Scholars pen open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit on USS and pension inequalities

In the UK, academic and professional support staff at over 60 universities are currently on strike over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme.

An open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) has been organised by a number of researchers. They note that the pension reforms are in direct conflict with the stated aims of the ECU’s two flagship equality schemes: the Athena SWAN Charter and Race Equality Charter.

Open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit and all UK university leaders.

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University staff and students demonstate against changes to USS in Leeds.

The letter’s authors argue that if these schemes are “to be more than a strategic brand enhancement, [they] must demonstrate its independence and commit to working towards the demonstration of that independence in the future. That includes a rigorous investigation of the equalities implications of pension changes.” As a scholar of Athena SWAN, I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment.

In my research (currently under review) I have observed that the charter has enormous drawbacks for many marginalised academics, particularly women and scholars of colour. For example, the labour of Athena SWAN is primarily undertaken by women, who frequently become exhausted, stressed and frustrated while preparing their department, faculty or institutional submission, and lose valuable time that would have been spent on research to further their own career. Moreover, some individuals are punished for submissions that ‘fail’ due to systemic issues within the department or institution, for instance through losing their job or being denied a promotion.

At the same time, Athena SWAN does have the potential for bringing about real change. With the charter increasingly recognised as important by funding bodies as well as potential students and staff, institutions are under growing pressure to take the requests of Athena SWAN self-assessment teams seriously. This has led to numerous universities and research centres introducing measures such as better support for new parents, more accessible toilets for trans and disabled staff and students, and for fairer pay structures for cleaning and janitorial staff.

If equality schemes such as Athena SWAN and the Race Equality Charter are to be meaningful and to have the long-term support of the very people they are meant to help, it is imperative that they continue to be used to push for real and positive change in this way. As such, I wholeheartedly support the open letter, and its call for the ECU and universtity leaders to recognise pensions as an equality issue.

**edit: you can now follow the “USS and Athena SWAN” campaign on Twitter: @USSAthenaSwan.

Report: “Certifying Equality? A critical reflection on Athena SWAN”

Certifying EqualityEarlier this year I organised an event on Athena SWAN and equality accreditation for the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender at the University of Warwick. It was a really great opportunity for attendees from a range of HE institutions to reflect on the benefits and limitations of equality accreditation schemes, and share thoughts on our experiences of Athena SWAN.

I’ve now completed a report on the event, which I hope will be helpful for galvanising discussions in universities that participate in the Athena SWAN charter mark.

You can download the report here.

It includes reflections and insights from the Certifying Equality event, including:

  • Background to Athena SWAN
  • Athena SWAN as a catalyst for change
  • The contradictions of equality accreditation
  • Proposals for change
  • Presentation summaries

If you find this document helpful and interesting, please do help distribute it by sharing with your colleagues!



Certifying Equality? A critical perspective on Athena SWAN (17 February)

certifying-equality-posterI’m currently part of a team working on an Athena SWAN submission for the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick.

Many of us are feminist academics. The process has got us thinking both about how equality accreditation mechanisms such as Athena SWAN can create space for new ways of thinking and tackling sexism, and also about what can go “missing” or get “lost” in such processes. For example, there isn’t much space for an interrogation of intersecting inequalities in Athena SWAN (or Race Equality Mark) submissions.

We’ve therefore decided to organise an event to think about and discuss some of these issues. It will be taking place on Friday 17th February in the Wolfson Research Exchange, University of Warwick Library.

Further details and a registration form can be found here.