….but we are all fabulous.

Athena SWAN and how to avoid alienating the men

An issue I am grappling with at the moment is how to promote our Athena SWAN agenda, without alienating the men in our School.


For those who aren’t familiar with this scheme, the Athena SWAN Charter ( recognises commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in academia and is run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU). Our School gained a Bronze Award last year and as our Athena SWAN Champion (their terminology, not mine), part of my role is to implement the action plan we submitted as part of our successful application.

As part of the action plan, we surveyed the staff in the School. Some of the men in the School are extremely supportive, but there are more reluctant colleagues as well. This was reflected in the fact that fewer males completed the survey than female colleagues. A certain resistance to the scheme is also demonstrated when concern is raised about the fact that we are aiming to recruit the same level of female undergraduates as the national average for Psychology (currently around 80%) rather than striving for a more equal 50%. Not to mention the eye rolling when Athena SWAN is discussed at meetings.

I do however have some sympathy with their perspective and as always it helps to turn the arguments around: how would I or other women feel if men had a men-only management training scheme (the wonderful Aurora programme), how would I feel if we were aiming to maintain 80% male recruitment of students, how would I feel if we were actively encouraging more men to apply for promotion?
I don’t have to wonder how I would feel, because the status quo for the past few millennia has been just that – promoting the rights of men over women. It is worth repeating again some basic facts:

“No society treats its women as well as its men.” United Nations Development Programme, as written in its 1997 Human Development Report .

Facts about the UK (some taken from UK Feminista)

• Women in the UK have only had equal voting rights as men since 1928 when the Representation of the People Act was passed.
• Only 1 in 4 MPs is a woman and women from minority ethnic groups make up only 1.2% of MPs yet comprise 4% of the UK population.
• Locally, just 35% of elected councillors are women and only 13% of local authority council leaders are women. At the current rate of progress we would have to wait more than 150 years before seeing an equal number of women and men elected to English local councils.
• Women have only been able to have a loan or credit in their own name since 1980.
• The full time gender pay gap is 10%, and the average part-time pay gap is 34.5%.
• Approximately 70% of people in national minimum wage jobs are women.
• Women make up only 17% board directors of FTSE 100 companies.
• Just 23% of reporters on national daily newspapers in the UK are women with only 1 female editor of a national daily.
• Rape in marriage was not recognised in law in the UK until 1991.
• On average two women a week are killed by a violent partner or ex-partner in the UK.
• Almost 1 in 3 girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school.

Having said all that, I also don’t believe that man (or woman) should suffer for the sins of the father (or mother). And therein lies the rub – individual men might be part of a society in which women have traditionally been and in many senses remain 2nd class citizens, but they are not individually guilty. While they do share responsibility for changing the status quo, it is hard to come on board when it often appears that individual women are being favoured over individual men. If you are a man in a society created by men, for men, with patriarchal structures and biases so inherent that they are taken for granted and the way forward is to promote women’s rights, it must be hard sometimes not to view that as positive discrimination rather than positive action, especially when it is perceived to be to the detriment of individual men.

But there are many reasons why promoting the rights of women is to the benefit of men as well as women:

• “Several studies have shown that gender equity in senior management and at the board level brings many tangible benefits. A report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute revealed that those firms dominated by men had recovered more slowly since the 2008 financial downturn than those with a more balanced male-female ratio.” From Richard Branson:
• In Australia, an analysis of ASX500 companies found that companies with female board members outperformed the markets and companies that had no gender diversity. There was an 8.7 per cent difference over five year return-on-equity and a 6.7 per cent difference over three years.
• In the US, Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced better financial performance on measures of ROE (35.1 per cent higher) and Total Return to Shareholders (34 per cent higher) than companies with the lowest women’s representation.
• The working conditions that hamper women in academia and deter others from entering affect us all. By introducing flexible working for example, men as well as women can better balance family and work life. See also this article on why universities would benefit from ensuring they can choose from the whole pool of talent to find the best staff.

So, back to my original concern, how to make the rights of women a gender neutral issue and bring male colleagues on board? Well, getting men onto the Athena SWAN team is a start, celebrating International Men’s Day (Nov 19th) as well as International Women’s Day (March 8th) is a small but tangible gesture that both genders are valued, advertising promotions workshops as opportunities for men and women to consider routes to progression will also help.

But perhaps there is no way to bring all men on board, just as there is no way to bring all women on board. I am aware of female colleagues who declare themselves unimpressed by Athena SWAN because they are not feminists. By senior female colleagues who got where they were by acting like men and who draw the ladder up behind them rather than supporting more junior female colleagues. All we can do is to bring as many colleagues along with us as possible and eventually the benefits of a more equal and diverse environment will become apparent to all.


2 comments on “Athena SWAN and how to avoid alienating the men

  1. Nicely written and with some very good evidence, thank you!
    Athena Swan never seems to go far enough and for that I dislike it (and I know that this isn’t the fault of Athena Swan, nor its goals but more of the ingrained culture that it is trying to overcome). I know that, with funding council requirements, it is becoming less ‘optional’ and that is a very positive step but without the significant culture shift in each department that seeks recognition through Athena Swan, it isn’t enough. And I dislike the fact that we need the Aurora programme, Athena Swan and countless other initiatives of their ilk. I’m impatient – why can’t we just get the equality stuff sorted, now!
    I also agree about not holding men or women accountable for the sins of their progenitors, but at the same time have had too many very valid arguments derailed by people using that as a counter argument…

  2. notallwomenarethesame
    June 25, 2014

    Thanks for commenting and I must admit as I was writing it I found myself getting angry at needing to justify why equality should be a given. It is all too easy for us to say we are not guilty of creating the situation but that does not absolve us from righting wrongs once we are aware they exist. That’s the tension though isn’t it? Making men equally responsible for change without making them feel that we are blaming them.

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This entry was posted on June 25, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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