ECU’s Athena SWAN Charter evolved from work between the Athena Project and the Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN), to advance the representation of women in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics (STEMM).
With the support of Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) and the UKRC, the Charter was officially launched at the Institute of Physics on 22 June 2005, with the first awards conferred in 2006.
In May 2015 the scope of ECU’s Athena SWAN Charter was expanded in the UK to cover gender equality in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law disciplines. HEIs in Ireland can apply under the expanded charter from November 2017 but it will become compulsory in Ireland from April 2020.
The Athena Project
The Athena Project was a national Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM) diversity project, which ran from 1999 to 2007. Its aim was to 'Advance and promote the careers of women in science, engineering and technology in higher education and research and to achieve a significant increase in the number of women recruited to top posts in the UK'.
The project was set up by women in the academic science community, for women in the academic science community. It was led by research active scientists and engineers and this reflected the focus of the project - women's career progression in science.
The work of the Athena Project is continued by Athena SWAN, and the Athena Forum set up in 2008.
The Athena Forum have produced a report (2014) providing a review of the Athena Project's impact and summarises the different activities and programmes it supported. The summary and full version of the report can be found here.
The Athena SWAN Charter
The Athena SWAN Charter recognises and celebrates good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) in higher education. The Charter aims to address gender imbalances in STEMM disciplines, based on the belief that endeavours in these fields will be enriched when they can benefit from the talent of the whole population, and when barriers to progress in academic careers are removed.
Since its launch in 2005, the Athena SWAN programme has been widely implemented in the UK higher education sector, where it is run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU). The Charter was expanded to Ireland in 2014 on a pilot basis, managed by ECU and supported by the HEA. By signing the Charter, the Irish universities and Institutes of Technology have made a progressive commitment to embed its six principles in their policies, practices and culture.
The (original) Charter Principles
1. To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation
2. To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation
3. The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine
4. The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address
5. The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organisation recognises
6. There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organisation
In May 2015 the charter was expanded in the UK to recognise work undertaken in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL), and in professional and support roles, and for trans staff and students. The charter now recognises work undertaken to address gender equality more broadly, and not just barriers to progression that affect women.
The Athena SWAN Charter is based on ten key principles. By being part of Athena SWAN, institutions are committing to a progressive charter; adopting these principles within their policies, practices, action plans and culture.
1. We acknowledge that academia cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of all.
2. We commit to advancing gender equality in academia, in particular, addressing the loss of women across the career pipeline and the absence of women from senior academic, professional and support roles.
3. We commit to addressing unequal gender representation across academic disciplines and professional and support functions. In this we recognise disciplinary differences including:
- the relative underrepresentation of women in senior roles in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL)
- the particularly high loss rate of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM)
4. We commit to tackling the gender pay gap.
5. We commit to removing the obstacles faced by women, in particular, at major points of career development and progression including the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career.
6. We commit to addressing the negative consequences of using short-term contracts for the retention and progression of staff in academia, particularly women.
7. We commit to tackling the discriminatory treatment often experienced by trans people.
8. We acknowledge that advancing gender equality demands commitment and action from all levels of the organisation and in particular active leadership from those in senior roles.
9. We commit to making and mainstreaming sustainable structural and cultural changes to advance gender equality, recognising that initiatives and actions that support individuals alone will not sufficiently advance equality.
10. All individuals have identities shaped by several different factors. We commit to considering the intersection of gender and other factors wherever possible.
The Athena SWAN programme will allow UCC to identify areas for positive action, and to recognise and share good practice. It will provide focus and impetus for equality initiatives already underway within UCC, such as the Aurora Leadership Development Programme and the GENOVATE EUFP7 Project, and will draw upon proposals developed in GENOVATE's Gender Equality Action Plan for UCC, and upon the learning of the GENOVATE consortium project.
In the UK, Athena SWAN has had a proven impact as a catalyst for change, leading to organisational and cultural transformation that makes a real difference for women and enables all staff to achieve their maximum potential.
The HEA describes gender inequality as "a systemic issue for Irish higher education", and research funders - from SFI to the IRC to the European Commission - are increasingly focussing on gender as a consideration in their funding programmes. Our wholehearted commitment to an internationally-recognised gender equality initiative may allow UCC an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to equality in specific, measurable ways.
The Athena SWAN charter recognises and celebrates good employment practices for women working in higher education. It aims to improve the recruitment, retention and promotion of women in STEMM.
A Bronze Award affirms that a university or HEI -
- is aware of gender equality issues at an institutional level
- has identified particular challenges it faces, and
- has a plan for the future
To earn a bronze award, a university must -
- undertake an institutional self-assessment, and
- propose a three-year action plan, based on our self-assessment
To earn a Silver Institutional Award, HEIs must provide evidence of impact of actions already taken. Very few HEIs have Silver Institutional Awards. Gold Institutional Awards demonstrate sustained progress and achievement of activity. No university has yet earned this award.
Once a Bronze Institutional Award is in place, individual Schools/Departments can apply for Athena SWAN awards in their own right.
UCC’s application for our bronze Athena SWAN award is available for download: Athena Swan Application (1,765kB)
Senior Vice-President Academic & Registrar Professor Caroline Fennell chairs the Steering Group that prepared UCC's application. The Steering Group has twenty-one members representing a diverse cross section of the university community, including representatives from both STEMM and non-STEMM disciplines, academic and administrative roles, students, and early to mid and late-career roles.
Since UCC earned its bronze award in 2016, individual departments may now make applications in their own right for an Athena SWAN Departmental Award. Three units are preparing applications for submission in November 2017.