Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

Gender Equality in Australian Higher Education: A Frame for Athena SWAN


The gender equality landscape in Australian higher education has entered a period of renewal and change, with unprecedented levels of activity, resourcing and profile. This renewed vigour is largely driven by the SAGE pilot implementation of the Athena SWAN accreditation process, based on the UK model.

As someone who has been engaged in gender equality work within the sector for two decades this is enormously heartening. I’ve just returned from visiting six Universities in the UK, focusing my inquiry on their Athena SWAN work. In this blog I sketch out a bigger frame within which to place Athena SWAN, reflecting on the Australian experience and important work being done elsewhere. My experiences in the UK will be shared in forthcoming blogs.

The previous decade in Australia has been characterized by a modest ‘incremental creep’ approach to change, and a lack of focus and resources for staff diversity and inclusion initiatives relative to student equity. While the focus on gender weakened there was a welcome focus on other aspects of diversity such as race (Courageous Conversations) and GLBTIQ (Ally Programs) across the sector. In regard to addressing gender inequality the Australian HE sector lost ground relative to the HE sector in the UK, Europe, the USA and Canada, and ceded leadership in the gender equality arena in Australia to the corporate sector.

Driven by eminent scientists and the Academies, Athena SWAN has been embraced by the sector with 40 institutions now engaged in the SAGE pilot. This signals a change in focus whereby I anticipate the sector will continue to move away from the WGEA (Workplace Gender Equality Agency) Employer of Choice Gender Equality (EOCGE) citation towards using Athena SWAN as the benchmark of choice. Despite the current focus on STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) only disciplines in the pilot, Athena SWAN has the advantages of being tailored to the sector, supported by the Academies and government funding, driven by senior scientists, using more sophisticated methodologies, and with linkages to the ARC and NHMRC. It can reasonably be assumed that following the pilot Athena SWAN accreditation will be extended to individual Departments and Faculties, and in due course will include the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (as in the UK). Funding from the ARC and NHMRC may in due course become contingent on Athena SWAN accreditation.

Until now whole of institution reporting for WGEA, including for EOCGE has been all that was required. The drilling down into the data approach, with the transparency expected by Athena SWAN, will highlight weaknesses and may expose institutions to reputational and funding risks. The eventual specificity of Athena SWAN and more publicly available data will enable frontrunners (award winning Departments and Faculties rather than whole institutions) to market themselves as more attractive destinations for women. Bold initiatives, such as the advertising of academic positions specific to women (eg Swinburne and University of Melbourne) are beginning to occur.

Australian Vice-Chancellors have increasingly engaged with the Male Champions for Change (MCC) movement, originally initiated by Elizabeth Broderick and associated with the Human Rights Commission. ‘MCC’ and ‘CEO’s for Change’ groups are now mushrooming at state and industry level (e.g. STEM). This has contributed to a public discourse regarding men’s engagement in gender equality work and their power to effect change. There is also a more nascent movement towards considering men as potential beneficiaries of gender equality (see Partners for Change). This welcome focus on men from a number of perspectives provides an important platform to build on in the gender equality work.

While the sector is increasingly looking to developments in the UK as the originator of Athena SWAN, in Europe (building on work in the US) there is a great deal of emphasis on the ‘gender dimension’ of science. This encompasses both who does the science, and how the science is done, incorporating sex and gender into the research design. There is a growing database (eg see Portia and genPORT) demonstrating the benefits of incorporating a gender dimension for science quality and innovation, and the dangers when gender and sex are ignored. (Lee & Pollitzer, 2016; Schiebinger & Schraudner, 2011).

Addressing gendered outcomes in science and knowledge production is the logical next step in pursuing gender equality. The gender and diversity of people and teams is acknowledged as central to knowledge production and research excellence, and therefore acts as a driver for more equitable gender representation in academia. This improvement in research quality forms part of the gender equality ‘business case’ equivalent for universities. The ‘gender dimension’ is increasingly embedded in funding criteria, for example in EU Horizon 2020 funding, and will become increasingly salient and refined over time. It would be unfortunate for the sector to be so focused on Athena SWAN and what can be learnt from the UK, that we miss the exciting work that is being undertaken in this area in Europe and the US..

There is a strengthening research base in areas such as unconscious bias (Genat, Wood, & Sojo, 2012), the effectiveness of diverse teams and diversity of thought, the impact of diversity and inclusion on business effectiveness (Deloitte Australia, 2012; Nugent, Pollack, & Travis 2016), inclusive leadership (Dillon & Bourke, 2016), the business case for gender equity and diversity (Gender Equality Project and Why Diversity Matters), and the effectiveness of targets and quotas on increasing the representation of women (Sojo, Wood, Wood, & Wheeler, 2016; Whelan & Wood, 2012). This research is relatively unknown within universities and has yet to be comprehensively translated into university contexts, effectively linking equity and inclusion with excellence.

In summary, while Athena SWAN is currently the approach of choice in Australian HE, this does not preclude drawing on existing strengths and looking elsewhere for inspiration.