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.
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.