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Celebrating 10 years of Athena SWAN Charter advancing women in science

A scientist performs some tests in a beaker for AIDS research. Photo courtesy of World Bank Photo Collection.
A scientist performs some tests in a beaker for AIDS research. Photo courtesy of World Bank Photo Collection.

By Sara Carvalhal

Gender inequality in science has been in the news lately, particularly around the fall-out of Sir Tim Hunt’s biased comments toward female scientists. Sir Hunt’s comments are not held in isolation, but rather indicate the need for greater efforts to promote gender equality and advance women’s roles in the scientific workplace. The Athena SWAN Charter, signed by the UK 10 years ago as of June 2015, is one such effort that merits recognition. The Athena SWAN charter is a policy designed to establish greater opportunities and representation of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) fields. In recognition of this seminal event, I will take a closer look at how Athena SWAN has worked to better accommodate gender equality in STEMM.

Women are underrepresented in STEMM

In 2002 Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, was concerned that women were not appropriately represented in science, technology, and engineering (SET). By then, Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE was appointed to examine the representation of women in SET and to advise the UK government on best practices to address the trend of women’s underrepresentation in of women on their scientific path, in both private and public sectors. Baroness Greenfield is a scientist, and by then she was director of Royal Institution, an organization devoted to science education and research.

In this report she concludes: “The problem is not just a social and cultural one, although inequity should be addressed in all its forms, but also economic, and as such cannot be ignored. If Britain is to remain a nation with successful and developing businesses of all sizes, it must make the most of its workforce”.

The British Government recognized that STEMM subjects were an important part of the UK economy, and that women were not adequately represented in STEMM, an issue affecting innovation, economic growth, and productivity. In response to the report, and to promote women’s engagement in STEMM subjects, the Government partnered with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to launch a series of policies to address issues of women in SET and promote Science & Innovation Investment.

A joint effort to help elevate women in STEMM

In 2005 two organizations, Athena Project and the Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN) signed a charter, known as The Athena SWAN Charter. The main goal of this charter was to reverse the consistent loss of women employed in STEMM.

This charter is particularly novel because it recognizes the achievements in recruiting, retaining or promoting women at each stage of STEMM subjects by an official award.

In general, organizations have been relying on enthusiastic programs based on events, websites and/or handbooks to tackle the problems with retaining and recruiting women in STEMM subjects. The Athena SWAN charter awards institutions that incorporate policies that support the career development of women in STEMM. The official recognition, which can be bronze, silver or gold award based on performance, also functions as (indirect) advertising of an institution’s internal policies.

Any British institution from the private or public sector can become an Athena SWAN member. By signing the charter, the institution promises to take actions to address the six principles of the charter. In summary, all Athena SWAN members should address gender inequalities at all levels of the organization by changing cultures and attitudes. Some key institutional policies can be reviewed to include the use of long-term contracts as opposed to short-term employment. Also, institutions can improve pathways from PhD to a sustainable academic career in science.

Each member has the possibility to submit an application based on a self-assessment and a plan for future actions. A peer review panel evaluates the assessment, and determines how many policies exist to support women in STEMM. Even if an institution is awarded by an official recognition, new assessments are made routinely to ensure that friendly policies towards women progress in STEMM are maintained.

The first awards were presented in 2006. Currently, there are 253 award-holding universities and departments from all 129 Athena SWAN members. This figure represents more than half of all higher education institutions in the UK.

University of Dundee — a bronze Athena SWAN Award

I am a PhD Student at the College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee in Scotland, a recipient of a bronze award from Athena SWAN. Though we are only at the early stages, I have felt inspired by the significant changes in the academic environment since adopting Athena SWAN policies. The university frequently hosts talks from female and male scientists about their career paths, as well as Q&A sessions where we can address more personal issues. I also feel that departments are more open to hiring women since adopting the charter. The Athena SWAN policies had a significant effect on recruitment of qualified women in science; the number of women applying at SET departments increased almost 10% in a years time after the University of Dundee adopted more flexible working patterns and family-friendly policies. During this period, women who were selected for promotions in the SET departments increased by more than 30%, showing that Athena SWAN policies will lead to measured progress in gender equality in the sciences.

Female scientists have been taking to Twitter to poke fun at Sir Tim Hunt’s comments and bring attention to sexism in science under #distractinglysexy.

Athena SWAN Charter: The first step to changing social norms

When the Athena SWAN Charter was first created, statistics showed that the majority of graduate and post-graduate biology students were women, but less than 10% of these women were present at senior levels in higher education. Through the self-assessments, the national scheme found many women lacked career support between post-doc and tenure tracks, and it is during this period that women drop out of SET careers. This also coincides with the time many women elect to start families, which suggests that STEMM institutions are not adequately accommodating families.

Also, many young scientists believe that it is not feasible to be both a scientist and a mother. Athena SWAN members have helped change this notion by promoting and supporting more flexible working patterns to take care of dependents, including spouses, children and even parents. Athena SWAN members also provide funding for family support programs (e.g. the cost of childcare during a conference or other commitments).

Expanding Athena SWAN Charter to other subjects

Recently, Athena SWAN Charter policies were expanded to 10 key principles. Building on the initial six principles, Athena SWAN members recognize that academia cannot reach its full potential unless it benefits from talents of all individuals. New policies at institutions can be established to address the gender pay gap, and discrimination based on gender identity. Women’s lack of representation in senior roles is not limited to STEMM, women are also underrepresented in senior roles in arts, humanities, social sciences, business, and law (AHSSBL). I believe that these academic disciplines would see measured progress toward gender equality if the principles of the Athena SWANN charter were extended to these professional communities.

Some see the scheme as a feminist, or women-centered movement, and attempt to discredit programs designed to level the playing field. But I believe that by promoting greater equality, the principles of the Athena SWAN Charter works to the benefit of all people.

Official Athena-SWAN Charter:

WES (Women’s Engineering Society):

British Department for Business Innovation & Skills:

Athena SWAN University of Dundee website:

Baroness Greenfield. Set Fair. A Report on Women in SET, 2002. [ONLINE]:

Sarah Hawkes. Report on Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science, 2011. [ONLINE]:

Joe Cullen, Kerstin Junge, Chris Ramsden. Evaluation of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, 2008. [ONLINE]:

The Royal Society, Leading the way: Increasing diversity in the scientific workforce. [ONLINE]:

Alison Kingston-Smith. Wisdom, justice and skill in science, engineering and technology: Are the objectives of the Athena Project mythology? Bulletin The Society for Experimental Biology, March 2008. [ONLINE]:

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