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Consultations are underway for a ‘made-in-Canada’ Athena SWAN program

The federal government wants to bring a pilot version of the U.K. charter to Canada to promote equity and inclusion in research.

By ANQI SHEN | OCT 02 2018

Athena SWAN, the program first launched in U.K. universities more than a decade ago to advance the careers of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, will be coming to Canada in some form. The federal government was holding a series of workshops, from September 24 to October 4, to discuss how best to adapt the program for this country, with an eye to launching a “made-in-Canada” approach next year.

Over the summer, the federal minister of science and sport, Kirsty Duncan, met with U.K.’s Advance HE, the organization that administers the Athena SWAN accreditation program, and held informal roundtables with Canadian university leaders and researchers on the opportunities and challenges in bringing the program to Canada.

The Canadian government aims to launch a pilot project in early 2019, said Serge Villemure, director of policy and interagency affairs at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, speaking at a recent online briefing. NSERC is the federal agency taking the lead on the new Athena SWAN project, but it will be a tri-agency initiative for which the Liberals committed $15 million in the 2018 budget. The funding includes resources for new grants to support institutions in meeting their goals relative to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

Under Athena SWAN, members who sign the charter apply for a bronze, silver or gold award at the institutional or departmental level, committing them to a set of principles to support gender equity. Since 2005, the charter has been adopted by 145 U.K. university departments and research institutes. The program has expanded to Ireland, to Australia as part of a program called SAGE, and most recently in the United States in a pilot called SEA Change. In 2015, the original charter broadened from the STEM disciplines to include the arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law.

In Canada, the adapted charter “will cover the employment equity designated groups [women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and members of visible minorities] and be relevant to all areas of research, and all postsecondary institutions,” according to NSERC’s website.

Mr. Villemure noted that in the U.S. and Australia, it took two to three years after the program launched before institutions were ready to apply for the awards. During the fall consultations, “we hope that institutions will be able to assess their capacity and time frame for when they will be ready to submit an application. This will be very important for us in the design,” he said.

“It is not envisioned at this point that the award will be linked to funding or eligibility,” Mr. Villemure said in response to a question. “Perhaps, as we assess the pilot down the road, this will be considered. In Ireland, for example, the higher education authority is basically linking operation and research funding to a bronze award. By 2019 … they may withhold 10 percent of funding, but we’re not at that point.”

Imogen Coe, dean of science at Ryerson University and an adviser to the federal government on EDI initiatives including Athena SWAN, said during the NSERC briefing that institutions would be engaging in a process of self-assessment. “Institutions have to demonstrate that they know themselves well,” she said, by collecting data on which to create action plans to address gaps they’ve identified. “It’s a [peer] review process of your own institutions, setting targets and measuring yourself against your own progress. It doesn’t pit universities against each other in some of the traditional ways we’re familiar with in terms of metrics and rankings.”

Mike Mahon, board chair of Universities Canada and president of the University of Lethbridge, said university presidents have encouraged the federal government to consider a model that accounts for institutional and regional diversity, as well as provincial mandates around higher education quality. “We think it would be best to have a harmonized approach to this to ultimately ensure it’s effective, but also from a resource perspective it would be best not to have to deliver on two sets of expectations on a federal and provincial level,” he said.

As for tying the program to funding, that “would strongly incentivize the implementation,” said Dr. Mahon. “But, at the same time, I think we need to make sure this is more than just a box-checking exercise that we’re engaging in, that it’s about culture change,” he said.

There are various initiatives underway focusing on equity, diversity and inclusion in Canada’s postsecondary system. In October 2017, Universities Canada members endorsed a set of EDI principles which include, among other things, sharing best practices, capacity building and improved data collection and sharing. As well, by the end of 2017, as directed by the federal government, universities had to submit equity action plans for the Canada Research Chairs program to address the underrepresentation of chairholders in the four designated groups.

Minister Duncan announced in September that all institutions had developed plans, and that a panel of experts would conduct an assessment of these plans and corresponding progress reports over the coming months. She also unveiled new institutional requirements for recruiting and nominating CRCs that took effect on September 10. The minister acknowledged universities’ efforts, noting that women accounted for over 43 percent of CRC nominations submitted in the latest round, “a historic high.” Also, starting this past summer, the three federal granting agencies revamped their data collection on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Sharon Straus, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto who has led data collection initiatives and studied the gender gap in her own faculty as vice-chair of mentorship, equity and diversity, said she is excited to see Athena SWAN coming to Canada and hopes that a broad group of stakeholders will be engaged in the process. “I think people need to think about the downsides as well,” she said. “One of the common things people talk about is the time it takes to collect the data and to act on the data and follow up – it does take resources.”

Ryerson’s Dr. Coe noted that a “very valid criticism of the program in the U.K. is that it creates an additional burden of work for people who are already underrepresented. The caution is … if you don’t resource and support this properly it’s difficult to create an effective program.”

A 2016 study in the journal BMJ Open highlighted some of the unintended consequences of the Athena SWAN program. The study found that gender inequity was “reproduced in the program’s enactment” as female staff were undertaking a “disproportionate amount of Athena SWAN work, with potential negative impacts on individual women’s career progression.”

Advance HE announced a review of Athena SWAN in the U.K. this past May in response to a survey of staff who participated in the program. Among the survey’s findings, 77 percent agreed the workload was “excessive.” The steering group heading the review aims to complete its work by early 2019.

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