were 10 founding members of Athena SWAN in 2005, including the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Now the charter boasts 115 members. A turbo boost came in 2011, when Dame Sally Davies (Chief Medical Officer in the UK) announced that as of 2015 large MRC funding to departments would be conditional on an Athena SWAN Silver award. According to David Ruebain and Sarah Dickinson, this changed the landscape in the UK – universities now see an Athena SWAN award as a necessary measure of excellence, and departments want to be involved to show how well they are doing on this issue. Recently the NHMRC in Australia suggested they might also tie funding to gender equity.

To date, there have been two reviews of the impact of Athena SWAN in the UK: one in 2011 performed by the ECU itself and then another this year run independently by the University of Loughborough. Both found similar outcomes. Better visibility of women; better representation of women on decision-making committees; increased proportion of women in STEMM departments; improved working practices to support career progression. Interestingly, the report noted that “the good practices implemented generally benefits all staff and contributes to improving the working environment and culture within their institutions”. Making things better for women, makes things better for everyone. More flexible work options, better work-life balance, different models of success.

Athena SWAN has been so successful, and so visibly successful in a relatively short space of time, that this year the Republic of Ireland signed up to work with the ECU on a 3-year pilot study for its own universities. Athena SWAN is also being rolled out to independent research organisations within the UK. These organisations want to be involved because Athena SWAN is an informed, tested, validated system, with procedures established that lead to real and substantial change.

After these presentations at the SAGE Development meeting, a general discussion followed of where we are at and where we need to go next. As reported in the Australian media, there was a consensus around the table that gender inequity is a systemic problem and that action needs to be taken urgently. One way to address this might be to adopt something like Athena SWAN in Australia. The next step in the process is a SAGE Forum workshop (25th and 26th November 2014) involving representatives from all universities and medical research institutes, as well as the organisations listed above, and the SAGE steering committee. The Office of the Chief Scientist has provided financial support to organise the workshop. David Ruebain and Sarah Dickinson from the ECU in the UK will attend and present on the Athena SWAN model.

These are exciting times. There appears to be a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, but much more remains to be done. I urge you to please encourage, lobby, hector your university, medical research institute, or other research organisation to send a representative with some clout to the SAGE Forum workshop in November. For more information on the workshop please contact the SAGE Forum.

We need to ensure everyone is consulted, everyone has buy-in, everyone is on board. Let’s work together to fix the system. Let’s make the system work better for everyone.

 

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2 thoughts on “light at the end of the tunnel?

  1. Did Athena SWAN grow out of the Athena Project? In 2002 I visited them in London and picked up copies of their Good Practice guide and reports on individual universities.

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