Europeanisation of a national GECAS - Athena SWAN - Concept Scenario 3 - 12:00-13:00

Let's start with our third and last scenario, the europeanisation of a national GECAS - Athena SWAN. Again, here is a short introduction to this third scenario:


This concept scenario explores how the well-known Athena SWAN scheme could be adapted to become a Europe-wide scheme. The reason behind this proposal is that Athena SWAN represents one of the most advanced experiences at the international level, with high levels of participation and an extremely rich set of resources, tools, and materials, as well as a continuously growing capital of experience. Moreover, and because of its success, Athena SWAN is already in the process of internationalisation, with new countries adopting it. This concept scenario integrates both ambitious objectives and practical solutions, based on its extensive implementation.

On the other hand, participants in interviews and co-creation activities have also frequently highlighted – besides the many advantages – the risk that a scheme very specifically tailored on the characteristics and features of the Anglo-Saxon higher education and research system (which is also the area of its greatest expansion) might be more limited in terms feasibility, effectiveness and acceptability in different national contexts. In addition, its ambitious setup is likely to trigger resistances and backlash in specific national contexts, as well as make it less accessible for some countries in terms of resources (financial, human, expertise-related).

This concept scenario would cover, with minor adaptations, all the four mandatory GEP (Gender Equality Plan) building blocks requested to access funding under Horizon Europe, but – currently – only four of the five recommended content areas (see Gender Equality Plans as an Eligibility Criterion in Horizon Europe). Covering at least three areas – as the minimum requirement to apply for funds – will lead to a basic- level certification. The missing area is the integration of the gender dimension in research and teaching content, and the scheme would need to be modified to include it.


Among the most significant features of this concept scenario (for the full list, please check the reading materials sent along with the questionnaire), its focus on both process and outcome in the implementation of Gender Equality Plans (GEPs) can be singled out, as well as its participatory approach to GEP design and implementation, with representation of all levels and categories of staff, the (recently introduced) adoption of the intersectional perspective, broadening the set of potential inequality grounds that are actively addressed, the possibility to apply at the level of the whole organisation and/or at Department/Faculty level. The assessment process is accomplished through self-assessment and external assessment, the latter from peer-review panels.

A set of features are unique to this concept scenario, as compared to the other two:

  • It predefines three levels of progressive achievement (bronze, silver, gold)
  • It foresees that support is mostly provided to applicants by national-level structures to be created ad-hoc, with the support of the European Commission.


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Agostina_Allori's picture

Hello and welcome to our third discussion on the feasibility of Europeanising a national GECAS (Athena SWAN) as a scenario developed in the frame of the CASPER project. We look forward to a rich and invigorating e-conversation, to bring our reflection forward.

My name is Agostina Allori. I am a gender equality consultant at Yellow Window and a core team member for the CASPER Project. I also work in other EU funded projects in the field of research and academia, such as SUPERA, Gearing Roles, Gender SMART and the Gender Equality Academy.

We are happy to have two gender experts with us this morning: Inés Sánchez de Madariaga (from Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Spain) and Clemens Striebing (from Fraunhofer Centre for Responsible Research and Innovation, Germany).

In 5 minutes, I will leave the e-floor to them for a short introduction followed by their initial comments and remarks.

clestrie's picture

I am Clemens Striebing and I am working as a Senior Researcher in international and national projects, in which I deal with gender equality and diversity in organizations, especially in the research and innovation system. Another focus of my work is research on the transfer of scientific knowledge to business, society and politics.

Agostina_Allori's picture

Welcome Clemens! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts about this scenario!

clestrie's picture

I myself am more in favor of the establishment of a European scheme instead of the Europeanization of a national scheme. However, in the coming discussions, ATHENA Swan will be the guiding reference. I believe ATHENA Swan has the role of a door-opener and role model.

I dare to say that without the success of ATHENA Swan, the CASPER project would not have existed and we would not be thinking about a European gender equality scheme now. However, it must be critically questioned what exactly the success of ATHENA Swan actually consists of. I believe that ATHENA Swan is considered successful primarily because it was implemented by a large number of organizations. But that says nothing about the effectiveness of the program.

