Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Athena Swan – Celebrating the Changing Culture

Posted by Athene Donald on September 16, 2010

Today I attended the lunch for winners of Athena Swan awards. I was there wearing my hat as Chair of the Athena Forum (whose predecessor, the Athena Project, had been the progenitor of the Athena Swan awards), but I was particularly delighted to be there since my own department became the first at Cambridge to win a Silver Award.  The awards are given both to universities as a whole, and to individual departments.  They have become an excellent mechanism for institutions to reflect on how well they are performing for all staff, but particularly if they have practices that might disadvantage women. And by monitoring numbers of women at different stages along the pipeline it is easier to identify where particular obstacles may be occurring and to come up with an action plan to remedy any problems identified.

Cambridge University has been an Athena Swan Charter member for a number of years, with the application spearheaded by WiSETI, but Physics is the first to get an individual departmental award. This success is largely due to the hard work of my professorial colleague Val Gibson, and our departmental Administrative Secretary David Peet, who together have put a huge amount of work and passion into assembling the departmental case.  It is not a trivial task, but one absolutely worth doing in terms of gauging and changing the atmosphere in which we all work. Some years ago the IOP came on a site visit to look at the situation for women, part of an extensive series of such visits they made. A variety of issues were identified then which were very helpful to us in moving forward. On the back of that visit we set up a Personnel Committee for the department. This committee deals with a huge range of issues, going well beyond those of gender and covering the workforce as a whole including support staff (but not undergraduates). During the period I chaired it, much of our focus was on the assimilation of staff onto the single pay-scale. I think the very existence of the committee provides reassurance to the department how seriously we collectively (and from the head of department down) view our working environment.

Val Gibson now chairs the committee, and one of her recent initiatives has been to set up a postdoc committee to provide a forum where postdocs can raise the issues that bother them.  I fear few departments have Personnel committees, but it seems to me to be an excellent route to tease out things that may not be going quite right.  Other steps that have been taken over the past few years that have contributed to the Silver award include: changing the time of our departmental seminar to 4pm to make things a little easier for parents (either sex) with young children; introducing exit questionnaires for people when they leave (although clearly most people leave because their contract ends, just sometimes it is because something has gone wrong, and we need to know); and on return from maternity leave, female academics are relieved from lectures in the first term back and no new courses are assigned in the 12 months following return.
Now that we have achieved the Silver award, we hope to be able to ‘spread the word’, and in my role as University Gender Equality Champion I will be looking to distill some of the key actions and processes we have in place to help other departments improve their own cultures and working practices to be able to achieve similar success. I hope to discover just how many already do lots of good things, but I fear there are some that are less than shining examples as yet.  The key thing is for departments to sit down and work out what they are doing already, and what they might do better; and for the departmental senior management to be committed to improving the atmosphere for all.   As David Ruebain, head of ECU, said today at the Awards lunch, actions that may be initiated to help women, actually help everyone.  Sharing best practice is the name of the game, and trying to eradicate the not-so-good that no doubt lurks in some places is certainly on my own agenda within Cambridge.  I would urge readers of this blog to check whether their own university has signed up to the Athena Swan Charter. If not they should try to put pressure on the relevant individuals or committees to commit; and if they are, then perhaps their own departments can aim to achieve a Silver or Gold award.  This ‘brand’ is receiving international attention as a very positive initiative to improve the situation for women in STEM departments.

By the way, I am delighted to see the Guardian publishing a list of female science bloggers, with 86 on the original list and more being submitted through the comments.  Clearly this is an active community I have just joined, and I look forward to exploring some more of these blogs myself.

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