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Athena SWAN

Why I’m an Athena SWAN panelist…

24 March 2014

In February, I participated as an Athena SWAN panelist for the third time. I left my wife and children early in the morning, missed the school run and headed off to London. The colours of the sunrise over Bristol were amazing. On the train, I did my final review of the applications. During the previous weeks, I had spent some time each day reading one of the six applications I had to review. I had completed all the forms but one last check was worthwhile.

On the way home, I reflected on why I made this trek to London:

  • I’m an Athena SWAN panellist because I believe in equality of opportunity and this is a good way to contribute to equality.
  • I’m an Athena SWAN panellist because it helps me learn about the changes being made across the UK.
  • I’ve stayed an Athena SWAN panellist because I meet interesting and inspiring people.

Reading Athena SWAN applications from other institutions is a very informative process. It’s interesting to learn how other institutions are run, to find out about the variation in practice and culture and to compare these to Cardiff University. Typically I feel inspired by applications. Most applications describe dedicated people that are trying to change the culture of higher education. 

I find the Athena SWAN panels inspiring too. They include representatives from diverse geographical and practical backgrounds. They include academics and HR staff that share a commitment to Athena SWAN principles. Different people, with their varied experience, offer different views. We all have biases of course, but I find the variation in opinions very interesting and worthwhile.

As well as the panelists, we have a moderator and a note taker, both representatives of the ECU. There can be observers – people learning about the Athena SWAN process. The proceedings are confidential.

As a minimum, six people read the application. If each spends an hour reading and then the we discuss the application for another 45 minutes. That corresponds to about ten and a half hours of analysis of each application.

During the February assessment panel, we had two particularly interesting discussions. The first was about flexible working.  Most academics work flexibly. This includes working from home, being away at meetings without telling anybody and leaving early at a moments notice. This flexibility is one of the key attractions in the job. The arrangements are usually informal and often not recorded. The reason for this is that we are judged on our results – student numbers, grant income and papers. A positive feature of this is that these flexible working patterns are usually obvious to co-workers and so there is a ‘culture of flexible working’.

However, there are challenges with this too. Firstly,  informal flexible working arrangements can be very dependent on line managers. With no formality to the process, flexible working can also be discouraged and sometimes informally denied. Without some records it’s difficult to monitor this. Laboratory based staff can find it difficult to work flexibly because of a lone working policy or access to laboratories at alternative hours. Staff can feel they should be available at all times.

The second discussion was about the difference between talent spotting and patronage. Patronage is one of the ways staff can be developed – both men and women. Having a powerful patron helps push careers forward. However, it doesn’t translate to equality of opportunity.

Ideally promotions or talent recognition schemes should be open and transparent. Objective criteria should be produced before competitions are launched. All staff should be eligible. For Athena SWAN applications, gender breakdown of applications and awards should be analysed. It should be the culture and policies that contribute to the successful development of staff not just personalities. These discussions help me stay open minded. They help me think about how I can help my own institution.

In summary, being an Athena SWAN panelist is a great learning opportunity.