There are now a number of evaluation studies on ATHENA Swan. The results are mixed, but tend to be positive. From my point of view, the quantitative study by Xiao et al. (2019) and an overview Lancet article by Rosser et al. (2019) stand out. The key learning, in my view, is that specific predictions about the impact of Athena SWAN on individual research organizations are difficult to make. The interplay of the strategy implemented depending on the organization and its contextual factors (such as leadership commitment, resources, staff turnover) is too complex. In my view, however, the fundamental added value of ATHENA Swan is to stimulate the debate on gender equality and to deepen and focus it through substantive impulses. In other words, if many people in an organization think a lot about gender equality, something useful will come out of it in the end. I don't think you can have this organizational investment and commitment any cheaper than with ATHENA Swan. But it can't be more expensive either.

Agostina_Allori's picture

Thank you for your initial remarks and insightful reflection, Clemens

Agostina_Allori's picture

Clemens, would you like to say a bit more about what you consider the advantages and disadvantages of this scenario? 

Agostina_Allori's picture

To all the participants, feel free to contribute with your reflections/thoughts about this scenario. 

clestrie's picture

Thank you, of course! I hope my argument about national context is not too polemic. But I think it makes the discussion more interesting, if there is some pepper in the soup ;-)

A must-have, in my view, is ATHENA Swan‘s three-class system (bronce, silver, gold). This system is strong because it shows quality differences between research institutions without establishing a competitive and overly complex ranking by using too precise a metric. At the same time, the three-class system allows for low-threshold entry and creates continuous motivation to move up to a higher class or to maintain the class achieved. This effectively brings the equality policy to life on paper.

ATHENA Swan is seen as a weakness in that it is tailored to the Anglo-Saxon context. Personally, I am an opponent of a scheme that is too highly adaptable to specific contexts. Gender equality is a universal value and implies nothing different in the UK than in Germany, Poland or Greece. The fact that equality is regressing, especially in a number of Eastern European research institutions, is no coincidence and should not be diluted by context specificity. If effective equality in research and innovation requires the East to become more Western, then so be it (sorry if this is a bit polemical. I write this as someone who comes from a former Soviet state).

The main weakness of ATHENA Swan, according to Tzanakou and Pearce, seems to me to be that it is very situational at which point and for which group of people the effort associated with ATHENA Swan accumulates. The narrow thematic focus of ATHENA Swan is also problematic. Here, the debate in the Anglo-Saxon world is already much more advanced. When we talk about an inclusive work climate for researchers, we also have to talk about the masculine work culture that prevails in many workplaces. Monitoring the work climate as well as structural sexism should be mandatory components of any gender equality scheme. The lack of gender as a research dimension is also outdated here and an integration would fit well into the new regulations of the European Commission for applying for Horizon Europe projects!

To conclude on a positive note, a cool element of ATHENA Swan is the mix of self-assessment and peer-review in the evaluation of scheme applications.

Rachel Palmén's picture

Hi Clemens, I agree that the strength of this certification scheme lies in the  Bronze, Silver, Gold -  classification system- simple yet including the possibility for comparison,  progressing from one level to the next and inclusivity. 

I also think that 'implanting' a British certification scheme into Europe at the moment would be disastrous - thinking about not only the specificities of the UK HE system but the wider political context... 

Charoula Tzanakou's picture

Thanks for citing our research :) Workload in relation to all CAs- not just Athena SWAN seems to fall on the people that is supposed to help.  Indeed, Athena SWAN is and should be contextualised in order to be impactful. I think this is a strength of CAs to allow for a flexible european scheme where organisations can tailor actions to their own context while maintaining some standards and values.

 I am not sure what you mean in terms of the thematic focus of Athena SWAN since it does address most of the recommended areas by the European Commission and it is in line with the building blocks for the GEP. Indeed it does not require addressing sex/gender integration in research. Currently, Athena SWAN  has been transformed so we are waiting to see how this would go.

ismadariaga's picture

I agree with the previous post: a European wide certificate should not be built based on a national scheme as the Athena Swan. The UK university system within which the Athena Swan has been designed and implemented, as well as wider issues of British public policy and administration, are too far from the realities of most if not all European countries.

A European wide certification or recognition system should be designed and built from scratch.

