Commentary

Gender equality in India’s sciences: Will the Athena Swan Charter help?

India is poised to adapt a scheme successful in enhancing the visibility and capabilities of women in the scientific workforce of many countries. Jyoti Sharma* and Prasad KDV Yarlagadda** analyse its scope.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.41 Published online 8 March 2020

© S. Priyadarshini

India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the British Council are giving final shape to the implementation of the Athena Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN) Charter in Indian universities and research institutions. The scheme is expected to pilot in about 20 Indian higher education institutes, research laboratories and academies by June 2020 to build capacities as envisioned in the Athena SWAN framework.

The Athena SWAN Charter is an evaluation and accreditation programme successfully running for over a decade in the United Kingdom (UK) enhancing gender equity in science, technology, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). Participating research organisations and academic institutions are required to analyse data on gender equity and develop action plans for improvement. They can apply for a bronze, silver or gold accreditation to get recognised for their progress in addressing gender equity. 

Established in 2005 with 10 founder members in the UK, the charter has now been implemented in two more countries, Ireland and Australia. The Charter’s reach has grown to 170 UK and Ireland members, and 812 awardee institutions and departments.

The charter raises awareness of gender diversity issues and the reasons behind them, facilitates better monitoring and reporting of gender diversity in STEMM and encourages an organisational culture that fosters a professional and diverse environment for everyone to excel. Advance Higher Education Academy (AHEA), the owners of the Athena SWAN Charter, receive around 400 applications a year. Athena SWAN member institutions commit to the underpinning principles of the Charter. Their progress in addressing gender equality is recognised through the awards.

Athena SWAN in India

Currently, the Athena SWAN Charter is being adapted to the Indian context and a questionnaire for Indian institutions is being finalised for its proposed roll out later this year.

The roll-out will include sensitisation and awareness building sessions to create an enabling environment in the selected institutes and laboratories. The programme will develop materials and tools for training and handholding at the institutional level to promote gender equality. It will also look at developing and strengthening networks of women in science in India, by engaging with similar networks in the UK. The objective would be to connect, collaborate and amplify the impact of the project.

As of now, India implements all women-specific programmes under a scheme called Knowledge Involvement in Research Advancement through Nurturing (KIRAN). Though these schemes are benefitting women scientists in India, there is a need to make an institutional framework to implement them effectively.

India is ranked 108 out of 149 countries in the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report. The DST 2015-16 statistics cite only 77706 (14.71%) women in the total human power of 528219 employed in research and development. Women’s participation in extramural R&D projects has increased from 13% in 2000-01 to 29% in 2014-15 following various government initiatives. Despite having the world’s largest higher education system1 – 799 universities, 39,071 colleges and 11,923 stand-alone institutions – a number of systemic barriers and structural factors plague the upward movement of women scientists in academia and administration2.

India held a trilateral ‘Women in STEMM’ workshop in 2016 in New Delhi to promote and share best practices for the empowerment of women scientists. India’s Ministry of Science & Technology coordinated the workshop with its Department of Industry, Innovation & Science, Australia, and the UK Science & Innovation Network. One of the several recommendations of this workshop was to develop a proposal to introduce the Athena SWAN framework to India. The idea was to spur a significant shift in India’s organisational culture that fosters a professional and diverse environment.

Beginning this year, DST will run the Athena SWAN programme in a pilot mode for three years to fund trainings and meetings, workshops, and project-related travel and logistics for participating institutions. It will also fund setting up of processes and systems in participating institutes as well as mentoring and support activities from UK organisations.

British Council will help develop and deliver the workshops, training and assessment via AHEA. This will prepare the participating institutes to critically self-assess their structures, systems, and cultures within the proposed framework. AHEA and DST will collectively evaluate the programme and propose any amendments for the future.

Hurdles to clear 

Some structural and policy issues may affect the implementation of the Athena SWAN model in India.

While it will be easy to adopt this model in premier research institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) or the National Institutes of Technology (NITs), which receive most of their grant from different wings of India’s science and technology ministry, the central and state universities are funded by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) and state governments. These universities, governed by single central rules, don’t have direct control over institutional policies, recruitment processes, and leadership positions. Therefore, the support of the MHRD will play a significant role in the successful implementation of the Athena SWAN model in Indian universities. 

The Charter confers awards at both institutional and departmental levels in the UK and Ireland, but it will be difficult for a department of a University or institution in India to participate in the pilot project as departments don’t have an individual identity in higher education institutions.

Data collection within the prescribed time-frame is also a key factor in the success of the programme. Indian institutes are not equipped in data building as they lack appropriate tools and training programmes.  In-depth training, strict monitoring and transparency in self-evaluation will be essential for the programme’s success. 

Allowing insufficient time to institutions for self-assessment could go against this. Timing should, therefore, be carefully considered in building a pilot project. As an example of the implications of not building sufficient time, in Australia, deadlines had to be delayed for each of the three pilot cohorts based on the feedback received from the participating institutions.

Successful run

In 2019, a research report of Ortus Economic Research in partnership with Loughborough University found that 93 per cent of participants believed that the Charter had a positive impact on gender issues in their university, department or research institute, 78 per cent said it had impacted equality and diversity issues positively, and 78 per cent noted a positive impact on the career progression of women. 

Many significant cultural and policy changes were also observed during the implementation years. The Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies linked the funding of the National Health Service (NHS) and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) with the Athena SWAN award in July 2011 to encourage and incentivise medical schools to empower women’s advancement and leadership.

The success in higher education institutes has also encouraged the expansion of Athena SWAN Charter to research institutes not affiliated with a higher education institution. Currently, 34 research institutes are members of the Charter and 18 hold awards, including one gold award.

In 2015, a tailored Athena SWAN programme was launched in Ireland as a cross-sector initiative supported by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in Ireland. The pilot was STEMM focused (though it has recently expanded to cover all academic disciplines). To date, 11 institutions and 26 departments have successfully achieved Bronze awards. A review of the scheme has recommended that Athena SWAN be permanently established in Ireland.

The programme was also adopted in Australia in 2015.  The Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) was set up through a partnership between the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) to oversee the pilot. Thirty Australian universities, six medical research institutes and four government science organisations became part of SAGE pilot programme and committed to follow the ten principles of the Athena SWAN Charter.

While it brings to India a successful global model, the implementation of the Athena Swan Charter will rest collectively on funding agencies, Indian science academies, institutions, universities and women leaders. The science academies, which have drawn flak for organising routine training programmes and publishing old data, could play an important role in developing standard data collection tools and help implement them in remote institutions. The MHRD also needs to be involved in the India model from the very beginning.

 [Jyoti Sharma is a Senior Scientist in the International Bilateral Cooperation Division (IBCD) at DST, Govt. of India. ** Prasad KDV Yarlagadda is a Professor of Smart Systems, Science and Engineering Faculty at Queensland University of Technology, Australia.]


References

1. Sharma, J. & Yarlagadda, P. K. Perspectives of ‘STEM education and policies’ for the development of a skilled workforce in Australia and India. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 40, 1999-2022 (2018) doi: 10.1080/09500693.2018.1517239

2. Sharma, J. et al. Vertical segregation: Issues and challenges of women engineers in Australia. Procedia Manuf. 30, 671-676  (2019) doi: 10.1016/j.promfg.2019.02.074