History and principles

The Athena SWAN Charter evolved from work between the Athena Project and the Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN), to advance the representation of women in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics (STEMM).

The following principles were agreed:

  • To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation
  • To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation
  • The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine
  • The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address
  • The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organisation recognises
  • There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organisation

These six principles represent the cornerstone of Athena SWAN; to join the Charter, vice-chancellors or principals must indicate that their institution will take action to address these areas.

With the support of Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) and the UKRC, the Charter was officially launched at the Institute of Physics on 22 June 2005, with the first awards conferred in 2006.

The Charter has grown consistently from its inception; now over half of all higher education institutions that are active in STEMM subject areas are members. Athena SWAN awards have also gone from strength to strength. Following the April 2013 round of awards, there are 259 award holders.

Athena SWAN received a major boost in 2011, when the Chief Medical Officer announced that the National Institute for Health Research would only expect to shortlist medical schools for biomedical research centre and unit funding if the school holds a Silver Athena SWAN award. This announcement can be found here: Letter from the Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies. This was later expanded to include patient safety research centre funding too. Athena SWAN has since started to work with the Medical and Dental Schools Councils; further details can be found in our Members' Area.

Although Research Councils UK (RCUK) does not link Athena SWAN to funding, in January 2013 it launched its ‘Statement of Expectations for Equality and Diversity’, which states that it expects those in receipt of Research Council funding to "provide evidence of ways in which equality and diversity issues are managed at both an institutional and department level". It recommends that the evidence includes participation in schemes such as Athena SWAN and Project Juno. The RCUK press release can be found here: RCUK announces policy to support equality and diversity in research.

The Charter is managed by ECU. It is funded by ECU, the Royal Society, the Biochemical Society and the Department of Health.