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A pathway to gender equality: The Athena SWAN charter

by | Feb 4, 2018 | Q&A

Q. Why did the University of Canberra (UC) sign on to the Athena SWAN charter, and what impact could it make?

A. There are a lot of programs out there that are about diversity. I think the uniqueness of this program is in how it’s designed, and how it tried to go through a fairly detailed process. It’s quite intricate, it’s quite nuanced – it’s not about numbers only and it’s not about anecdotal evidence only. There’s a lot of evidence that they ask you to collect in the beginning, which means you are really delving deep into the organisational structure, ethos and culture versus a lot of other programs that do a great job on giving you the big picture story, but don’t go into the deeper story behind it.

Screen Shot 2018 02 05 at 7.11.30 amPhoto: Dr Sudha Rao at the University of Canberra’s epigenetics and transcription lab, is on the brink of making a major breakthrough to stop the spread of recurring cancer.

The reason why this is important is because, for an organisation like UC – on the basis of institutional numbers – it looks pretty healthy from a point of view of diversity in general. We have some great role models in terms of gender, we’ve got gender balance, we’ve got diversity in general, and our LGBTQIA folks have told us they feel welcome and included – so every part of the University I go to, it’s clear to me that we have some good things going with policy. Athena SWAN forces us to look deeper and beyond that.

The implementation of Athena SWAN becomes a strategic advantage, as we want to attract the best and brightest. We have to do this and we have to do this right.

As we do this, we understand that there are pockets of the University that have issues – these issues are not problems at the point – but because we want to sustain this growth, it becomes not only a good thing to do, but a business imperative to foster diversity in our culture. The implementation of Athena SWAN becomes a strategic advantage, as we want to attract the best and brightest. We have to do this and we have to do this right.

Q. Can you describe the current status of diversity and quality at the UC? 

A. A couple of things I’ve noticed already – we have excellent policies – kudos to the Human Resource team. In the last two years they have really worked with the University and the community to create some very powerful policies, structures and procedures that people can use to bring about a very agile environment. It allows a work/life balance. But as we talked to various parts of the university, particularly in this role, I have a lot of people coming up to me and saying ‘Let me tell you what my experience has been.’

ELECTRONICS shutterstock 116463061When the procedures and the policies are very strict, you don’t really have to think for yourself or make decisions.

It is clear to me that there are parts of our policy that aren’t necessarily being applied in the right way. Either it is being applied too loosely or it is being applied too stringently. One of the parts of this journey is getting people to understand their roles and responsibilities in a very flexible environment. When the procedures and the policies are very strict, you don’t really have to think for yourself or make decisions. But when the policy is very flexible, like at UC, you have to be much more creative and responsible. This is just one example.

There is definitely a gender skew there, and it’s not unique to the University of Canberra – it is a common problem.

One thing that all institutions grapple with is what do we do about sessionals, the staff who are tutors on a casual contract, and who make up a large amount of our staff cohort. There is definitely a gender skew there, and it’s not unique to the University of Canberra – it is a common problem. How do you tap into that group by allowing them the flexibility they need, but at the same time, harnessing the energy that they bring to the University in different ways? Are we losing some of our bright people to sessional work? Are these part-timers getting mentorship? That’s an example of the kind of nuanced questions we ask. 

Q. How has the UC engaged with other universities, and learnt from the impact of Athena SWAN in the UK?

A. We had Tom Welton from the Imperial College London, come over – he was responsible for leading his team to get gold in Athena SWAN, which is of course a huge deal. He talked about things that he had done and when you read the applications of various universities like Oxford and Edinburgh, it’s clear that change occurred in incremental steps. Change happened because of a realisation from the top and little things they did to bring about greater inclusivity and diversity. They asked what needs to happen, what is required and how to go about it.

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In the UK, they showed us that the first step is realisation and understanding. Then it is a conscious effort to work towards it. These are simple, common sense things, but they really make a difference. They make sure the senior management is aware of the unconscious bias they have and where the university is going and how they’re doing things, then making changes.

Unconscious bias training for all our staff members will help bring about an understanding of the diversity issues we’re talking about

Because universities are supposed to be agents of change in society, some worked hard in creating outreach programs that enabled greater gender balance in certain disciplines when they were recruiting students. That’s a systematic and a long term approach to changing gender balance in society. I hope we can follow that example.

Q. What impact does Athena SWAN have on students at UC?

A. Unconscious bias training for all our staff members will help bring about an understanding of the diversity issues we’re talking about and will translate into better outcomes for the student experience in terms of how to better deal with students.

Being a culturally and linguistically diverse female myself, I can talk about my own experience, so I believe it will lead to better awareness, teaching and engagement with students.

We also will have more programs to encourage gender balance. We don’t have enough females in certain disciplines and we don’t have enough males in others. We are looking at the data and need to go to schools to recruit these people for these disciplines. We are putting together a plan to do that.

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