Discontinuation of Athena Swan requirement for organisations applying for NIHR funding

The Medical Women’s Federation was dismayed by the government announcement last month (September 10th) that the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) will no longer require organisations submitting applications for Biomedical Research Centres, Patient Safety Translational Research Centres and Applied Research Collaborations to have achieved at least the silver level of the Athena SWAN for Women in Science, and to maintain this for the duration of the award.

Athena SWAN has been one of the most comprehensive gender equality schemes in Europe, a driver for change that has improved the representation of women in UK Higher Education Institutions and created a more diverse and supportive university culture.  However, gender-based inequalities and sexism in academic institutions remain in evidence, and additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately adversely affected women. The withdrawal of Athena SWAN at this time is therefore particularly worrying.

We are also surprised that the NIHR cites a new government commitment, announced in a recent policy paper  to “reduce bureaucratic burden in research, innovation and higher education” as the reason for ending the Athena Swan requirement. Yes, Athena Swan submissions were cumbersome but it would have better to have improved these processes, rather than “throw the baby out with the bathwater”  The NIHR has stated that instead, they will require organisations applying to them for funding to “demonstrate their commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion”. We have written to the NIHR to ask for further details about these processes, including what data will be made publicly available and how continued progress towards eliminating gender-based and other inequalities will be monitored across UK academic institutions. The Medical Women’s Federation is committed to supporting women and growing diversity in academic medicine. We will maintain a continuing watch on this situation.

Professor Neena Modi, President of the Medical Women’s Federation