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Canadian government unveils draft Athena SWAN charter

Consultations will continue in February and March with underrepresented groups and academic institutions on the draft charter aimed at promoting equity, diversity and inclusion.

By ANQI SHEN | FEB 20 2019

To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, the federal minister of science and sport, Kirsty Duncan, unveiled the draft version of a “made-in-Canada” Athena SWAN charter. Another round of consultations on the draft is underway, continuing through February and March, aimed at “underrepresented groups and academic institutions” across the country.

The government intends to finalize the charter this spring, according to Valérie Levert-Gagnon, a media and public affairs officer with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. “We expect to launch the program in summer 2019. Details are still being finalized on the selection process for the institutions in the pilot.”

The original Athena SWAN charter and awards program was launched in U.K. universities in 2005 to advance the careers of women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. It has since been adapted in Ireland, in Australia under the name Science Australia Gender Equity (SAGE), and is being test-piloted in the U.S. as STEM Equity Achievement (SEA) Change. The Canadian program will be voluntary for institutions to sign onto and has expanded from just gender to include all four designated underrepresented groups in the employment equity act – women, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and visible minorities – plus the LGBTQ community. It will also apply to all disciplines, not just STEM, and to both colleges and universities.

The minister’s announcement of the draft charter received generally positive responses on social media among administrators and researchers. University of British Columbia president Santa Ono and University of Saskatchewan president Peter Stoicheff tweeted their support of the charter, as did University of Ontario Institute of Technology president Steven Murphy, who hosted the minister at his institution on February 11.

“I’m going to sit with this a bit, but on first read, I like what I see,” tweeted Université Laval researcher Holly Witteman, an associate professor in the department of family and emergency medicine at Université Laval. “Kudos to @KirstyDuncanMP, everyone @NSERC_CRSNG and other agencies, and everyone who participated in a consultation and/or submitted comments,” she added.

“Our universities, colleges have been slow to reflect diversity that is Canada’s greatest strength,” University of Ottawa biology professor Jeremy Kerr tweeted. “Time to embrace diversity on campuses, in labs, in all our work, at every career stage.”

Malinda Smith, a political science professor at the University of Alberta who studies equity on Canadian campuses and helped to host a fall consultation at her institution, said in an interview she was pleased to see the draft is “much more inclusive and ambitious” from the start compared to iterations of Athena SWAN in other countries.

“Unconsciously or not, there was always a tendency to talk about women and the ‘other’ equity groups so that racialized minorities, Indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities were seen as other, often unnamed,” Dr. Smith said. “The initiative is also treating LGBTQ people as among these groups and then thinking about the intersections among them, so we don’t have siloes and we don’t have inequity among equity-seeking groups, which I think exists when you privilege only women or gender.”

According to Dr. Smith, the challenges of implementing the goals of the program will come down to “institutional leadership and political will to take this ambitious plan seriously … and it also means these institutions have some learning to do. That’s fine, because these are universities and colleges. They are learning institutions.”

Dr. Murphy of UOIT echoed that “tough conversations” need to be had on campuses around issues such as systemic bias in hiring committees, but he’s optimistic about the process. “As a white male in our sector, I just think there’s a real important role to play as a president to say we have to get behind this,” he said. “We can’t afford this to be just another reporting issue, this is so much more fundamental to who we are as an academy.”

“We’ve seen how Athena SWAN has rolled out in different countries with different tweaks, and we’ll play that out in our country as well,” he said, “but I think the fact that it’s here and the feds have committed to it, it’s an incredibly positive step.”

In a summary report of consultations held last fall, NSERC describes the feedback it received from institutional representatives on the goals, scope and design of the program. “Participants made the point that programs like Athena SWAN are about cultural change and that this kind of change takes time and therefore it is important to look at Athena SWAN with a longer-term lens,” according to the summary. Another concern was the administrative workload associated with Athena SWAN that has been raised in the U.K., where a steering group is undertaking a review of the program.

When it comes to data, which was identified in the fall consultations “as one of the major challenges with a program like Athena SWAN,” NSERC reiterated that Athena SWAN “will require institutions to collect data in order to monitor their progress on increasing EDI in their institutional context. … The design of the Canadian model, as much as possible, will be built upon and align with best practices found in other programs and initiatives, as well as on the research evidence currently available.”

The current round of consultations will focus on a charter and program design “that is credible and viewed as progressive by not only the organizations that will be participating but also by the underrepresented stakeholders,” according to NSERC. They will also inform the made-in-Canada Athena SWAN handbook, application form and peer-review process.

Universities Canada, which represents 96 member institutions, had developed a set of inclusive excellence principles in October 2017 and is pleased to see that the Athena SWAN draft charter has built on these, said Wendy Therrien, the association’s director of external relations and research. “We look forward to continuing our engagement with NSERC and ISED (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada) on the development and roll-out of the made-in-Canada Athena SWAN pilot program,” Ms. Therrien said.

Along with the draft charter, the minister’s office also formally announced a capacity building grant competition for “small institutions and colleges” to develop and implement equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives, with an application deadline of March 1. The $10-million fund allows institutions to request up to $200,000 annually for up to two years for a proposed project. “As smaller postsecondary institutions may not have as many resources available to dedicate to support EDI activities in the short term, providing them with an opportunity to access these grants early was a priority,” according to NSERC.

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