The role of Athena SWAN in advancing gender equality

Athena SWAN is a powerful intervention to advance gender equality. In this interview with Dr Liz Hoffman, Journal Development Manager at BioMed Central for Health Research Policy and Systems, Dr Pavel Ovseiko follows on from the recent article published in Health Research Policy and Systems and argues that in setting Athena SWAN goals institutions need to be both ambitious and realistic.

feature imageLiz Hoffman: “What is the underlying issue that needs addressing in terms of gender equity in science?”

Dr. Pavel Ovseiko is currently a Senior Research Fellow in Health Policy and Management at the University of Oxford and co-author of an article recently published in Health Research Policy and Systems.
Dr. Pavel Ovseiko is currently a Senior Research Fellow in Health Policy and Management at the University of Oxford and co-author of an article recently published in Health Research Policy and Systems.

Pavel Ovseiko: The underlying issue is the under-utilisation of women’s talent and potential in research. In the United Kingdom, insufficient progress in addressing this issue became particularly apparent in 2011 during the competition for National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) biomedical research funding. Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, became concerned that many medical schools and teaching hospitals were inadequately supporting women clinician-scientists so that they could advance to senior leadership positions. She encouraged and incentivised medical schools to accelerate women’s advancement and leadership by linking future NIHR biomedical research funding to the achievement of at least the Silver Award of the Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science. The Athena SWAN Charter has also been adopted in Ireland and is currently being successfully piloted in Australia as part of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) programme run by the Australian Academy of Science in partnership with the Academy of Technology and Engineering .

LH: “Why should we care about gender equity in health research?”

PO: There are several reasons why gender equality in health research is of paramount importance. First, gender equality in health research is imperative for continued public support for health research because equality is one of the fundamental values of our society. Second, gender equality in health research helps achieve better science by addressing possible gender biases in the selection of research topics, methods, and participants. Often, women have more inclusive and collaborative leadership styles. Finally, gender equality in health research helps ensure that women and men equally benefit from scientific breakthroughs and innovations. As the recent “Global call for action to include gender in research impact assessment” shows, if biological and sociocultural sex and gender differences are not considered in research, women may be disadvantaged as the beneficiaries of research, in terms of its health, societal and economic  .

LH: “What are you doing – what’s the big project plan?”

PO: I am leading a multi-disciplinary group of researchers conducting research and undertaking policy advocacy. We work across medical and social sciences in the university, but also across the university and the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. We are building an evidence base to accelerate women’s advancement and leadership through systematic reviews[1]; developing markers of achievement, metrics, and indicators for assessing and monitoring gender equity[2]; conducting multi-centre international comparisons of the gender leadership gap[3]; examining the gender dimension of responsible research and innovation policies as part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 funded consortium Structural Transformation to Attain Responsible Biosciences (STARBIOS2)[4]; and exploring ways of creating a more supportive and inclusive university culture in collaboration with the US National Initiative on Gender, Culture and Leadership in Medicine: C-Change[5]. In our own institution, Oxford University, Athena SWAN has been by far the most important intervention to advance gender equality and improve organisational culture and climate. In our latest research published in Health Research Policy and Systems we explore women’s and men’s perceptions of the Athena SWAN process and its impact.

Molecular model of Penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c.1945.
Molecular model of Penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, the only British Women to have won a Nobel Prize for one of the sciences.

LH: “What are the results of the Athena SWAN project so far”

PO: Athena SWAN is a powerful intervention to advance gender equality, possibly, the best national programme of this kind in the world. It allows institutions to be really ambitious in setting objectives and developing action plans for gender equality. My colleagues and I found that the implementation of Athena SWAN in our institution had brought about important structural and cultural changes, such as increased support for women’s careers, greater appreciation of caring responsibilities, and efforts to challenge discrimination and bias. Yet, we also found concerns that the implementation of Athena SWAN had limited ability to address longstanding and entrenched power and pay imbalances, lack of work-life balance, and sustainability of positive changes without further financial incentives, resentment about perceived positive discrimination. Thus, higher education and research institutions need to be realistic about what could be achieved within the limits of the current organisations, society, and culture over a relatively short period of time. Fundamentally, gender inequality is about the unequal division of paid work outside the family and unpaid work in the family. To increase men’s participation in unpaid work in the family would require cultural change and welfare state policies, which is beyond the scope of higher education and research policy.

LH: “What next for this research?”

PO: Our study was exploratory in nature, and so we are now setting up a project to test themes and hypotheses from this study and working with other UK centres to develop multi-centre comparative research into convergence and divergence of Athena SWAN implementation across different institutions. As part of the International School on Research Impact Assessment thematic group on gender, we are working on recommendations to strengthen analysis of gender equity in research impact assessment.[6] The fifth edition of the School will be hosted by The Novo Nordisk Foundation in Denmark in October 2017. We are also keen to share our experience with and learn lessons from other countries such as the United States, where the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program supports initiatives to increase the representation and advancement of women in science; Australia, where Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program[7]  is making great advances; and India, where there is growing interest in involving institutions to advance women’s careers and participation in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine more actively. I particularly look forward to visiting Australia’s University of Newcastle, known for its cutting-edge research and innovative teaching, as a President’s Visiting Fellow later this year to give public lectures, engage with senior leaders, and develop new exciting research collaborations.


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