I disagree with the assertion in the previous post that without the Athena Swan this exercise of designing a European wide certificatation system would not be happening. I was present at the initial moment aboyt ten years ago when the EC launched the idea of developing this scheme and the Athena Swan was already there, but it was not in any means the reason nor the rational nor the basis on which the EC started this path in which the CASPER project is now of contributing to the design of a European wide scheme for certification of GEPs in research institutions 

Agostina_Allori's picture

We are happy to have you here. Thank you for your contribution 

joerg's picture

Hi Ines, this is very interesting. Can you tell more about the reasons for not embracing Athena SWAN from the outset as you mention? What was the thinking at this point in time?

Rachel Palmén's picture

Hi Clemens, Thanks for your comments. I think it's interesting that the article by Xiao et al. (2019) when talking about outcomes - they cite the 'increase in female representation'- no doubt an important part of the gender (in) equality puzzle - but not the only element. Regaring GEPs aiming to effect institutional change - as we know 'outcomes' are difficult to measure.. This will be the case however for all scenarios.....but I think it's really important to not 'reduce' gender (in)equalities in R&I to issues of women's representation.... 

Marion Lesur's picture

Hello everyone. Athena SWAN is a mentionned already in the process of internationalisation with new countries adopting it. As it is indeed in itself an ambitious scheme with a reputation preceeding it, I am wondering about the initial will for 'less advanced' institutions, or institutions with less resources, to sign up to an EU-extended Athena SWAN. Which relates here again to branding I guess.

joerg's picture

I think a clear advantage of this scenario is the fact that - as Clemens mentions - we can look back and build upon several years of experience already, including solid evaluations of its impact. Going with the first scenario of a brand new GECAS does not imply that it would be easier to assess impact or predict how it will move us forward on the gender equality agenda. I think even if the evaluations are not all positive, it still is better to build upon these experiences than to start from scratch.

Athena SWAN is also well recognized outside of the UK. It is a model so to speak which clearly shows how it works in practice.

The major challenge I see is how a scheme that has evolved in a specific national context, namely the UK, can be transferred to other EU countries. While some countries are thinking about adopting this scheme, I guess it will be difficult to make it mandatory across all countries.

ismadariaga's picture

A privatized system as the Athena Swan, additionally licensed by a UK (non-European) private company, does not seem to be a good idea for a European gender equality policy in a field that in many countries is mostly in the public sector.

I do not find acceptable this privatization of public policy, additionally grounded in a non-European organization

Charikleia Tzanakou's picture

Athena SWAN is not a privatised system,depending of course how you define this. The Athena SWAN Charter Mark has been created through public sector and charity bodies in the UK - you can find more about its background, here: 

It came from the higher education and research sector in the UK and this was one of the key points that led to its endorsement. In terms of being licensed by a private company: Following the 2017 Bell Review of higher education sector agencies, the Equality Challenge Unit that coordinated Athena SWAN merged into a single body with the Higher Education Academy (HEA), and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) called Advance HE (which is a member-led, sector-owned charity in the higher education and research sector). See for more here:

ismadariaga's picture

This is public policy. IT should, as a minimum, be under the control of a European organization.

Then there is the discussion as to whether this should or should not be privatised.

When considering the possibility of this being managed bu a private institution, careful consideration should be given as to what kind of institution this could be, and controled by whom and how.

Then there is the issue of funding. Who is paying for the organization and management of the scheme? Public of private funds? the universities themselves?  What is the incentive for universities to pay for this? Athena Swan relies on payments from universities themselves, I do not think this is an option in most European countries.


Rachel Palmén's picture

I think this is a really important point (private/ public). As well as funding - funding needs to be available to institutions to develop GEPs. The implementing GEPs call in the new Horizon Europe Widera work programme is substantially smaller than in Horizon 2020... Projects can now only aks from between 500 000 to 1 million and only 3 million in total is available. This is a massive reduction of support for European institutions wanting to develop GEPs..

joerg's picture

This is really a central point, I agree with Clemens and Ines who raise the same point. It so happens that measures that should benefit women become an additional burden. This is not only true for Athena SWAN but I would say for any scenario that we envision. Gender equality work in many countries is "voluntary" work, i.e. it lacks dedicated resources and is carried out as additional tasks and responsibilities by academic staff, mostly women. Whatever the scenario, it will be fundamental to put in place the corresponding support structure that allows not only to apply for this certificate but actually experience the certificate as a device that can empower equality stakeholders in RPOs. This will cost money.

