The Athena SWAN charter recognises commitment to advancing the careers of women in higher education across teaching, research and professional services, and supporting trans staff and students. The charter recognises work undertaken to address gender equality broadly and takes an intersectional approach to inclusion. 

Geography have been awarded a Bronze award at the first attempt, and SAT co-chairs Professor Cathy McIlwaine and Sabrina Fernandez reflect on the self-assessment process. 

Halfway through our submission process, a colleague sent us the wonderful report authored by Alana Harris and Abigail Woods from King’s History Department with the link to the Athena SWAN Gender Equality Snakes and Ladders. It mirrored almost directly our own experiences of working as a Self Assessment Team. We had started with an optimistic view that it would not be that difficult, especially if we organised ourselves carefully into working groups who would be responsible for each section. It would write itself! Or so we thought. Not surprisingly, this was not the case. It took far longer and was much more challenging than we anticipated. Yet, there were also rewards and surprises along the way.

One of the key factors in our successful submission was to make Athena SWAN a specific project within the department with a budget, a project manager from professional services (Anna Laverty) and two SAT co-chairs – one an academic (Cathy McIlwaine) and another from professional services (Sabrina Fernandez), both of us senior. As has been widely reported elsewhere, this process should not be passed to a female (or male) junior member of staff to carry out as part of what is often deemed to be a small administrative job. In addition, a strong relationship between academic staff and professional services is also crucial. Without regular meetings as a small group of professional services and academic staff who ended-up writing the document, we would never have submitted!

The challenges we faced were also common in terms of gathering data. Some of the local level data required broken down by gender, was ultimately impossible to find in some cases; but we managed to use what we did have as illustrative. The gathering and analysis of the major quantitative data sets would have been impossible without the data lead (Bruce Malamud) and our other data people on the SAT (Daniel Schillereff on the academic side and Georgina Lonergan from professional services). These roles are crucial and unless there is data expertise on the SAT, submission would be extremely difficult. Despite real frustrations around the data when at times we thought we would never be able to present a quantitative picture of the department in terms of staff and students, in the end, it was a revelation to see the data plotted in really accessible ways. It was so satisfying to identify where we had a positive story to tell but also where we needed to focus our attention.

Another issue was that we under-estimated was the buy-in required among the SAT team. We had a whole-hearted commitment in theory to working on diversity and inclusion and on the importance of Athena SWAN, but less concrete contributions. Of course, this is understandable in light of multiple demands on people’s time, but we were surprised by those who ended-up giving more or less to the process. Yet we had full support from our Head of Department (Mark Mulligan) who was open to proposals in theory and practice; he also found the budget to be able to commit to several initiatives.

Our survey and focus group work were also really revealing but also a challenge; with hindsight, we would organise a more streamlined staff and PhD survey and conduct it at the beginning and at the end of the process. One of the most interesting data gathering exercises we carried out was around departmental descriptors – asking staff (and separately, PhD students) to assess how they felt about the department (welcoming, friendly, competitive, collegiate, hostile, supportive, ambitious, challenging) with largely positive results .

It was a huge relief to discover that we had been awarded a Bronze award, as we felt that our hard work and trials and tribulations along the way had been worth it. We are now looking forward to implementing our Action Plan and to working beyond just gender with other axes of diversity in a more intersectional way as well as with other important issues related to diversity and inclusion that are not included within the Athena SWAN process.