Changing the Departmental Mind-set


by Athene Donald

This article originally appeared on Athene Donald's Blog.


Another bumper batch of Athena Swan awards have just been announced: ever more universities and departments are participating. With the hint of financial consequences looming from RCUK funders for those STEM departments that don’t demonstrate commitment to improving the climate for women (indeed, regarding diversity in general) to add to Dame Sally Davies’ unequivocal statement regarding Clinical Schools, the increase in engagement is unsurprising. Nevertheless, fewer than two thirds of the HEIs with STEM courses are signed up. But does an award really mean a department has its culture sorted? And what does it take to get an award?

Last week’s post about preparing Athena Swan applications over on the Guardian HE Professional blogs by Cardiff’s Paul Brennan sparked some debate on Twitter, probably far more than the tweets I actually saw myself; I thought I’d chip in with my own thoughts about the importance of the awards.

There are 3 points I’ve heard raised I’d specifically like to consider:

  1. It is a tickbox exercise for a department that actually makes no real difference on the ground.
  2. It is difficult for a department to do things different from the central policies, so it’s hard to make a convincing departmental case.
  3. The problems for women aren’t down to the University, but inherent in the nature of an academic’s job.

If you/your department thinks these awards are merely tickbox exercises you’ve either not read the submission template or you’re setting yourself up to fail. Maybe you’ll get away with it this time, but if nothing changes before you apply for a renewal things will go pear-shaped for you and the award will be removed. This is already happening to departments so the evidence is there. A submission requires an analysis of statistics at every level from undergraduate to professor: how many women do you have at each grade and how has this changed over recent years? Out of these numbers should come some suggestions for where trouble spots or bottlenecks are and that should inform the action plan that needs to be produced. If undergrad numbers are healthy but perhaps there are practically no postdocs – why not? Thought needs to be given to what can be done. Sometimes it’s the little things that make significant differences: induction to settle newcomers into a department and thought given to the timing of seminars so that everyone feels welcome coupled with inclusive social events. Some things take more time and energy: setting up appropriate mentoring systems and a work-load model may be quite labour intensive for someone but have pay-offs down the road. Each department has to think what needs to be done to eradicate their own particular problems. It’s most certainly not one size fits all.

Presumably those who complain it’s a tickbox exercise imagine that some HR person can simply jot down a few ideas and get the Head of Department to sign it off without any intention of seeing the action plan through. My experience within Cambridge suggests very strongly that committed academic leadership is crucial and that if it is only administrators who get stuck in then change will not happen. In that case the submission should fail; if it doesn’t fail the first time it is hard to imagine a convincing case could be made 3 years down the road that the action plan had been carried out leading to improvements in culture, so a renewal should be out of the question. The very fact that the template requires thought to fill in, means that – unlike a benchmarking exercise when you are simply asked something like which of the following do you already do/intend to do – a tickbox mentality will get you nowhere.

The second point above was one I saw on Twitter and one I now find a little strange, although I can recall a time when I thought like that too. In Cambridge we have central bodies and committees that make policy decisions: these would cover items such as parental leave, rules about applying for part-time working, how additional circumstances like having young children are to be factored in promotions applications and E+D requirements for members of departmental REF panels. These are not department-specific actions but university-wide policies, all of which can be made more (or less) beneficial to women. These are the sorts of things that would be entered into the University submission for an award. At the departmental level actions should be planned that reflect what local policies are likely to work.

I mentioned the timing of seminars. It might be possible to have a University policy that no seminar can occur after 4pm, but it makes more sense for a department to work out timings that their staff find convenient. The type of support that may be most effective is likely to depend on the make-up of the workforce – lots of postdocs or practically none, for instance. If there are lots of postdocs, local policies should make sure they get appraised, informed about training opportunities and given some career advice. Those sorts of issues have nothing to do with central ‘policy’, all to do with considering what members of the department, including undergraduates, find good or bad about the specific place; a local questionnaire might be a good place to start in order to find out.

Turning now to point 3, this is perhaps the most subtle of the list. I think that what the person who raised this is implying is that an academic job is basically incompatible with things they value, such as work-life balance, or possibly being a mother (but presumably not with being a father). That may indeed be the way many places operate. But need it be? What does ‘excellence’ mean? It shouldn’t simply mean being prepared to work all hours of the day and night, travelling insane distances just to prove that you can stand up in all the continents of the world during a single year to give conference presentations and building up a team of PhD students you have no time to treat as more than bench monkeys. A neat phrase I heard expressed at a meeting recently was that ‘you shouldn’t use airmiles as a proxy for excellence’ and I agree with that. No more than you should use a journal’s impact factor (groan) as a proxy for the quality of the papers published therein.

If a department/university is to be serious about improving the working environment for everyone, but particularly women, then careful thought needs to be given to promotion criteria to ensure that someone who works less than a 100% contract, for whatever reason, is judged on the work they do in that time, not against some notional norm of the over-committed. If someone has caring responsibilities that mean travel is difficult, then that should be able to be stated; perhaps as an alternative to physical appearances at meetings, invitations received could be counted. If someone is particularly good at pastoral care or outreach then there should be an appropriate value put on it, relieving them of some other ‘chore’ or administrative task or by reducing their teaching load. Let’s face it, many individuals don’t want to take on pastoral care (and some shouldn’t be allowed near it). It isn’t a task that should be regarded merely as an optional extra but as a positive benefit to a department; those that take it on should therefore get appropriate recognition.

The meaning of ‘excellence’ leading to progression needs to be reconsidered at a senior level, moving away from the traditional narrow definition to something more all-encompassing. This will not only be to the benefit of the individuals concerned, but also to the long-term benefit of the department. That stage of being sucked dry by young children (or elderly parents) is usually only short-term; on the other hand the benefits of supporting individuals through that stage will be felt for years thereafter. Staff members relegated to second-class citizen status and made to feel unwelcome and sub-standard because of a short-term reduction in productivity will be likely to give up. Then their worth, as well as their sense of self-worth, will be correspondingly reduced, to a department’s detriment.

If an individual can be made to feel that a department is supportive but the needs of the job make progression impossible, then something is sadly awry. I suspect this is just another manifestation of the deficit model: fix the person not the system. Athena Swan applications are just the moment to challenge this mind-set, and should be used to push for change. However, there is no doubt that change will only happen if the senior leadership are really committed to it. It all comes down to that, at the end of the day.

(By the way, for anyone who is confused, my name is Athene and I have nothing whatsoever to do with the awards. The similarity of name is an unfortunate coincidence, although it’s fooled some eminent people into thinking the awards are somehow ‘mine’. Nor have I ever sat on any of the judging panels, so what I’ve written above is my personal perspective having been involbed in the process in my own university and department, as well as talked to others elsewhere about their submissions and aspirations.)