SEB Bulletin Contents - March 2008

athena_logo.Wisdom, justice and skill in science, engineering and technology: Are the objectives of the Athena Project mythology?

“Advancing Athena?” was the title of the meeting held at the Royal Society, London, on 25th October 2007 which brought together Committee members and scientists to celebrate the achievements of the Athena Project.


From the left: Dr Nancy Lane, Chair of the Athena Project; Caroline Fox, Athena Project Programme Manager; Professor Dame Julia Higgins, past Chair of the Athena Project

The Athena Project was established in 1999 to reverse the consistent loss of women employed in science, engineering and technology (SET) at each stage of academia and increase the representation of women in senior posts in higher education. Chaired by Professor Dame Julia Higgins and Professor Nancy Lane, and Programme Manager Caroline Fox, the Athena Project was initially funded by a UK-based consortium including government bodies and funding councils, and has since gathered additional support from private companies and learned societies. Statistics show that women account for 64% of biology graduates and 61% of post-graduates, significantly exceeding the number in physical sciences1. However, only a minority of this pool are represented at senior level in higher education (at professorial level less than 10% are women), on committees or as recipients of prizes1-4. This leads to the uncomfortable realisation that, proportionally speaking, the biological sciences are particularly bad at retaining female graduates as career researchers. Although 2007 marks the end of the Athena Project in its present form, key aspects which have proved successful in promoting career advancement of women in SET (ASSET and the Athena SWAN awards) will continue via the Athena Forum. The Athena Forum, located at the Royal Society for at least the next two years, will provide a strategic oversight of developments. The founder members of the Athena Partnership, the Institute of Physics (IOP), the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), and the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET, have already started work on a benchmarking toolkit based on existing work by Athena, IOP and RSC. The partnership will be opened up to other professional societies later in 2008.

The Athena Project conducted three benchmarking exercises (ASSET surveys 2003 to 2006) which chronicled the career experiences of 13,000 male and female scientists working in higher education and research in UK4. From these data the Athena Project concluded that “women were as ambitious as men, were as academically and research active, but did not make it to the top in the numbers that reflected their contribution to science” suggesting that the poor retention of female researchers could be related to the academic culture. Speakers referred to ASSET and surveys from EU and USA which identified the transition between post-doc and tenured researcher as the most significant point at which we are losing our potential (female) science talent2, 4-7. This leads to a growing inequality in age-related salary for male and female researchers. Furthermore, the lack of women in more senior positions could be related to a lack of transparency on committees for promotion, recruitment and prizes, and Professor Teresa Rees encouraged everyone to ask “who decides this, why are they there and how do they make their decisions?”. The ASSET data gathering initiative continues to be a core element of Athena in informing evidence-based positive action having indicated that research culture, networking and provision of child care were crucial to retention of women. The Athena Partnership hopes to run the next UK ASSET survey in 2009.

By actively engaging with higher education institutions to understand employment and cultural practices common to the scientific environment, the Athena Project team has developed good-practice guidelines (Box 1). Initially devised for use in Chemistry departments, good practice such as establishing mentoring and networking have widespread relevance. Professor Shirley Pearce (Vice Chancellor, Loughborough) spoke about their approach which included establishing SET professors as role models and mentors, skilled managers, rewarding teamwork and an HR strategy of dignity and respect for all. The University of Oxford established that employment of women in SET occurred in proportion to the number of applications and hence the under-representation could be addressed by encouraging women to apply for senior posts and taking measures to dispel views that appointments go to “old boys networks”.

Box 1: Key issues supporting retention of women

  • Personal and professional support (career development, networks and mentoring)
  • Supportive Head of Department
  • Encouragement to apply for research fellowships and senior roles
  • Including women in decision making process
  • Departmental culture supporting work-life balance including daycare provision and optional career breaks for all staff
  • Help overcoming lack of influential contacts 

The “Women Professors Group” has been established at Cardiff University to provide mutual support where there may only be one female professor in the Department, and Imperial College hosts the DAPHNET mailing list. Such initiatives have had immediate effects in making women in SET feel less isolated.

