Gender pay gap: How universities are working with Athena SWAN to ensure equality

SOURCE: Shutterstock
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By U2B Staff 

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According to a study conducted by the Office for National Statistics, UK released in October 2019,  while the gender pay gap among full-time employees in the UK is declining, it still stands at 8.9%.  This data was calculated as the difference between average hourly earnings between both genders, without accounting for bonuses and overtime across all jobs in the UK.

This data was generated by analysing mandatory reports from companies in the UK with more than 250 employees.

Commenting on this gap, Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party said: “The graduate pay gap highlights some of the many layers of inequality and disadvantage that women face.

“There is evidence that women go for lower positions and ask for less when they negotiate salaries having been socialised in a world where women are less valued than men.

“And there is also evidence that employers react badly when women do ask for more, whereas men are more likely to be applauded for doing so.

“Women still overwhelmingly carry the burden of unpaid care, including childcare, which also means that when starting their careers employers see them as less of an investment, assuming they will take time out to have children – whether or not they actually intend to.

“And since companies have had to report their pay gaps, we have seen that some of the largest gender pay gaps are in the UK’s top graduate employers, such as the big financial firms.”


How does the gender pay gap look like in UK universities?

All universities in the UK are now also legally required to record their gender pay gaps as universities in the UK are also experiencing a similar trend.

Based on reports for 2019 and although there has been some improvement compared to the previous year, the statistics remain alarming: more than nine out of ten institutions pay their average male employee more than they pay their average female employee!

Data from April 2019 shows that, among higher education teaching professionals, women earn on average 8.4% less than men.

Universities in the UK, through a collaboration with Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network), are ramping up efforts to bridge the gender pay gap, and also promote equality on campus

Athena SWAN is a charter established in 2015 and managed by the UK Equality Challenge Unit, now a part of Advanced HE. It started off as an initiative to encourage and recognise the commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) institutions of higher education and research.

Athena SWAN
Athena SWAN started as an initiative to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in STEMM fields.  | Source: Shutterstock


The charter was expanded to include non-STEM departments including arts, humanities, social sciences, business, and law. It now also focuses on promoting gender equality in additional communities including professional and support staff, technical staff, as well as transgender staff and students.

The objective of this charter is to celebrate good practices in higher education and research institutions towards the advancement of gender equality. Members of the Athena SWAN charter commit to adopting 10 principles that revolve around promoting and supporting gender equality for women.

Members of the charter are eligible to apply for Athena SWAN awards in three levels, Bronze, Silver or Gold. Award-winning recipients will hold the titles for four years.

In a nutshell, this initiative aims to remove the obstacles that hinder women from succeeding in their career advancement, ensuring equal pay, as well as normalising support directed at this group.

Athena SWAN aims to drive these goals through action at all levels across the department in the organisation.


The University of York leads efforts to reduce the gender pay gap among academics

The University of York was the first Yorkshire university to gain an Athena Swan bronze award for its work in providing positive support for women scientists in their careers.

The university’s departments of psychology, chemistry, and biology hold a gold award while other departments including the Hull York Medical School and the Department of Physics hold silver awards.

Bronze awards winners include the departments of archaeology, education, history, english and related literature, and also mathematics.

In continuing its efforts to promote equality, the university has reinforced its commitment to embed Athena SWAN principles throughout the University and engage all staff with the diversity agenda and need for change.

The university also takes concrete efforts to ensure that its female staff has an equal opportunity to thrive.

This will be accomplished by improving the diversity profile of the Professoriate; Heads of Departments and the Senior Management group offering a range of activities to enhance career progression including mentorship; training; development and assessment opportunities and the use of positive action.

In addition, the university plans to improve female representation in faculty by improving access to flexible working options.

The University of York was the first Yorkshire university to gain an Athena Swan bronze award
The University of York was the first Yorkshire university to gain an Athena Swan bronze award. | Source: Shutterstock

The university has established an annual Women in Research conference to boost these efforts, in addition to appointing an academic Gender Equality Fellow and research and disseminate best practice.

