Spotlight on Athena Swan

How the gender equality charter is supporting women in Professional Services at UCL By Ana Faro, EDI Project Manager at UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology and Astrea Policy Lead

Many of you will have heard of the Athena Swan charter, but what exactly is it and how does it support PS women? This spotlight article will give an overview of UCL’s commitment to this framework, how it affects women in PS at UCL, and how you can get involved.

What is Athena Swan?

The Athena Swan Charter is a framework used across the globe to promote cultural systemic change and tackle gender inequality in Higher Education.

In September 2021, UCL renewed its Athena Swan University Silver Award, in recognition of our commitment to equity and inclusion. To put this achievement into perspective, UCL is one of twenty Universities holding an Athena Swan University Silver Award, in a context of 164 UK Institutional Award holders. There are no Institutional Gold Award holders.

To be an Athena Swan Award holder, an institution must:

  • Carry regular self-assessment of gender equality metrics, including quantitative (staff data) and qualitative (policies, practices, systems and arrangements) evidence to help identify areas for improvement, as well as recognise and amplify good practice;
  • Develop a five-year Action Plan that builds on this assessment;
  • Develop an organisational structure to carry proposed actions forward.

Silver Award holders are further expected to provide evidence they have acted in response to previously identified challenges and to demonstrate the impact of these actions.

What are the benefits of UCL engaging with Athena Swan?

Inequality emerges due to a complex mix of structural, cultural, and institutional factors, and as such driving positive cultural change implies an equally complex intervention. By embedding a rigorous data-driven methodology, Athena Swan embeds a culture of continuous self-assessment, robust data collection and critical review of evidence that promotes transparency and holds signatory institutions accountable to their own pledges and progress.

Since our early engagement in 2006, the Athena Swan Charter has evolved. Originally it was aimed to address structural and cultural barriers that lead to the loss of women from academic science careers in Universities and Research Institutes. However, in 2015 Athena Swan broadened its remit to consider all staff in Higher Education Institutions, including those working in Professional Services and Support roles, namely those in Operational and Technical services.

2021 UCL Athena Swan Action Plan and its pledge to support PS Careers

In his letter supporting our 2021 institutional submission, UCL’s then President and Provost, Professor Michael Spence, identified two institutional priorities to be implemented in the next five years, that directly impact women working in Professional Services roles:

1 - Developing initiatives to support the careers of Professional Services staff, particularly for colleagues from minoritised backgrounds who tend to be underrepresented in leadership roles.

UCL’s previous Athena Swan institutional application had identified the limited structured promotion opportunities for staff in PS roles as an area in need for improvement. Currently members of staff in PS have two routes to promotion within UCL: regrading of existing role or open recruitment within UCL.

In their 2020 Athena Swan application, The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment addressed this gap by developing an innovative approach to support PS staff progression, via appraisals and line manager encouragement to promote cross-Faculty ‘Acting up’ opportunities. The ‘Acting up’ initiative is in essence a short secondment where PS staff can temporarily ‘act up’ to a higher grade for a maximum of 6 months within the Faculty. This allows the different teams in the Faculty to benefit from in-house talent, while supporting staff to build an evidence-based case for promotion. As part of its 2021 Athena Swan Action Plan, UCL is considering scaling up this model at institutional level.

Lack of clarity around career progression hinders equitable access to professional development and can result in people not feeling empowered to make informed career choices. As such, providing harmonised institutional guidance is an EDI imperative. One of the actions proposed in UCL’s 2021 Athena Swan Action Plan encompasses the development and implementation of a Professional Services Careers Framework. This follows the successful example of UCL’s new Academic Careers Framework, implemented in 2017. A pilot scheme to consider how to develop a similar approach to PS and Technician staff began in 2018. Since then, UCL has developed an online resource where staff can explore information on the range of PS roles across UCL, with guidance on the training, requirements, and skills of different grades.

So how can a Professional Services Careers Framework specifically help women?

Since the implementation of the new Academic Careers Framework, UCL recorded a substantial increase in the number of women in Academic, Research & Teaching roles that successfully applied for promotions. It is believed that, alongside having more clarity around promotion processes, the new Academic Careers Framework better reflected the breadth of contributions undertaken by staff – especially institutional citizenship roles (promoting positive collegial behaviour, mentoring, institutional culture work, participation in committees, etc.), which are often taken on by women.

