Getting started

Introduction to Athena Swan 

What is Athena Swan?

The Athena Swan Charter is a framework which is used across the globe to support and transform gender equality within higher education (HE) and research. Established in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment, the Charter is now being used across the world to address gender equality more broadly, and not just barriers to progression that affect women.

In the UK, the Athena Swan Charter is administered by Advance HE, which is a member-led, sector-owned charity that works with institutions across the world to improve higher education for staff, students and society. Advance HE members can apply for institutional and departmental Athena Swan awards recognising their gender equality efforts.

There are three levels of award – Bronze, Silver and Gold – depending on how far an organisation has progressed with their gender equality work and how effective this work has been. The University of Oxford holds an Athena Swan Bronze award and is applying for Silver in 2022. 18 departments within the University currently hold a Bronze award and 19 have achieved Silver.

What is the Transformed Charter?

A wide-ranging review of the Athena Swan Charter in the UK resulted in the adoption of a Transformed Charter in 2021. Whilst the overarching aim of the charter remains to advance gender equality within higher education, there is now a greater emphasis on culture and inclusion; professional, technical and operational (PTO) staff experiences; understanding and addressing intersectional inequalities; and recognition of the right of individuals to determine their own gender identity. 

The transformed charter aims to provide departments with more autonomy and flexibility (to focus on priority areas) and to reduce the administrative burden of making an application. Advance HE has moved from being in a position of assessment to offering a more developmental and supportive approach (for example, awarding ‘minor corrections’ or ‘major corrections’ to applications which don’t pass first time; providing more resources to support gender equality work).

To be successful under the Charter, departments will need to:

  • Commit to the Athena Swan Charter principles.
  • Carry out evidence-based and thorough self-assessments of gender equality within their department.
  • On the basis of this self-assessment, identify and pursue actions to advance gender equality in their context.
  • Reflect on and learn from their experiences to inform their ongoing approach to this work.

How do I get started with an Athena Swan application?

  • Firstly, speak to the Athena Swan advisor for your Division – currently Catherine Goodwin in Social Sciences, Isabelle Pitt in Humanities, Katherine Corr in Medical Sciences and Amy Hinks in MPLS – to let them know that you are planning an application. They can help with signposting to data sources; advising on the planning and writing of an application; and commenting on drafts. If you are outside the academic divisions, you can approach the EDU’s Gender Equality Policy Advisor, Jennifer Chapin, for help in the first instance.
  • If you are applying for your first Athena Swan award, you are advised to begin work at least one year before your planned submission date.
  • Take a look at the resources on the Advance HE website relating to the transformed Athena Swan Charter (more details below)
  • Ensure that you have structures in place to enable you to complete the work:
    • Leadership buy-in (including from your Head of Dept)
    • Staffing resource
    • A Self-Assessment Team (SAT) to oversee and guide work on the application. Membership of the SAT should be representative of the department as far as possible. (See further details about forming your SAT below).
    • Draft timeline for the application process (see an example timeline in the Preparing an Application section of this toolkit).
  • Ensure that your Head of Department signs up to the Athena Swan Charter principles by submitting a letter using the Advance HE template.
Advance HE guidance relating to the Transformed Charter

The Transformed Charter webpage provides a wide range of useful information, including:

For further information and support, sign up to join Advance HE’s Athena Swan members’ network.

Resourcing an Athena Swan application

Do not under-estimate the staff time involved in preparing an Athena Swan application! Substantial input is required from a range of staff, particularly in the year leading up to the application submission:

Athena Swan work normally requires an academic lead and a professional/support staff lead.  These staff should be in a position between them to take responsibility for leadership and management of the work and one of them should take overarching responsibility for drafting the application.  These colleagues are likely to need some administrative support for organising meetings, ensuring follow-up takes place, etc. 

Some involvement from the Head of Department (and wider departmental management team as applicable) will be required in order to contribute a strategic perspective and ensure leadership buy-in. 

