In this blog series I reflect on challenges institutions may face following success in gaining the Athena SWAN institutional Bronze award.
Challenges of implementation
Following hard on the heels of the relief of completion and celebration of success, comes the realities of implementation and still more hard work. The challenges of implementing ambitious action plans to create change are myriad. Addressing longstanding gender inequality will require new and novel approaches, the application process itself has intentionally pushed institutions into uncharted territory, and concerns flagged in the SAGE evaluation conducted by ACER during the pilot program will have implications for the implementation phase (Putting gender on the agenda: Evaluating the introduction of Athena SWAN (2019)). My intention in surfacing and naming these issues is to facilitate awareness and clarity for institutions as they tackle the challenges ahead.
Governance and fit
The SAGE Athena SWAN SAT (self-assessment team) process has largely sat outside usual governing structures. SAGE have seen this as an important strength of the process; the SAT’s bring academic and professional staff together, creating potential to cut across existing structures and systems, and therefore challenge the status quo even while working within it (SAGE report, 2019 p.15).
Perhaps a less intended consequence of this process is that the unique SAT membership requirements and the all-consuming application process contributed to the Athena SWAN application taking on the character of an outside normal business ‘project’. Indeed, in some cases it took heroic and unsustainable effort on the part of some staff to achieve success. Post award, the work of Athena SWAN must be understood as a marathon, not a sprint to the application deadline.
The challenge of implementation is to align Athena SWAN with the organisation’s broader vision and strategy, embedding this work into ‘core’ business in an effective and sustainable way. Consideration must be given to how to pull the strengths of the Athena SWAN process forward, while ensuring synergies with existing work, roles and competencies.
The issue of governance and how to best support the action plan may be a key feature of any ‘post bronze’ blues. The SAGE report notes that institutions have given ‘little thought to sustainable governance structures to support continuation of change into the future’ (p.24). Now is the time for institutions to ask themselves: Is it back to existing structures for the implementation phase or can Athena SWAN be the disruptor that stimulates positive changes in governance? What might that look like?
In the UK, my experience of Athena SWAN is that by the time institutions are applying for institutional silver, in many cases there has been an almost complete overhaul of existing committee structures and reporting lines. This has the primary intention of bringing together the work of Athena SWAN, complete with the strong accountability and reporting lines required for success, with the pre-existing work of the institution in these areas. This is an even greater challenge in Australia where substantial work had been done prior to the Athena SWAN pilot. There are some shared characteristics for Australian institutions; including current reporting requirements (WGEA), and for many, engagement with existing award and accreditation processes (eg Pride in Diversity Australian Workplace Equality Index (AWEI), WGEA Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation, Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP) endorsed by Reconciliation Australia). Many institutions also have a plethora of existing, sometimes longstanding, action plans (E & I plans, Disability Action Plans). Australian institutions have highly idiosyncratic arrangements to support this work with some having an integrated approach including staff and students, while others have a more separated approach. All have pre-existing structures, staffing, reporting lines, budgets, and committees to consider. Athena SWAN cuts across many of these areas and has served to highlight the current siloed nature of much of this work.
Fit for implementation?
Where will Athena SWAN fit? Athena SWAN cannot sit outside all of this work, neither can it replace all of it. Collaboration with and across organisational structures will be key to resourcing and driving change (p.24) As SAGE note, this clash of structures, strategies, roles and responsibilities, power, influence and resourcing has already in some cases led to angst (p.20). Clarification will be essential to successful implementation of Bronze Action Plans. Not only that, I would also argue that addressing issues of governance and fit now will position institutions for future silver success.