A study involving researchers from the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) has found that institutions in the European Research Area could benefit from exploring Athena SWAN as the basis for their gender equality policies.
The study found that Athena SWAN, with its contextually embedded systemic approach to dynamic action planning and inclusive focus on all genders and categories of staff and students, was “the single most comprehensive gender equality scheme in Europe”.
Established in the UK in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine, Athena SWAN is now widely adopted in the UK and has spread globally.
Despite the widespread adoption of Athena SWAN, there has been a lack of research on the design and implementation of Athena SWAN action plans.
The researchers – from the Oxford BRC, the University of Oxford’s Radcliffe Department of Medicine (RDM) and Aarhus University in Denmark – analysed the design and implementation of 16 departmental Athena SWAN Silver action plans in the Medical Sciences Division of the University of Oxford.
Dr Vasiliki Kiparoglou, the Oxford BRC’s Chief Operating Officer, was part of the research team. She said: “The NIHR Oxford BRC is committed to equality, diversity and inclusion, to foster an inclusive environment. We are delighted to have worked with leading experts in gender equity at Aarhus University and the Radcliffe Department of Medicine to enhance knowledge on this important topic.”
Dr Lorna Henderson, the BRC’s Clinical Research Manager, stated: “The NIHR has championed the implementation of the Athena SWAN Charter for women in science. Securing the silver level of this award has been a condition of funding for organisations applying to host an NIHR Biomedical Research Centre.
“This research project examining Athena SWAN action plans in Oxford in detail is very timely providing key insights and marks our commitment to help create a more supportive and inclusive culture in Biomedical Research”.
Another Oxford BRC researcher involved in the study, RDM’s Pavel Ovseiko, explained: “Given that the complex mix of factors produces barriers for women in science, an equally complex intervention is required to address them. Athena SWAN does this more comprehensively than any other single scheme in Europe by focusing systemic interventions on all genders, career stages, and categories of staff.
“Yet, Athena SWAN can be further strengthened based on Europe’s best practice of Responsible Research and Innovation in promoting the integration of sex and gender analysis in research and education”.
The study interpreted these empirical findings using complexity theory and showed that Athena SWAN Silver action plans conform to the key considerations of complexity such as having multiple actions and areas of intervention, focusing on the local dynamics, the non-linearity of interventions, and the constantly emerging conditions.
Dr Evanthia Kalpazidou Schmidt, Associate Professor and Research Director at Aarhus University and a visiting academic at RDM, highlighted the implications of the study for implementing and assessing Athena SWAN: “This theoretical interpretation has important implications for policy and practice. Namely, the impact of Athena SWAN actions is largely expected in terms of contribution to change, improved conditions to foster change, and the increased probability that change can occur.
“Therefore, to better understand the impact of Athena SWAN, we need to move away from deterministic models expecting Athena SWAN to cause change over a relatively short period of time and in a linear logic, towards probabilistic models showing likely contributions to change under different conditions and over longer periods of time.”
The study was funded by the Aarhus University Research Foundation, the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme, and the NIHR Oxford BRC.
Read the full paper.
The main image shows Athena SWAN Silver award interventions by theme, subtheme and frequency of actions in 16 departmental action plans in medical sciences at the University of Oxford, 2014–2017.