Athena SWAN review: charter must recognise ‘gender as a spectrum’

A review for Advance HE, led by Prof Julia Buckingham, said its recommendations address ‘well founded concerns’

A review of the Athena SWAN charter has concluded it must “evolve and change” if it is to continue to be an effective means of addressing female inequality, and should recognise “modern definitions of gender”.

The gender equality programme was established in 2005 by the UK Equality Challenge Unit, which was merged in 2018 with the Higher Education Academy and the Leadership Foundation into what is now Advance HE.

Prof Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, was appointed by Advance HE bosses in 2018 to lead a review into the charter and its efficacy.

Prof Buckingham said the charter had “been instrumental” in improving gender equality, but added that many in the sector had “well founded concerns” about its design.

“Our recommendations reposition Athena SWAN and respond to sector calls for it to be simpler and less burdensome, as well as more transparent and consistent.

“We believe it must now embrace the broader definitions of gender and recognise the vital role of positive and supportive cultures. It’s also time for it to recognise and embrace professional, technical and operational staff,” Prof Buckingham reported.

The charter was written with the aim of supporting women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) subjects in higher education, and was broadened to include staff working in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law departments in 2015. The charter got its name from the Scientific Women’s Academic Network.

There are now over 140 UK Athena SWAN members, holding 800 awards between them.

Read more: Universities celebrate Athena SWAN award wins

Athena SWAN review: charter must recognise 'modern definitions of gender'_Julia_Buckingham
Prof Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, led the steering group that reviewed Athena SWAN.

Report’s summary

In her foreword to the independent Athena SWAN report, review chair Prof Buckingham wrote: “The steering group has taken an objective, evidence-based approach to the review with the overarching goal of ensuring that the Athena SWAN Charter continues to be an effective driver of gender equality practice in higher education.

“We have therefore sought to build on good practice, address well founded concerns and capture the creative ideas that have emerged through the consultations.”

The report concluded:

  • the application process must be streamlined and the administrative burden on staff reduced, particularly female staff
  • the assessment process must ensure consistency and transparency of award outcomes to have the confidence of the sector
  • the important role of positive and supportive cultures in driving gender equality must be a key part of the assessment
  • the Charter should embrace the wider definition of gender beyond male and female
  • Advance HE must provide more training and support for Athena SWAN applications
  • the governance structure must ensure that the Charter is owned and led by the sector

Advance HE: ‘We fully support what the recommendations aim to achieve’

Alison Johns, Advance HE CEO, welcomed the independent report’s findings.

Ms Johns added: “We particularly recognise the need for robust governance of our equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) and peer review work and will look closely at the review’s recommendations.

“Advance HE has put new formal governance arrangements in place since the Athena SWAN review was commissioned in April 2018 – our statutory EDI Committee and the Peer Review Quality Committee which report directly into the Advance HE Board.

“These form part of a single suite of governance arrangements for all four of our peer-reviewed charters/accreditation processes. We will look at how this approach may, alongside our newly created Athena SWAN Expert Advisory Group, provide for effective governance and ensure that the sector has a strong voice as the development of the Charter continues beyond the life of the Steering Group.

“The steering group’s work will form the basis of Advance HE’s transformation plan, co-created with our members and the sector, to ensure a smooth and successful transition from current systems and practice to ‘Athena SWAN 4.0’. We’re really looking forward to this work.”

Athena SWAN review: charter must recognise 'modern definitions of gender'_alison_johns
Alison Johns, CEO of Advance HE, welcomed the report.

What do these recommendations mean?

Administrative burden

The report described the administrative burden of Athena SWAN as “a serious concern” across the sector and recommends the charter reduce the amount of information it requires from universities to a more proportionate level. It warns that staff are spending more time on admin that the work of the charter and other vital inclusivity work.

A report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, published in September 2019, included a chapter from Prof Kalwant Bhopal, who argued universities were not tackling racial equality because the Race Equality Charter had been overshadowed by Athena SWAN.


The measures of impact are hard to understand and difficult to demonstrate, the report concludes. The rules penalise small departments where traditional measures of improvement (such as promotions for women) are harder to achieve in a short space of time.

Staff want metrics to account for improvements, such as organisational culture, which are harder to quantify. The impact measures do not provide the chance to discuss what measures have failed, which can be equally important learning opportunities, the report adds.

As part of this, the steering group recommends a new culture survey for staff.

Lack of confidence

The report’s authors conclude action is needed to reassure staff that the assessment process is fair. A survey undertaken for the steering group revealed that only 14% of respondents expressed confidence in the way assessments are carried out. Evidence seen by the steering group suggests criteria are not “applied consistently” and that “consequently the confidence which institutions and their staff place in the assessment process has been compromised”.


“The Athena SWAN Charter continues to focus on gender equality but that it broadens its scope to reflect gender as a spectrum, rather than focusing on the binary definition of men and women,” the report summarises.

Criticism and STEMM

Survey results suggests staff feel Athena SWAN is “judgemental” and would prefer it to be “supportive”. Although the award was broadened five years ago to include staff in non-STEMM departments, those staff feel the assessment criteria were not weighted properly towards their working practices.

Other staff

The steering group recommended the charter be expanded to include all professional, technical and operational staff.

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