UCL Research


Showcasing the importance of Athena Swan

By drawing on the power of visible leadership, Professor Nephtali Marina-Gonzalez is showcasing the institutional and personal benefits Athena Swan can provide.


6 December 2023

The Athena Swan charter is used by Higher Education institutions to improve gender representation, progression and the working environment for all staff, including researchers and research-active staff.

It is recognised at UCL as a crucial framework to identify and celebrate good gender equality practices; UCL currently holds an institutional Silver Athena Swan award.

As part of the institutional submission, UCL faculties and departments are invited to submit their own self-assessments against the framework. This work can be challenging – involving data collection, analysis and writing the submission – and multiple members of staff may contribute.

For Professor Nephtali Marina-Gonzalez, Vice-Dean (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) in the Faculty of Medical Sciences, it was crucial to reinvigorate enthusiasm for Athena Swan in the faculty.

When Neph learned about the funding offered by the Research Culture programme, he realised it was the perfect opportunity to create an event to showcase the importance of Athena Swan at UCL and to incentivise and encourage greater participation across the faculty’s departments.

The power of visible leadership

Neph planned and promoted the very first Athena Swan networking event in the Faculty of Medical Sciences. “We wanted to bring people together, share solutions and best practice, and find ways to work together,” he says.

“However, what I kept hearing from a lot of people during the planning process was that they really wanted to hear from senior management. They wanted to know - what is the benefit of working for Athena Swan and how are we going to be supported?

As such, he invited UCL’s Provost & President, Dr Michael Spence, and the Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, Professor Mark Emberton, to attend and share their thoughts on the importance of Athena Swan.  

The Provost emphasized the need for the faculty and department to recognise the workload involved in this vital work; the Dean emphasised that getting involved with Athena Swan is greatly valued and often proves beneficial in terms of career progression.

Proving the case for the impact of Athena Swan

With most of the speakers working without a slide presentation to create a friendlier, more intimate atmosphere, the audience heard from a diverse panel comprised of leadership figures and faculty members who could speak to the many benefits of Athena Swan involvement.

Professor Sara Mole, the Envoy for Gender Equality, offered a data-driven overview to show how Athena Swan had helped shape the landscape and improve gender equality at UCL.

She discussed how the data requirements of Athena Swan had provided the evidence necessary to reform the Senior Academic Promotions framework, which resulted in a doubling of the number of female professors promoted during the following two-year period and bringing UCL’s proportion of female professors more than 10% above the national average.

She also referenced how the Athena Swan supported efforts are helping to narrow the gender pay gap and create more inclusive research environments for Black and minority ethnic staff as statistically these are more likely to work in Athena Swan award-holding departments with a known focus on EDI.

Motivating and energizing participants

Another speaker was Dr Laura Pallett, a researcher who can personally attest to the benefits and support that Athena Swan can provide.

Now running her own team of five researchers and co-chair of the Athena Swan committee at the UCL Institute of Immunity & Transplantation (IIT), Laura explained how Athena Swan has provided opportunities at every stage of her academic journey – from an early career researcher representative seat on a divisional committee, to career-boosting funding for a Postdoctoral Research Innovation Award.

In addition, Tom Glynn, UCL’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (Athena Swan) manager was able to give a comprehensive overview of how the framework was changing, to simplify the processes and provide more structure and support for the volunteers.

Building on success and modelling best practice

Following the success of the event, and aligned with changes introduced to the faculty’s Athena Swan programme, Neph feels there’s a positive trajectory and a renewed enthusiasm for Athena Swan in the Faculty of Medical Sciences. Since the event, three departments have received Silver awards and two have applied for Gold awards.

Furthermore, the Cancer Institute’s Athena Swan self-assessment team (SAT) leads are participating in an internal Athena Swan 'Trailblazers' group. This demonstrates enthusiasm in the faculty for contributing ideas and participating in work that will improve existing guidance to support future Athena Swan applications and gender equality priorities at UCL.

Neph feels that visible leadership was the key to reviving the Athena Swan ambitions of the faculty.

“Without that, it would have just been a networking event. Visible leadership is absolutely key to making an event like this work well.”

"Visible leadership is absolutely key to making an event like this work well."
- Professor Nephtali Marina-Gonzalez, Vice-Dean (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion), Faculty of Medical Sciences

More information

About research culture

UCL’s Research Culture programme is developing a fair, collaborative and inclusive research culture, where both our research and research community can thrive. We work with UCL’s research community to support and deliver change against our 10-year Research Culture Roadmap.