Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Promoting Diversity - UK's Athena SWAN Program

Imagine a world were research funding was dependent on diversity! If a science department had no tenured women, for example, then (at least in this particular fantasy) it would not qualify for $$ from NASA, NSF, DOD, NIH, etc. If a laboratory employed no people of color, then it would have a lot of work to do before it could even think about applying for grants. Proposals would be returned without review to principle investigators from organizations where the gender and ethnic breakdown of the scientific staff did not reflect that of the population at large. Crazy, huh? It’s a pipedream, you say, a fantasy, a delusion, a hallucination. This is just the kind of thing a person like me would dream about at night or fantasize about in all my spare time.
But wait! Believe it or not, there is an organization in Britain that is working to level the playing field for women in the STEMM disciplines (includes medicine in addition to the US STEM list). The organization is called Athena SWAN . The amazing thing about this organization is that unless a university or department has at least a Silver ranking with Athena SWAN, funding organizations such as the British National Health Service will not consider the institutions eligible for research grants!

The following is from the Athena SWAN web site.
The Charter
The Athena SWAN Charter recognises commitment to advancing women's careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education. The Charter was launched in June 2005. Any higher education institution which is committed to the advancement and promotion of the careers of women in STEMM in higher education and research can apply for membership. The beliefs underpinning the Charter are:
-The advancement of science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine is fundamental to quality of life across the globe
-It is vitally important that women are adequately represented in what has traditionally been, and is still, a male-dominated area
-Science cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of the whole population, and until women and men can benefit equally from the opportunities it affords
History and principles
The Athena SWAN Charter evolved from work between the Athena Project and the Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN), to advance the representation of women in science, engineering and technology (SET). The following principles were agreed:
-To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation
-To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation
-The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine
-The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address
-The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organisation recognises
-There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organization
These six principles represent the cornerstone of Athena SWAN; to join the Charter, vice-chancellors or principals must indicate that their institution will take action to address these areas.
With the support of Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) and the UKRC, the Charter was officially launched at the Institute of Physics on 22 June 2005, with the first awards conferred in 2006.
The Charter has grown consistently from its inception; now over half of all higher education institutions that are active in STEMM subject areas are members. Athena SWAN awards have also gone from strength to strength. Following the April 2012 round of awards, there are 124 award holders.
Athena SWAN received a major boost in 2011, when the Chief Medical Officer announced that the National Institute for Health Research would only expect to shortlist medical schools for biomedical research centre and unit funding if the school holds a Silver Athena SWAN award.
The Charter is managed by ECU. It is funded by ECU, the Royal Society, the Biochemical Society and the Department of Health.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if US organizations like NASA, NSF, DOD, and NIH had a similar policy?