Rachel Palmén's picture

This is a general question to the organisers. Is there a possibility of developing a hybrid of the three scenarios which for example might take something positive from each so, for example, from the Athena Swan  (i.e. three stage classification system - Bronze, Silver, Gold) and then bring this together with a more comprehensive approach (scenario 1) e.t.c... 

Agostina_Allori's picture

Hi Rachel, this is a really good comment, thank you. One of the ideas behind the new EU GECAS is to build on the lessons learnt from previous schemes. 

ismadariaga's picture

Higher education is motly public in Europe, unlike in the UK.

The uK has a tradition of privatising so many things, which is very different from the rest of us in Europe.

I think a European sh¡cheme should be manages by either a public institution or a semi.public institution.

IT should in no way be managed by a private organization and even less by a non European one.

I doubt that the big important European public universities would let themselves be evaluated by some organization that is not itself of similar standing

Rachel Palmén's picture

completely agree...

ismadariaga's picture

This should be manages by an organizations let say of a standing and reputations such as the ERC, or simmilar that we could think of.

No way a UK non-profit can evaluate for instance ETH or Humboldt University. This is not serious

Rachel Palmén's picture

Just thinking about other possible bodies to manage this scheme: apart from the ERC what other organisations do you think could manage it? Could the Commission create a 'body' with this as its prime respsonsibility?? 

joerg's picture

I think it is really helpful to have a clearer view on the possible lack of "acceptance" - to put it mildly - of Athena SWAN in some other European countries. If the evaluation would be carried out by a public EU body of similar standing, I think we still need to consider the association with even the name Athena SWAN which is clearly linked to the UK context. This not only applies to Athena SWAN but also to other certificates from other countries - which always would generate some reservations from other national contexts.

ismadariaga's picture

The Commission could do this, but it would be highly inefficient and burocratic

ismadariaga's picture

Absolutely Jorg, I totally agree, any association with Athena Swan should be avoided.

This has to be designed as a European thing. European, European. 

Agostina_Allori's picture

Thank you all for your participation. We will need to bring this e-discussion to a close but the thread will remain active for a week, during which we encourage you to share further. Concluding remarks will then be posted.

All the best,


ismadariaga's picture

I am surprised the CAsper project is even considering building on the Athena Swan, at this stage of the project. Has nobody thought before I did about the political implications of this before?

joerg's picture

We have thought about different scenarios apart from Athena SWAN but propose this as a third scenario because several countries are considering adopting Athena SWAN - which is a reality, and because it is the most well known. 

Charoula Tzanakou's picture

I am Charoula Tzanakou, I have research certificaiton and award schemes with a focus on Athena SWAN. I have been part of the CASPER Consortium leading the fieldwork for understanding what lessons can be learnt and what we should consider for a Europe wide scheme. Having been based in the UK for a long time and involved with Athena SWAN for a decade, i have seen the benefits and challenges of Athena SWAN. It is not a perfect scheme but it has raised awareness and discussions about issues that were never discussed before in academia. It has also raised a lot of important points that we need to consider when we are developing new schemes and/or adjusting existing ones so we should not disregard this experience and lessons learnt.It does rely on membership fees but from my understanding universities in Europe (including public universities) have been members of various associations where they pay fees for various services so i am not entirely clear why this membership system seems so distant. In addition, it should be mentioned that Ireland which has recently adopted Athena SWAN, took a holistic approach to transferring this framework to its higher education sector. Institutional access to Athena SWAN Ireland is provided by the Higher Education Authority.  Ireland has been a particularly good case to look at how they have worked in adopting Athena SWAN in their own context.  As Jorg mentioned, many countries have adopted/or adjusted Athena SWAN, Ireland, Australia, US and Canada (in pilot) but quite a few european countries have looked or looking at Athena SWAN as a potential useful scheme to emulate or transfer in their own national context. 

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1 year 1 month ago
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1 year 1 month ago
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