Athena SWAN

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Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) Charter
Commissioned byEquality Challenge Unit
SubjectAward for organisations
PurposeRecognises organisations' commitment to, and progress on, equality and diversity, particularly race and gender

Athena SWAN (Scientific Women's Academic Network) is a quality charter mark framework and accrediation scheme established and managed by the UK Equality Challenge Unit (now part of Advance HE) in 2005[1] that recognises and celebrates good practices in higher education and research institutions towards the advancement of gender equality: representation, progression and success.[2]


The Athena SWAN charter was established in 2005 and the first awards were conferred in 2006. The initial charter set out to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) institutions of higher education and research.[3] In 2011, the UK Chief Medical Officer made it a requirement for academic departments applying for funding from the English National Institution of Health Research to hold the Athena SWAN silver award.[4]

In May 2015 the charter was expanded to include non-STEM departments including arts, humanities, social sciences, business, and law. Additionally, it expanded to cover additional communities including professional and support staff, technical staff, as well as trans staff and students.[5] The first awards to non-STEM university departments were announced in April 2016.[6] The new charter recognises work undertaken to address gender equality more broadly, and not just barriers to progression that affect women.[7]

Award details[edit]

Members (universities) who sign up to the charter are expected to apply for an Athena SWAN award,[7] at Bronze, Silver or Gold level. Each award is valid for four years under the post-2015 rules (three years where pre-2015 rules apply).

They commit to adopting ten principles,[8] which focus on promoting and supporting gender equality for women. These are:

*We acknowledge that academia cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of all.

  • 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.
  • 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)
  • We commit to tackling the gender pay gap.
  • 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.
  • We commit to addressing the negative consequences of using short-term contracts for the retention and progression of staff in academia, particularly women.
  • We commit to tackling the discriminatory treatment often experienced by trans people.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • All individuals have identities shaped by several different factors. We commit to considering the intersection of gender and other factors wherever possible.

The ten principles have been criticised for failing to mention collective bargaining, for failing to address unconscious bias in paying "market" rates of pay, and failing to address the sex discrimination inherent in child care rights to paid leave and the lasting negative impact this has on relative career advancement for those taking long maternity and short paternity leave. It has also been found that "there is no evidence that Athena SWAN membership and award level have any impact" on "the gender pay gap and the proportion of women in the top quartile of pay".[9]


An exploratory study of women's and men's perceptions of Athena SWAN in 2017 was broadly positive, and highlighted the significance of government funding being linked to Athena SWAN awards; it also highlighted the limitations of the process to change long-standing and entrenched issues in society.[10] A 2019 study of the university culture in medical and social sciences attributed a more positive culture in medical sciences to the widespread implementation of Athena SWAN gender equality action plans, linked to the funding incentives of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).[11] A 2020 study examining the effect of Athena SWAN funding incentives on women's research leadership in NIHR Biomedical Research Centres found a rise in the number of women in mid-level leadership positions and the proportion of funding going to women.[12]

According to empirical research carried out at the University of Bath, "there is no evidence that Athena SWAN membership and award level have any impact" on "the gender pay gap and the proportion of women in the top quartile of pay".[9] Some commentators consider it to be largely window-dressing with little impact on lived experiences of women working in universities.[13]

The Athena SWAN charter is now used by some institutions in conjunction with the Race Equality charter and issues of gender and race inequality become conflated.[14][15]

In November 2021, The Times reported concerns about the Athena SWAN programme; barrister Naomi Cunningham described it as "totalitarian and unlawful" while historian Selina Todd, in a letter to the editor, said it "promotes a controversial view of sex and gender".[16][17] It has been suggested that instituional commitment to the charter poses a risk to academic freedom. [18]


