Cambridge STEM departments win awards for gender equalityEngineering at Cambridge, Flickr

The Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge has been awarded a gold Athena SWAN award as a record number of the top level prizes are handed out across the country. A first for the university, this is also the first gold award to be given to a physics department. According to Professor Jeremy Sanders FRS, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Affairs at the University of Cambridge, “This is the result of inspirational leadership from Professor Val Gibson and strong support from successive (male) heads of Department.” Athena SWAN is a charter aiming to advance women’s careers in STEMM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) and the awards represent good practice in recruiting, retaining, and promoting women.

Dame Athene Donald, as the University’s Gender Equality Champion and Professor of Experimental Physics, was delighted with the news: “It is excellent to see this recognition of all the hard work and far-sighted action being carried out by Physics. I hope this will act as a stimulus and inspiration for other departments in the University.”

Other departments that successfully applied for an Athena SWAN award were the Department of Engineering and the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, which both received bronzes, and the Department of Clinical Medicine (covering 17 departments and institutes), which received silver. Institutions need to reapply for their awards every three years; the university as a whole, the Department of Chemistry, the Department of Material Science and Metallurgy all currently hold bronze awards. 

However, these awards come as a report published by the Campaign for Science and Engineering found that “it is still the case that women […] are consistently underrepresented, particularly at senior levels, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).” Despite this interest in gender equality and the numerous recommendations to promote improvement which have been put forward, “diversity is disappointingly far from being delivered” and the “floodgates have not opened”.

For example, whilst 45 per cent of academic staff are female, women make up just 21 per cent of professors. Known as “the leaky pipeline”, the higher up the STEM career ladder one goes, the further the percentage of women falls. The rate at which it drops differs between the sectors, as the report acknowledges, as “the challenge is different in different disciplines. However, across all disciplines culture change is crucial if significant steps forward are to be made.“

Using data from across a five-year period, “quick wins” are suggested to bring out real meaningful change now. One such “quick win” focuses on the research grant awarding process. Women applicants to grants from Research Councils UK (RCUK) achieve a 25 per cent success rate on average in comparison to the 29 per cent success rate of male applicants. As “some research suggests both men and women view female applicants, with identical qualifications to male applicants, as being less capable and deserving a lower salary,” the report suggests that “unconscious bias training should be made mandatory for all members of grant-awarding boards and panels […] particularly at professor level it should also be required for all those on appointment panels in universities.”

The report also assesses the value of the Athena SWAN charter. Despite the uncomfortable statistics about gender proportions and the slow rate of progress reported, Athena SWAN is having a “growing impact”. Issues addressed during the Athena SWAN award application process include family-friendly meeting scheduling, ensuring female representation, and how far the achievements by female staff are publicised. The report concludes that the “government should commit to adequate funding to support the ongoing work of the Equality Challenge Unit on the Athena SWAN Charter.“

In Cambridge, Athena SWAN awards have also heralded change. A university spokesperson stated that the “on-going commitment to […] gender equality is having a visible impact thanks to the significant resources and initiatives dedicated to improving the numbers of women across all career stages.” Within the next few years the university aims to move up from a bronze to a silver award.

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