Both Professor Julia Higgins and Prof Alison Richard (Vice Chancellor, Cambridge) stressed the importance of women engaging our male colleagues in discussions of retention issues, especially as these tend to be the people with the power to make cultural changes (Box 1). While the anecdotes of the astrophysicist Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell about her early career in a male-centric environment where a woman’s place was considered to be a man’s secretary should be a thing of the past, it was disappointing to learn that female researchers working in a predominantly male, engineering environment have to employ coping strategies that often conflict with the aims of Athena (Box 2). Achieving cultural change also relies on women supporting women, especially those who have succeeded within a male-dominated work ethos. Hopefully the future will include social and cultural changes which will remove this need to conform to a (perceived) male role as organisations embrace diversity by understanding how differences in approach can benefit the organisation.

The Athena SWAN Charter for good practice developed from an idea which came originally from the conference which launched London Metropolitan University’s Scientific Women’s Academic Network and was initially worked up by Network members. The Athena SWAN Charter and recognition scheme now has an independent existence. It is funded jointly by the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET and the Equality Challenge Unit and is based at the ECU’s Lincolns Inn Fields Office ( All UK universities can become members of the Athena SWAN Charter by implementing what might be relatively minor operational changes to alter attitudes and culture, thereby becoming eligible for the Athena SWAN Awards. The Awards at bronze, silver and gold recognise progress in five key areas (Box 3). These range from recognition of gender inequalities in the institution to actively managing structural obstacles to career building (like short term contracts or preserved culture of male-dominated departments). During the Athena Conference at the Royal Society the first Athena SWAN Gold award was presented to Profs Ottoline Leyser and Paul Walton on behalf of the Chemistry Department, University of York. In 2007 Prof Leyser received the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award for her proposal on how to combine a research career and a family.

Incremental progress and adoption of many of the best practice models will make balancing work and life easier for all employees, and expand the choice of how we manage our lives. The point of maximum investment of time in developing a scientific reputation essential to career building corresponds directly with the usual period of child rearing6-8. This results in compromises in career development or postponement of a family until tenure is established. In US, married women were 18 % less likely to assume a tenure-track position than unmarried women7. In addition, the lack of part-time working in SET departments, implications of a career break (including how it is viewed by potential employers) and requirements to spend considerable periods of time abroad are cited as the main concerns of women combining a scientific career with being the primary child-carer. It is notable that a high proportion of women in top jobs women are childless or delay having a family. In US, it was found that having a baby within 5 years of a PhD makes a women 38% less likely than a man to achieve tenure6,7.

Box 2: A woman in a man’s world: Coping strategies of females in SET (taken from ESRC study 2004)

  • Stress advantages over disadvantages
  • Achieve a scientific reputation
  • Adopt an “anti-woman” approach
  • Act like “one of the boys”
  • Accept gender challenges 

Possibly the most innovative of supportive schemes is that implemented at Imperial College and UC Berkeley where women returning after maternity leave are allowed to shed teaching and administration duties for a defined period to enable them to re-establish their research. This is the type of good practice that could be applied to both men and women returning after a career break. Many women in senior academic posts cite supportive partners as a critical factor contributing to their success. Prof Julia Higgins, speaking in the New Scientist Careers Guide (2008), considers that science is becoming more family friendly now because more young men want flexible working to enable them to spend more time with their families. However, both men and women fulfil parenting roles and family-friendly policies initially targeted at retaining women will also benefit men by enabling them to choose to give greater amount of their time to care-giving roles.