The university also aims to hold a “Women at York” exhibition to celebrate the achievement of women sometime this year.

Professor Deborah Smith, Athena SWAN University lead and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research said: “We are pleased that the University’s commitment to the Athena SWAN charter has been recognised today by renewal of our institutional Bronze award.

“York is encouraging colleagues across the disciplines to apply for Athena SWAN recognition with 15 of our 28 Departments across our three faculties holding awards currently.”

The University of Leeds ramps up efforts to increase female representation in academics

At the University of Leeds, the Faculty of Engineering, School of Dentistry, School of Healthcare and the School of Medicine all hold Athena SWAN Silver awards.

The university works closely with the higher education sector’s equality charter to enhance the career progression of women from different backgrounds among academics, professional and managerial, and support staff.

The university has taken steps in addressing the jarring gender pay and bonus pay gap in its institution. In addition to providing leadership training and proactive upskilling support, the university has taken the necessary steps to ensure that career progression will be based on quality and level of achievement, rather than the quantity of output.

This initiative will ensure that staff who require time off in instances such as maternity leave, will not be penalised by a system that only measures the quantity of output.

Athena SWAN University of Leeds
The University of Leeds is addressing gender pay gap in its institution through a collaboration with Athena SWAN. |  Source: Shutterstock

The university has also diversified the way it views the international standing of an academic, which is a critical measure of academic achievement. It will now consider all invitations to speak at conferences rather than only those attending in person. This means that people who are less able to travel, due to familial obligations and responsibilities can also be recognised.

Leeds is also providing on-campus nursery and holiday club services to attract and retain professionals, with caring responsibilities.

It aims to increase the visibility of its female leadership across the university through activities such as its annual Women of Achievement awards and is enhancing its effort to provide support and develop women through networks such as its Women in Leadership Roles Forum, Women at Leeds Network and the Leeds Female Leaders Network, which is run in conjunction with the NHS Trust.


The university has big plans to support its women by supporting their progression both personally and professionally. It aims to achieve this goal through its Springboard and Aurora programmes, as well as through the introduction of a university-wide mentoring scheme.

Since publishing its first gender pay gap report in 2017, the university has re-examined its approach in recruiting University Academic Fellows (UAFs) and designed initiatives to attract more female applicants for these positions.

These initiatives include making senior roles at the university more attractive to women by first working with existing female UAFs to understand what attracted them to the roles and using this feedback in its plans for attracting future cohorts.


The Imperial College of London is committed to implementing changes in its recruitment process that will encourage more women to take up top positions in its faculty

The Imperial College of London has implemented its college-wide Athena Institutional Silver Award Action Plan which affects academic, research and support staff in all academic departments.

The college now requires for all recruiting managers to be trained in fair recruitment and selection good practice, rigorously ensuring that recruitment agencies are briefed on the institution’s requirement for them to identify the widest range of possible candidates.

Imperial College London
The Imperial College of London requires for all recruiting managers to be trained in fair recruitment and selection. | Source: Shutterstock

The college is also running programmes to ensure that it has a pipeline of qualified and skilled women who can be promoted or be successful when applying for more senior roles.

These leadership training programmes are designed to stress the manager’s responsibility for equality, diversity, and inclusion at all stages.

The introduction of the Elsie Widdowson Fellowships for academics returning from either maternity, adoption/surrogacy or shared parental at the college will also encourage professionals to return to the workforce.

The Imperial College of London’s Provost’s and President’s Board members also participated in training from a leading equality consultancy. This training has translated into action at the institution, and as a result, has strengthened a healthy workplace culture that encourages retention and progression of women in the workplace.


Imperial’s Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion, Professor Stephen Curry, paid tribute to College staff who worked hard on the departmental submissions, “At Imperial, we all share in the responsibility for creating an inclusive and respectful environment for staff and students. Tackling the barriers to gender equality is a crucial part of this work,” he said.

“These Athena SWAN results are a fantastic achievement and I would like to thank the people involved for their hard work and commitment, which often goes unseen. They are important steps forward and will be appreciated by the staff and students in Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering and the Centre for Environmental Policy.”