Either the Head of Administration or a senior HR colleague will likely be needed to check and agree staff data, and input from other colleagues such as Directors of Studies will also be required.  These colleagues will need to feed into the application and are likely to be responsible for taking forward actions in the Action Plan.

All Athena Swan applications must be based on a thorough self-assessment of your department’s current position in relation to gender equality and the progress that you have made since a previous award, where applicable. The Self-Assessment Team (SAT) is responsible for reviewing quantitative and qualitative data to support the self-assessment and also acts as a ‘steering group’ for the Athena Swan application process, including identifying priority areas for action and reviewing drafts of the application and action plan.

The SAT should meet regularly – at least once per term, and more frequently (eg. monthly) in the year before submission of your application.

The SAT should be representative of your department as far as possible, in terms of gender balance, with different levels of seniority and different staff and student groups represented, to ensure that a variety of perspectives are taken into account. As a minimum, SAT members usually include:

  • Academic lead for Athena Swan/EDI
  • Professional/support staff lead for Athena Swan/EDI – this could be an Athena Swan or EDI Officer, an HR Manager or a departmental administrator
  • Head of Administration and Finance or equivalent
  • Head of Department
  • A representative of academic staff
  • A representative of research staff
  • A representative of professional and support staff
  • At least one student representative – undergraduate, Masters and/or DPhil student (depending on whether your department offers degree programmes at all levels)
  • Divisional Athena Swan/EDI co-ordinator

How you select members for the SAT will depend on the circumstances and practices in your own department. Some members will sit on the SAT by virtue of their role in the department (eg. EDI Officer or HAF) or because they already have a role as a staff or student representative on a relevant departmental committee. However, it is recommended that at least some SAT members are selected via an open call for expressions of interest. You may wish to ask people to write a short statement about why they are interested in the role and any relevant experience they have, to help you make a selection if there are more expressions of interest than available places.

It is useful to be clear about how long members will serve on the SAT. This varies between departments and roles, but between 1 and 3 years is usual.

Increasingly, departments have an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee or equivalent, which also functions as a self-assessment team for Athena Swan. You may wish to form a separate SAT in the run-up to an application or make use of sub-groups or working groups to focus on particular themes related to the application.

Departments take a wide range of approaches to resourcing administrative support for their Athena Swan application and subsequent work to deliver on commitments, including:

  • An existing part-time member of staff working extra hours to coordinate the application process.
  • A short-term, part-time post to provide support.
  • A dedicated officer (normally part-time) who is also responsible for coordinating implementation of the action plan and providing support for other EDI work.
  • Smaller departments may wish to pool resources – talk to your divisional EDI co-ordinator about this.

The transformed Athena Swan Charter includes a new expectation that departments will have formal processes for recognition and reward of EDI work.

The University’s Athena Swan Working Group has made the following recommendations. 

  • A member of academic staff leading Athena Swan work in a department – for example chairing a self-assessment team and contributing significantly to writing the application – should receive remission from other duties and/or financial remuneration commensurate with other positions of responsibility in the department, such as being Director of Graduate Studies.
  • A member of professional/support staff leading/coordinating Athena Swan work in a department – for example project managing the application process and contributing significantly to writing the application – should have these responsibilities appropriately reflected in their job description, and potentially have ‘ring-fenced’ time allocated to these responsibilities, particularly in the run-up to making an application.
  • Other ‘lesser’ responsibilities (e.g. being a member of a departmental self-assessment team) should be recognised or rewarded in some concrete way (for example via Awards for Excellence or the Recognition Scheme, ROD, research allowances or additional training budget), and/or processes should be in place to ensure that such service is distributed equitably across that group of staff or students alongside other departmental duties undertaken (such as being a member of a health & safety committee/library committee, or participating in outreach).
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Contact us

For general queries contact

For specific queries contact the Athena Swan advisor for your division:

Katherine Corr (Medical Sciences)

Catherine Goodwin (Social Sciences)

Amy Hinks (MPLS)

Isabelle Pitt (Humanities)

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