Athena Swan? Athena Swan.

Yesterday, I did something I didn’t think I would do. I joined the first Athena Swan Self Assessment Team (SAT) meeting.

Before I get into how and why I didn’t think I would do it, and why I ended up going, I want to give just a little overview of what Athena Swan and the SAT are. The Athena SWAN Charter, created and organised by the Equality Challenge Unit, attempts to recognise “advancement of gender equality” through “representation, progression and success for all”.

The SAT is a working group of people who want to advance this “gender equality” in their school.

So, why would I not think I’d be part of this? I have my apprehensions about Athena Swan, it’s often seen as a tick-box exercise for schools to be recognised for their ‘hard work’ rather than an honest attempt to further representation, progression, and success “for all” in the school. It’s an odd one, and the meeting yesterday made me think about all of this again. This post isn’t going to be about all the different reasons why I think Athena Swan is good or bad, but rather a reflection on what happened at the first SAT meeting yesterday.

So, in our school we have a fantastic young woman, let’s call her Lucy, who is in charge of it this year. She’s a part-time member of staff and a part-time student, she’s been involved in this kind of thing previously, has strong opinions on this issue, knows many of the right people, and is able to mobilise people. She’s also absolutely lovely and a pleasure to work with, so overall, I am quite happy that she is the one who is in charge.

After getting myself a cup of coffee, I sat down next to someone I didn’t know; although to be fair, I didn’t know most of the people in the room. Lucy went through what Athena Swan was, how we were trying to reach silver this year, and the timeline we would have to go through. She was very clear that she had some ideas and goals, but that she also didn’t know all the answers; that she needed help and support from us and the school; and that there was lots of work to share and go round.

She hadn’t expected there to be as many people there as there were (I would say there was a good 35 people or so in the room – including the head of school, a number of senior academics, PhD students, and probably many other roles filled by people I simply don’t know yet), so it’s great to see that there’s at least interest in the school to make a change.

After Lucy had explained everything to us, she opened the floor for questions. After a slow start, people began asking questions, which inevitably turned into a discussion around the room. Although I was the one to ask the first question, I guess it’s not very surprising that it was very often the men who talked (and didn’t necessarily ask as many questions). There were some interesting points raised around the importance of gender distribution stats and making sure to write the application in such a way that we would receive the award, making all my fears around joining a team such as the SAT come true. Why is the school engaged in this? Do the men who are in charge actually fundamentally understand what Athena Swan is about? Or maybe I am the one who doesn’t understand the point of it?

So, I asked a seemingly silly question that made the room feel strangely tense for a few seconds: are we trying to apply for this award because we want to get the award, or because we want to make a genuine effort to better the school?

The discomfort I had caused with this question seemed quite clear to me, and the final answer to the question was: a little bit of both. 

After this discussion the room moved to start to write down ideas of how we could go about making the award happen for the school. Many words were written down on flip charts, and many conversations were had. At the end of the hour-long meeting I didn’t really know what to think or how to feel about this application. I want to be part of a group that attempted to make a genuine (and desperately needed) attempt at improving the situation for everyone (who is not a cis, white, middle class man), but at the same time, I don’t want to be a part of a group who is able to spin a beautiful story out of a messy situation simply to get an award. Taking Lucy’s stance towards the whole event into consideration, and learning from the discussions that were had, I feel like the SAT will be a group of people working within that strange dichotomy. It’s about ‘making things happen’, but it’s also about making them happen not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because we want to receive this award (that is so rarely publicly criticised!).

I guess I’ll continue doing the work I am already doing as a part of for our idealistic, potentially naive, and definitely activist mission. And there isn’t really a reason why the whole school shouldn’t benefit from it – in fact, we had been talking about how the school should benefit from our little group! So, I’m going to take it on me (as part of the SAT) to make a bigger thing. To involve others who are not in Open Lab and to encourage people to organise to make things happen. I’ll go to the monthly Athena Swan SAT meetings to encourage this, and to be a pain in the arse to those who see this application only as a way of getting an award…

Oh, I’m going to have fun, and hopefully we can begin to make a movement towards encouraging a genuine attempt at changing the situation at a school level.

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