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This year, the University of Bristol is going for the highest accolade in terms of gender equality – an Athena SWAN gold award. Melanie Wedgbury gives us a breakdown of the award’s history and talks to Vikki Layton, the university’s HR officer for diversity.

The University of Bristol is very well known for its pioneering attitude towards women. It was the first university to admit women on an equal basis to men.

This proactive forward thinking has not stopped there – it not only participates in the Athena SWAN initiative, but for the first time in the University’s history, the School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience (PPN) are hoping to achieve gold status.

The Athena SWAN Charter is a charter that was established in 2005, with Bristol being a founding member. The main aim of the charter was to encourage institutes to take a proactive approach in supporting women throughout the entirety of their career. This involved careers in the key areas
of Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM).

There are three award types: bronze, silver and gold. The bronze award is achieved by showing a good action plan towards improving equality within gender. The silver award requires evidence of impact from good quality practices and the gold award requires the department or institution to be beacons of achievement in gender equality.

The charter shows, without doubt or bias, that there is a problem with the underrepresentation of women in these key areas. In some universities the ratio of female to male professors is one in ten.

In 2012, Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies announced that the National Institute for Health Research would not consider funding research unless the applicants’ respective departments had achieved a Silver Athena SWAN award. This was a bold stance and has forced a reaction.

The message is clear: discrimination will not be tolerated and the underrepresented must be supported.

There are 14 awards across UoB with a mix of bronze and silver awards. All of Bristol’s medical schools have achieved silver status. The school of PPN achieved silver status in 2008 and this is about to run out.

The University of Bristol accepting their award

Under encouragement from Athena SWAN, the school is resubmitting an improved document in March to better represent their data and this time they are strong candidates to achieve gold status.

An interview with Vikki Layton, the HR officer for Diversity, has made it easier to understand the impact this will have on the school of PPN. She was posed the following questions, which she answered with knowledgeable passion.


In your opinion is Athena SWAN pro-women or pro-gender equality?

There have been numerous reports about the isolation, bias and obstacles women in STEMM have and continue to face in their career. Athena SWAN was keen to address this and so made the initiative in its early days hugely focused on women.

By having applicants undertake rigorous data analysis, it becomes clear where in the career pipeline gender diversity becomes extremely narrow.

However, as most schools and institutions found, when effective actions to address these ‘leaks in the pipeline’ were put in place it really did benefit everyone.

Actions such as organising all school meetings within family friendly hours, ensuring equal male/female numbers of speakers at events etc. have become effective and, whilst for SWAN this was aimed at female academics, all staff have been able to benefit from them.

As the charter has now expanded to include non-STEMM and professional and support staff, it has taken stock of feedback received and is now asking applicants to consider shortfalls in male numbers in particular areas (e.g. in undergraduate numbers for example or in disciplines such as Veterinary Sciences) and to look at intersectionality (i.e. how gender and ethnicity together needs to be addressed in academia).

Therefore Athena SWAN has developed and recognised the complexities of equality and diversity and is much broader now than just being ‘pro-women’.


How will the school benefit from this award?

The Athena SWAN process requires data that schools have to produce and analyse to then establish a SMART action plan, addressing the issues that the analysis identifies.

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Women face “isolation, bias and obstacles” in STEMM subjects.

By having the SAT undertake this task, it is uncovering gender equality and intersectionality issues, encouraging staff and student engagement, implementing effective and collaborative activities to improve the inclusiveness of the school.

As the award is valid for three years, it is an ongoing process and there must be evidence of impact, so arguably, SWAN provides the traction to get E&D action addressed in earnest and contributes to making an inclusive environment. Athena SWAN is also an international and well known initiative and so once an award is received, the logo can be used on job applications, the school website and any marketing materials.

This is a good way of attracting talent who will be able to see that the school has been awarded for its work for gender equality. In other words, it shows that it is a good place to come study or work.


In your opinion, what is the most difficult obstacle women must overcome in regards to progressing their careers within the field of science?

I would feel uncomfortable making this my opinion but from my work with schools on SWAN, the most common issue is the juggling of work and family.

This has a huge impact on female careers and initiatives such as the returning carers scheme, maternity mentoring scheme, demystifying the promotions process workshops, workload models, carers networks etc. have all been established to support this.

I encourage schools to make visible and provide case studies of successful female role models and in particular those with family or caring responsibilities, as there is data to show that females are often put off of a career in academia, feeling there may have to be a choice of work or family in this field. As I said, this is not my opinion but one of the key issues surrounding attainment of female academics.


Layton has highlighted some key points. The school applying for gold should have a standalone merit, not only should it be doing all it can to push equality and diversity in the workplace, it should continue to look at how progress and improvements can be made in this area. Hopefully Bristol will achieve the ‘golden ticket’.


How do you think the University fares in equal representation? Let us know your thoughts  on Facebook, Twitter or in the comment section below!

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