Deploring the lack of diversity in academia, Dr Furaha Asani calls for greater accountability and reflection within STEMM departments through initiatives like the Athena SWAN award.
During my progression as a researcher I have become more keenly aware of inclusion and diversity in academia, or the lack thereof.
The key is that the whole of the academic community has the power to dismantle a large portion of the harm that injustice and inequity have caused over decades. Some of these inequities are seen in the attainment gaps based on wealth and race, as well as the current lack of diversity in academic jobs. These show that both students and staff are affected, which feeds into an institutional problem. When focusing particularly on Black women academics, one of the ways to dismantle structural inequities specific to this demographic is by using an intersectional approach.
Advance HE (a merger of the Equality Challenge Unit, the Higher Education Academy, and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education) aims ‘to build an inclusive culture that values the benefits of diversity, to remove barriers to progression and success for all staff and students, and to challenge and change unfair practices that disadvantage individuals or groups’. This broad aim keeps Higher Education Institutions (HEI) accountable through different equality charters run by Advance HE that necessitates the collection of HEI-specific equality data. The Athena SWAN Equality Charter (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) in particular focuses on advancing the careers of women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine). The incentivization of gender equality initiatives in STEMM in 2011 by the Chief Medical Officer for England, Prof. Dame Sally Davies, introduced the concept that for Biomedical Research Centres to be eligible for NIHR (National Institute for Health Research) funding they would need at least a Silver Athena SWAN award. Importantly, this announcement had a positive effect on Athena SWAN applications.
In Dr. Nicola Rollock’s UCU report (University and College Union), which captured the HE experience of 20 of the only 25 Black women professors in the UK, there are 21 recommendations with number 15 being particularly pertinent to HEI accountability on data capture:
UCU (as the principal union to the sector) and Advance HE (as the body supporting the sector on equalities) should lead by example by publishing data on the number, gender and ethnicity of their staff, their progression and attrition over the last five years and their actions for redress’.Dr Nicola Rollock, taken from the UCU Report, 2019.
The Athena SWAN Charter introduced in 2005 deals with gender equality (inclusive of trans individuals), while the Race Equality Charter (REC) launched in 2016 focuses on race. In the second quarter of 2017, Advance HE also published a report on intersectional approaches to evaluating equality research and data. As of this writing Advance HE requires that in Athena SWAN submissions ‘consideration of intersectionality is only required in institutional applications, though departments are also encouraged to adopt this approach’. I would argue that departments should also be required to document their considered policies and research culture that, with respect to Athena SWAN, often leaves Black women (and other Women of Colour) academics behind. To understand my assertion we need to closely inspect the concept of ‘intersectionality’.
Intersectionality is often misconstrued as the phenomenon of multiple overlapping identities. However intersectionality, as first introduced by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw nearly three decades ago, was described by Prof. Crenshaw as not being ‘primarily about identity. It’s about how structures make certain identities the consequence of and the vehicle for vulnerability’. While the Race Equality Charter does indeed capture statistics based on gender, inferring from Prof. Crenshaw’s work, analysis of race-based barriers faced by all Black academics often means that the specific experience of Black women academics is masked. Likewise, analysis on all women academics will likely once again miss the nuance of the Black woman academic’s experiences and hardships.
One solution as outlined by a recent UCU report is to tie the REC to funding. However, whilst institutions acquaint themselves with the REC over the next few years, Athena SWAN can stand in the gap – it is after all more familiar to HEIs than the REC. It is time to extend Athena SWAN as an accountability initiative when it comes to the intersection of race and gender. In order to engage departments in this accountability and to encourage greater reflection on equity for Black women academics, analysing barriers caused by both gender and race (as well as class, sexual orientation and disability) should not just be a requirement at institutional level with Athena SWAN submissions, but at departmental level too. If we really are for equality and parity of participation then we need to internalize and truly believe that every academic with a marginalised identity is worth the extra effort. This will bring to light the specific hurdles faced by Black women within their departments, and hopefully challenge the harmful research cultures and attitudes impeding their acceptance in the academy.
Dr Furaha Asani is a researcher in the field of respiratory immunology, having first trained in Biochemistry at The University of Johannesburg. She obtained her PhD in Infection and Immunity from The University of Sheffield. Throughout her research career Furaha has also been a part-time teacher, mental health advocate and freelance writer. She mostly writes about healthcare (with a focus on mental health), higher education, and science in pop culture. She always seeks to use her writing as a platform to promote equality and critical thinking, and has been involved in various initiatives to actualise these in her immediate circle of influence. She can be found on Twitter @DrFuraha_Asani and you can read more of her work on Medium.