The introduction of a new UCL appraisal form in January 2022 demonstrates the commitment to enable structured conversations during appraisals, with the scope to facilitate the professional development of the appraisee. The new appraisal form provides clear links to UCL Ways of Working and the Careers Framework throughout, with a particular emphasis placed on citizenship activity. This is an opportunity to have engagement with a professional network as Astrea formally recognised as a promotion enabling activity.

Finally, one of UCL’s main Equity and Inclusion strategic goals is to reduce racial inequality in our institution. At the intersection of gender and race, our female colleagues from ethnic minority backgrounds face unique workplace challenges that disadvantage their career progression. In preparing our 2021 Athena Swan institutional submission, data analysis has highlighted the underrepresentation of colleagues from minoritized backgrounds at senior management levels in UCL (specifically in Grades 9-10). To address this gap, UCL is aiming to provide a suite of targeted approaches to support career progression for members of staff from minoritized groups. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Reduce racial bias in PS recruitment by promoting fair recruitment practices across UCL
  • Introduce innovative recruitment practices that if a candidate from an underrepresented background comes second in the selection process, they can go into a recognised talent pool and be offered the next similar role that becomes available without having to be interviewed again
  • Implement positive action secondments
  • Develop a range of leadership and career focused programmes to support members of staff from underrepresented groups
  • Develop an internal succession planning scheme to develop a pool of talent to support career development and staff retention (to be piloted by central Professional Services in the first instance)

2 - Engage central function areas in EDI and gender equality work

Since 2015, Athena Swan requires that Silver-Award holding departments have an understanding of the challenges faced by members of staff working in professional and support roles in that department. However, those working in central function areas benefited less from the gains offered by the Athena Swan framework, as their data was only considered for Institutional application purposes. Data analysis at that scale precludes findings of what may occur within specific local cultures.

The work of core services teams is instrumental for institutions and can have a large influence on institutional life and culture. Nevertheless, they cannot currently participate in equality national charters. For this reason, the transformed Athena Swan launched a pilot scheme in 2021 to support Professional, Technical and Operational (PTO) directorates. UCL pledged to collaborate with Advance HE and pilot this scheme within two of our Central Professional Services teams, OVPA and HR, with the scope to support their submission to an Athena Swan Award by 2023. This will provide an excellent platform for these teams to directly input in the development of the gender equality charter in a way that makes it as effective and supportive as possible for PTO directorates, while also starting their journeys in gender equity chartering.

Following this initial pilot, UCL aims to support at least one new submission per annum in central Professional Services, thus expanding the reach of its gender equality work to support all members of staff in UCL.

Ensuring accountability – how can you get involved?

The 2021 UCL Athena Swan Action Plan is a live document that should be constantly reviewed and updated. You can monitor institutional progress on UCL’s Athena Swan Sharepoint site.

While radically transformative polices such as new Career Frameworks can only be implemented through a top-down approach, the reality is that a lot of gains in gender equity are made on the ground – at the level of individual departments. One way to ensure UCL and departments are held accountable to their gender equity pledges is by personally getting involved and holding them accountable.

In many departments across UCL, Athena Swan and/or Equality, Diversity and Inclusion are now standing items in the agenda of decision-making organs, such as Executive Committees. This ensures momentum, while normalising the conversation around these themes amongst senior leadership.

UCL currently has 42 departmental Athena Swan awards (3 of which are Gold) and we have agreed dates for all academic departments to apply within the next 5 years. With the offering to expand Athena Swan to central services, each department (academic or PS) will therefore have an Athena Swan Self-Assessment Team in the next few years, which members of Professional Services are encouraged to join.

What specific actions can departments do to include PS staff in Athena Swan activity?

At the Queen Square Institute of Neurology (IoN), we are committed to ensuring all voices are heard. Professional Services staff comprise of almost a third of the workforce in our department. For this reason, we have specifically engaged with our PS community to increase their representation at our Athena Swan/EDI Committee in a percentage reflective of our staff demographics.

To further ensure the voices and needs of our PS colleagues are given weight in the decisions that shape our institute, we appointed a Professional Services EDI Representative. Finally, we have recently appointed two new Athena Swan Leads, one in representation of colleagues in Academic, Research and Teaching contracts, and the second one in representation of colleagues in Professional and Support Services.

Through Athena Swan, you can be a local agent for change:

I would particularly encourage you seek out your local Athena Swan Lead and to be an active player in the gender equality work in your department. I am sure they will welcome your input. Being part of an Athena Swan Self-Assessment team will provide you with a platform to express any concerns faced by PS in your local area. And now, thanks to the new UCL appraisal form, your Equalities work will be formally recognised as a criterion for promotion, as it is in line with institutional strategy.