Go back

Do things differently


Parveen Yaqoob calls for radical change to the Athena Swan charter for gender equality 

In a year in which a pandemic has laid bare inequalities across society, gender equality in higher education has been brought into sharp relief. This has placed the sector at a turning point, with some critically important choices to be made.
Last month, I chaired my first meeting of the Athena Swan Governance Committee, a new committee drawn together to oversee transformation of the gender equality framework, the Athena Swan Charter, after a much-publicised independent review. It was one of those meetings in which there was an instant meeting of minds; there was a real appetite for radical revision and an application process that is stripped back but still rigorous and that addresses the review’s recommendations.
Over the period of the review and in the months since it was published, the pandemic has shone a particularly harsh light on gender inequality in the sector. The Black Lives Matter movement has also forced us to acknowledge intersectionality and face the uncomfortable reality that, while most gender equality initiatives have benefitted white women, the statistics for non-white women—and Black women in particular— in higher educaiton are dismal. 

The need to develop trust and currency in Athena Swan has therefore never been more urgent, particularly given the government’s recent decoupling of equality charters from UK research funding requirements in an effort to reduce bureaucracy. 

Discrimination and inequality in higher education remain ugly stains on a sector that relies on  on diversity of ideas and collaboration. We cannot carry on doing the same thing and expect a better result. 

People like us 

A sense of belonging is often a prerequisite for personal success. We seek out people who are like us and inspire us because they give us a sense of belonging and allow us to believe that we can achieve too. As a second generation British-Pakistani growing up in South London in the skinhead era, my sense of belonging was constantly challenged by people telling me to ‘go back home’, either verbally or in permanent marker pen on our front door. 

Although it’s rare for that to happen now, I was once at lunch with a senior university figure, who described looking out at a sea of faces at a lecture the previous evening and remarking that ‘not a single one was British’. I didn’t say anything but wanted to ask him what exactly he thought a British face looked like. 

Culture and belonging can come across as intangible when we talk about equality, but they are every bit as important as the statistics. Many of us are familiar with the story of Alexandra Wilson, the Black barrister who was repeatedly mistaken for a defendant on her way to do her job in a courtroom. It was shocking, but it’s not a million miles away from things that happen every day, right under our noses. My Black academic colleagues are often stopped as they go about their work and questioned about their right to be in a particular place. You can’t capture that in numbers. 

A key focus of the transformation of the Athena Swan charter will be to shift the emphasis from evaluation to development and support. There is much good practice to be shared across the sector and this will be invaluable as the charter incorporates professional as well as academic colleagues, intersectionality and gender as a broad spectrum. 

It’s also critical to the governance committee that equality, diversity and inclusion work is distributed fairly and recognised and rewarded appropriately. I know from experience that equality work involves a substantial emotional commitment and it’s not sustainable to expect those who are most affected by inequality to carry the burden of work. 

Personal experience 

Athena Swan has played a key role in my professional experience; through its action plan, my university made a commitment to champion job-sharing at senior level to encourage more women into senior roles. It prompted me to apply for the role of pro-vice-chancellor for research and innovation as a job-share, a decision that proved to be life-changing. 

Working as part of a job-share, particularly at this level, enables better refinement of ideas, improves communication, encourages a collaborative approach to every aspect of your work and, importantly, sends out a strong message about collective responsibility. Externally, my job-share partner and I are seen as something of a curiosity, but at Reading there are now a growing number of job shares at leadership level. Athena Swan would be the ideal vehicle through which to share our experience with others and I hope to see a genuine commitment to bring the sector together in this way. 

Lockdown and global events have encouraged introspection about values and the way in which we live and work. Many of us have vowed to make new choices, to imagine different ways of being and to do things differently. 

Gender equality is one of these things. With the insight gained through the independent review process, the governance committee is set to spearhead radical transformation of the charter, because if Athena Swan is to remain the vehicle for gender equality in higher education, radical change is required.

Professor Parveen Yaqoob, is chair of the Athena Swan Governance Committee and deputy vice-chancellor, University of Reading