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Pressure mounts on research funders to enforce equality charter

Research councils are being urged to ensure the departments they fund meet strict criteria on gender equality.

Pressure is mounting after Sally Davies, the Department of Health chief scientific adviser, announced in July that funding for National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centres would only go to institutions holding an Athena SWAN silver award in the next round. This year such funding was worth £800 million.

The award, organised by equality organisations the Equality Challenge Unit and the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, requires university science, engineering, medicine and maths departments to show progress in hiring and retaining women. They must also provide careers support, conditions for achieving a better work-life balance and must promote women to senior positions.

All the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, bar the largely social science-based London School of Economics, are already signed up to the basic Athena Charter. This says institutions recognise the problem and will attempt to tackle it.

However only 40 individual departments within the Russell Group have won the more difficult to achieve silver awards since the start of the scheme in 2005. Overall in the UK, only 46 per cent of eligible institutions have signed the charter.

Following Davies’ decision, medical schools are clamouring to get involved, says ECU senior policy adviser Sarah Hawkes. A number of departments already have awards, but the ECU expects a rush of interest before the next round of funding applications begins in 2014-15.

Subsequent lobbying by academics has put pressure on others to attach similar conditions to funding. “I’ve now heard about some of the other research councils who are wanting to do something similar,” she adds.

Hawkes says she is unaware of previous efforts to directly link research funding to equality issues, but says it is essential that funders recognise the issue. “We do all we can to support what’s going on in departments, but if whoever is giving them all the money doesn’t have the same idea about what should be going on, then it’s always going to hit a block,” she says.

Meanwhile, a study published earlier this month shows that such awards do make a difference. Athena SWAN: Measuring success 2011 looked at how practices have changed in five universities signed up to the charter. It found they were already reporting improved numbers of women at senior levels, in research fellowships and in decision-making committees.

“There was a strong effect around organisational structure but even stronger were the changes around culture,” adds Hawkes. “In these universities there was much greater awareness of gender equality in science careers, how to achieve that, and an acknowledgement that there are barriers.”