Box 3: Key areas for SWAN Charter recognition

  • Knowing the baseline and the SET academic profile.
  • Providing positive support for women at key career transition points
  • Changing the culture and gender balance in decision making
  • Work-life balance practices, their introduction and uptake
  • Champions, responsibilities and accountabilities 


There are still challenges to be overcome by those aspiring to the “University of Utopia”9 where provision of daycare, flexible working and job share schemes, and transparency in promotion systems to recognise the entirety of the job including coaching and teaching roles are the norm. Two of the most significant are “the double body problem” (where both spouses are scientists with the consequential difficulties in finding two research positions at the same institution) and the addressing of unconscious bias when assessing the achievements of men and women4. Prof Alison Richard spoke of recent findings indicating that both men and women hold unconscious biases which can be exhibited unwittingly by even the most supportive of colleagues. Letters of recommendation contained disproportionate use of terms such as “his career”, “his research” and “his publications” for men but “her teaching” and even “her personal life “ were used more frequently for women5, 10. In a culture when so much advancement is reliant on personal recommendation we should all be concerned that the way we use language can vary in a sex-dependent manner. There are many other examples and recognising this subtle problem requires much greater interaction with social scientists to gather evidence necessary to influence policy.

Athena has gained international recognition for its achievements in obtaining evidence, setting goals and rewarding good practice, and representatives have been invited to contribute to symposia at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2005 and 2008. In the USA it is becoming apparent that the same “leaky pipeline” identified for female researchers is operating for ethnic minorities11. In UK, an Athena SWAN Charter workshop is planned for March 2008 to promote best practice, and other smaller events are planned to take place regionally. With continuing support from the Resource Centre for women in SET and the Equality Challenge Unit the Athena SWAN awards are set to become a recognised scheme for UK employers. Perhaps now is the ideal opportunity for the Biosciences Federation or Institute of Biology to join the Athena Partnership to improve our ability to retain qualified biologists? Let’s hope it is not too long before there is a biology department with an Athena SWAN gold award - York (Biology) and Bristol (Biochemistry) already have a silver so the race is on if UK universities want to attract the cream of the research talent.

Alison Kingston-Smith
IGER, Aberystwyth.

Box 4:

The Athena Project closed down in December 2007 after ten successful years. Looking back the Committee did what we set out to do, which was to make change happen. We provided the leadership, we identified and encouraged good practice. Every one of the examples of the good practice that we have disseminated is working in one or more university and or science department somewhere in the UK.

With the framework that is in place for the future, ASSET, Athena SWAN, the Athena Forum and Athena Partnership, we have reduced the opportunities for backsliding, but the jury is out on whether it is enough to engage the universities and science societies who remain largely on the sidelines.
We are delighted with the support the Royal Society is offering to the Athena Forum, which will take a strategic oversight of developments, and will become the expert voice from within and for the science community. In addition to my new role as Advisor to the Forum for its first two years I will also be working as a consultant to the Athena Partnership, and look forward to Bioscience societies joining the partnership later this year.

Caroline Fox,
Athena Project Programme Manager []


Further reading

  • The Athena Project
  • Fox C (2008) Athena Project 1990 to 2007 and its legacy. AAAS, Boston March 2008.
  • Deborah Tannen (1995) Talking from Nine to Five: Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power. Avon Books.


  1. HESA 
  2. Science policies in the European Union: Promoting excellence through mainstreaming gender equality. (2000) Report of the ETAN Group (EU).
  3. Foyer CH. Women in Science. SEB Bulletin, March 2008, pg. 17.
  4. Link no longer exists.
  5. Editorial (2007) Losing half our scientific capacity. Nature Structural and Molecular Biology 14: 787.
  6. Mason MA, Goulden M (2004) Do babies matter (Part II)? Closing the baby gap. Academe-Bulletin of the AAUP 90: 10-15
  7. Mason MA, Goulden M (2002) Do babies matter? The effect of family formation on the lifelong careers of academic men and women. Academe-Bulletin of the AAUP 88: 21-27
  8. Phoebe Leboy (2008) Fixing the Leaky Pipeline: Why Aren't There More Women in the Top Spots in Academia? The Scientist Vol 22 p67
  9. Joint RSC Athena Project Report (2004), The “University of Utopia” Good Practice in University Chemistry Departments
  10. Trix F, Psenka C (2003) Exploring the colour of glass: letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse and Society 14: 191-220.
  11. Powell K (2007) Beyond glass ceiling. Nature 448: 98-100.