An Australian pilot of the Charter began in 2015 overseen by the Australian Academy of Sciences.[19] In 2015 it also began being used in Irish higher education[5][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Home page". Equality Challenge Unit. Retrieved 14 October 2015.
  2. ^ Barnard, Sarah (2017), White, Kate; O'Connor, Pat (eds.), "The Athena SWAN Charter: Promoting Commitment to Gender Equality in Higher Education Institutions in the UK", Gendered Success in Higher Education: Global Perspectives, London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 155–174, doi:10.1057/978-1-137-56659-1_8, ISBN 978-1-137-56659-1, retrieved 19 September 2021
  3. ^ Solomon, Tom (26 November 2014). "How to create a better future for women in science". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 August 2016.
  4. ^ Donald, Athene; Harvey, Paul H.; McLean, Angela R. (5 October 2011). "Athena SWAN awards: Bridging the gender gap in UK science". Nature. 478 (7367): 36. doi:10.1038/478036b. ISSN 1476-4687. PMID 21979032.
  5. ^ a b Drew, Eileen (1 June 2021). "Navigating unChartered waters: anchoring Athena SWAN into Irish HEIs". Journal of Gender Studies: 1–13. doi:10.1080/09589236.2021.1923463. ISSN 0958-9236.
  6. ^ Grove, Jack (28 April 2016). "First non-STEM Athena SWAN winners named". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 20 August 2016.
  7. ^ a b "Athena SWAN Charter". Equality Challenge Unit. Retrieved 14 October 2015.
  8. ^ "About ECU's Athena SWAN Charter". Equality Challenge Unit. Retrieved 11 October 2016.
  9. ^ a b F Amery, 'Why do UK universities have such large gender pay gaps?' (25 April 2019) Political Studies Association
  10. ^ Ovseiko, Pavel V.; Chapple, Alison; Edmunds, Laurel D.; Ziebland, Sue (21 February 2017). "Advancing gender equality through the Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science: an exploratory study of women's and men's perceptions". Health Research Policy and Systems. BMC. 15 (1): 12. doi:10.1186/s12961-017-0177-9. PMC 5320775. PMID 28222735.
  11. ^ Ovseiko, Pavel V.; Pololi, Linda H.; Edmunds, Laurel D.; Civian, Jan T.; Daly, Mary; Buchan, Alastair M. (2019). "Creating a more supportive and inclusive university culture: a mixed-methods interdisciplinary comparative analysis of medical and social sciences at the University of Oxford". Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. 44 (2): 184–185. doi:10.1080/03080188.2019.1603880.
  12. ^ Ovseiko, Pavel V.; Taylor, Mark; Gilligan, Ruth E.; Birks, Jacqueline; Elhussein, Leena; Rogers, Mike; Tesanovic, Sonja; Hernandez, Jazmin; Wells, Glenn; Greenhalgh, Trisha; Buchan, Alastair M. (26 October 2020). "Effect of Athena SWAN funding incentives on women's research leadership". BMJ. 371: m3975. doi:10.1136/bmj.m3975. ISSN 1756-1833. PMID 33106283. S2CID 225063205.
  13. ^ Christine Mathew, Ruby (January 2021). The impact of Athena Swan accreditation on the lived experiences of early- and mid-career researchers: A qualitative study of an Athena Swan gold award-holding department (phd thesis). University of York.
  14. ^ Henderson, Holly; Bhopal, Kalwant (20 February 2021). "Narratives of academic staff involvement in Athena SWAN and race equality charter marks in UK higher education institutions". Journal of Education Policy: 1–17. doi:10.1080/02680939.2021.1891576. ISSN 0268-0939. S2CID 233900998.
  15. ^ a b O’Mullane, Monica (1 August 2021). "Developing a theoretical framework for exploring the institutional responses to the Athena SWAN Charter in higher education institutions—A feminist institutionalist perspective". Irish Journal of Sociology. 29 (2): 215–235. doi:10.1177/0791603521995372. ISSN 0791-6035.
  16. ^ Ames, Jonathan; Ellery, Ben (6 November 2021). "University gender course offered by Advance HE is unlawful, barrister says". The Times. Retrieved 7 November 2021.
  17. ^ Todd, Selina (3 November 2021). "FEARS FOR ACADEMIA". The Times. Retrieved 7 November 2021.
  18. ^ Colfer, Colette (18 November 2021). "Stifling Academic Freedom". Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  19. ^ Nash, Meredith; Grant, Ruby; Lee, Li-Min; Martinez-Marrades, Ariadna; Winzenberg, Tania (23 February 2021). "An exploration of perceptions of gender equity among SAGE Athena SWAN self-assessment team members in a regional Australian university". Higher Education Research & Development. 40 (2): 356–369. doi:10.1080/07294360.2020.1737657. ISSN 0729-4360. S2CID 216298391.

External links[edit]