Towards Gender Equality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

“So, what do you do?”

It’s a question all of us ask and answer on a fairly regular basis, the default ice breaker when we’re introduced to a friend of a friend at a party or forced to make small talk at an event.

“I’m an Athena SWAN Officer.”

“Oh! Right…so is that like, looking after endangered birds or something?”

“Ha ha, no, I work with a university, helping to address the under-representation of women in Science, Engineering and Technology in higher education.”

“Ha, so looking after endangered birds then!”

As my new acquaintance laughed heartily at his own joke, I allowed him a mental high five for the wordplay but a very pointed roll of the eyes for the Jim Davidson-esque quip. ‘Comedy’ sexism aside though, bewilderment is a fairly common reaction to my job title from anyone outside of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) academia. Mention the name Athena SWAN in the ‘real’ world and people are apt to think you’re referring to a new female superhero movie or a protected species.

Athena SWAN is a charter and awards scheme run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU). The ECU is funded by UK higher education funding bodies to further and support equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education institutions across the UK. The Athena SWAN charter and awards recognise commitment by institutions and their departments to advancing women’s careers in STEM employment in higher education and research.

There are currently 114 universities and research institutes signed up to the Athena SWAN Charter across the UK. Awards are given out to institutions at Bronze and Silver level and to individual STEM departments at Bronze, Silver and Gold. A Bronze award recognises that the institution or department has identified particular challenges with regards to gender equality and is planning activities to address these. A Silver award recognises that the institution or department has taken action in response to previously identified challenges and can evidence impact. Gold departmental award holders have demonstrated sustained progression and achievement in promoting gender equality and addressing challenges particular to the discipline. They are considered to be beacons of achievement in gender equality and to be promoting good practice to the wider community.

There are now five Silver level institutions across the UK. The University of Strathclyde and University of Glasgow are both Bronze award holders, with several of their departments holding Bronze and Silver level awards.

Overall, institutions and departments are engaging with Athena SWAN because they recognise that a significant gender imbalance exists in STEM academia across the UK and that this has significant negative consequences. In addition, though, the Scottish Government and higher education funding councils have made it clear to institutions that they expect to see real evidence of engagement with the issue and impact in addressing it.

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) expects universities to monitor and report on their progress towards Athena SWAN awards and this is included in the Outcome Agreements that universities make with the SFC, outlining what they plan to achieve in return for funding. In July 2014, Education Secretary Mike Russell reminded the SFC in his letter of guidance for 2015-16 that they have a responsibility to encourage action from universities that ‘addresses the under-representation of women on the governing bodies of colleges and universities at senior levels and gender balance among student intakes for some key subjects’.

Research Councils UK (RCUK) also issued a statement in 2013 advocating strong evidential commitment by Universities and their departments to equality and diversity, citing Athena SWAN membership and awards as an example. The statement indicates that future grant funding is likely to be based on achieving formal equality and diversity accreditation. In 2011, the Chief Medical Officer, Sally C Davies announced that all medical schools who wish to apply for National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) funding for Biomedical Research Centres and Units need to have achieved an Athena SWAN Silver Award.

Sometimes my response to the ‘So, what do you do?’ question elicits faint surprise that, in 2014, there still exists a gender imbalance large enough in Science and Engineering to warrant an initiative like Athena SWAN. I often reply by asking people what percentage of the STEM workforce in the UK they think is occupied by women. Most are shocked to discover this figure currently sits at around 13% 1.

In Higher Education specifically, women make up around 17% of STEM professors (compared to 26% in non-STEM)2. Some subjects have a recruitment issue (for example, Physics or Engineering), meaning that the percentage of women in the subject areas is low from undergraduate level through to the academic staff population. Others have a retention issue (for example, Chemistry), often referred to as the ‘leaky pipeline’, where there is a relatively healthy gender balance at undergraduate level, but the female percentage begins to drop further along the academic career scale into academic and research posts.

Of the female population of STEM graduates from Scottish universities in 2009, only 27% went on to employment in a STEM field, while 52% were employed in non STEM areas and 21% were not employed. STEM areas with very few women can be said to be drawing on only half the talent pool available to them and the loss to the Scottish economy is estimated at as much as £170 million per year3, at a time when the UK and Scottish governments are seeking to address a serious shortage of skilled scientists and engineers.

A number of influencing factors are often cited to partly explain this gender imbalance. For example, the fact that early academic and research careers in STEM are often characterised by a system of fixed term contracts and the need to be able and willing to relocate across the country or further afield for a post. This is often considered to negatively impact those, especially women, who are starting a family at the same time. Also, a lack of part time and flexible working posts and a culture that marginalises women or men who use flexible working has been identified as a barrier to those who have caring responsibilities for children or elderly family members.

It is also often suggested that certain cultures, norms and behaviours within STEM and wider academia prevent women from progressing in their field at the same level as men. For example, in their 2012 report Tapping All Our Talents – Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics: a strategy for Scotland, the Royal Society of Edinburgh cites research which highlights the role that unconscious rather than explicit bias plays in gender inequality. The report states that:

‘A recent EU report highlighted “a lack of awareness of how systems and structures, policies, processes and procedures can be discriminatory, even where the employers have the very best of intentions on fairness and equality.” For example, while there is general agreement that appointments should be based on ‘merit’ and the ‘best person for the job’, concepts of what constitutes ‘merit’ are socially constructed and can be influenced by preconceived views of men and women. They can also value some qualities or attributes more than others. Women can be significantly disadvantaged by a gendered conception of merit, especially one that values a full-time, uninterrupted career trajectory and research success.’

There are many other factors which can be said to be at the root of the imbalance and universities engaged in Athena SWAN are instigating innovative actions to address them. Both Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities have instigated steering groups and university champions in senior management positions to drive forward institutional action plans designed to make a real impact to the career progression and profile of women in their scientific and engineering fields.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh and House of Commons Science and Technology Committee make a range of recommendations to institutions, ranging from widespread Equality & Diversity training to the refinement of practices around maternity, paternity and flexible working and establishment of effective staff mentoring and support for early career academics, with a focus on women in STEM.

The real impact of these initiatives will be seen in the(hopefully) rising percentage of women employed in STEM jobs in general and in senior academic and research posts and in the establishment of true equality of opportunity in STEM, regardless of gender.

Specialist edited by Manda Rasa and copy edited by Barry Robertson.



  1. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Women in Scientific Careers. Sixth Report of Session 2013-14. 2014: 5
  2. Equality Challenge Unit. Equality in Higher Education: Statistical Report 2013. 2013: 50-51
  3. Royal Society of Edinburgh. Tapping all our Talents – Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics: a Strategy for Scotland. 2012: 6

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