An Athena SWANsong
The equalities scheme threatens the intellectual foundations of Irish institutions
The entire higher education sector in Ireland has become swamped in bureaucracy. The administration of an “equalities” scheme threatens the intellectual foundation of Irish universities, sucks up valuable resources, promotes ideology as fact, reinterprets Irish legislation to suit its own aims and objectives, involves the collection of unreliable data, and suffocates the open exchange of ideas that is the well-spring of a healthy functioning democracy.
In the UK, the Athena SWAN Charter was launched in 2005 with the stated aim of supporting women working in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM). In Ireland, the Centre for Women in Science and Engineering Research (WiSER) at Trinity College Dublin identified a need for such a scheme in Ireland. This eventually led to the launch of the Athena SWAN Ireland Charter in February 2015.
The insistence on the importance of Athena SWAN has been reiterated in two separate Higher Education Authority National Reviews of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions in 2016 and in 2022.
The charter is operated by the UK based charity Advance HE, which recorded an income of almost £16 million in the year up to 31 July 2022. Advance HE has 150 employees, one of whom is listed as having “total benefits” of £200–250k. Advance HE was registered as a limited company in Ireland in September 2021 with an address in Cork city. However, a company report dated March 2023 observes that it is a dormant company.
It is now compulsory for Irish higher education institutions (HEIs) to sign up to the Athena SWAN Ireland Charter, which is centrally funded by the Higher Education Authority. Participation is also necessary to be eligible for research funding from all of Ireland’s major research funding bodies.
The Athena SWAN Ireland Charter has evolved from its original aim of advancing the careers of women in STEM disciplines to now cover equality more broadly, with consideration of all disciplines and all staff. Engagement with the charter involves a huge workload, entailing the development of complex award applications.
Some action plans are as long as a typical novel
Athena SWAN awards are graded Bronze, Silver and Gold. HEIs begin at the Bronze level and work up towards Gold. Each award is valid for four years and then must be renewed or upgraded. Award applications involve the collection and analysis of large amounts of data, the evaluation of policies and practices, and the development of a comprehensive action plan. This process can take a year (or more). Some action plans are as long as a typical novel, although word count limits have been stipulated in more recent years.
Unlike in Ireland, participation in the Athena SWAN Charter in the UK is optional. In 2011, the UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) announced that from 2016 eligibility for funding would be contingent on HEIs holding an Athena Swan Silver award, but this requirement was dropped in 2020 as part of measures to reduce levels of bureaucracy.
Engagement with the scheme involves signing up to the Athena SWAN Ireland Charter principles. The original ten principles focused primarily on women and included a commitment to overcome obstacles and challenges faced by women in HEIs. The word “women” was mentioned in those principles six separate times. The new 2021 charter framework principles do not mention the word “women” even once. This signals the scheme’s new trajectory.
The 2021 framework requires HEIs to commit to “fostering collective understanding that individuals have the right to determine and affirm their gender” as well as to implementing policies and practices that consider the “needs of trans and non-binary people”. In effect, this means Irish HEIs must develop policies focused on gender identity. There is no requirement to develop policies focusing on the needs of women.
Even in the early years of the Athena SWAN Ireland Charter, applications for awards included “gender identity and expression” (GIE) policies. One of the first of these, developed at University College Dublin (UCD) in 2017, states that an example of “unlawful discrimination” is “refusing to address a person by their correct gender pronoun or new name”. Other HEIs followed suit.
In 2018, The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland launched its policy (which features the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland logo on its cover) and uses phrases identical to the UCD policy in relation to the use of pronouns. Trinity College Dublin, one year later, published its policy, which uses “preferred pronoun” instead of “correct gender pronoun”. It also asserts that a refusal to use these pronouns is an example of “unlawful discrimination”. In 2023, South East Technological University made the same claim. This month, Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee clarified that it is not unlawful to refuse to use preferred pronouns.
“Gender” is one of the nine protected characteristics in the Irish Equal Status Act, whereby the “gender ground” refers to the sex binary of “male or female”. This ground also includes protections for those who have undergone gender reassignment. Ireland’s Programme for Government 2020 did commit to amending the gender ground to ensure protections for “gender identity”, and a review of equality legislation commenced in 2021. The results of a public consultation were published in June 2023, but an amendment to the legislation has yet to be made.
The Government plan to include “gender identity” in equalities legislation may result in a requirement to use preferred pronouns, including new-fangled neopronouns such as “xe/xem/xyr” and noun-self pronouns (when nouns are adopted as pronouns) such as “kitty/kittyself”. This will likely prove challenging, particularly in educational settings.
The Athena SWAN Ireland Charter itself is at odds with Irish legislation
Whilst some Irish HEIs state that it is unlawful to refuse to use “preferred” pronouns, other HEIs have rewritten legislation. Dundalk Institute of Technology in its “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy” (2022) states that “gender identity” is a protected characteristic. The University of Galway GIE says that “gender-related harassment, which encompasses gender expression and gender identity, is unlawful”. Meanwhile the Technological University Dublin GIE policy (2021) states that people have a right to be “addressed by their preferred name and pronoun”.
The Athena SWAN Ireland Charter itself is at odds with Irish legislation. The stated objective of the 2021 framework is to support “gender equality work” across the equality grounds “enshrined in Irish legislation”, but “gender” in Irish law, as already stated, refers to the sex binary. One extensive Advance HE glossary designed to help HEIs with award applications defines gender as a “spectrum” of characteristics that are socially constructed. This definition impacts data collection.
Advance HE provides lots of information for applicants, including a guide about collecting and analysing data that links to the Higher Education Authority. According to the HEA glossary, gender refers to “Female, Male, Non-Binary and Other”. The HEA document outlining staff profiles by gender lists UCD as having 33 staff members — across academic, professional, management and support staff — whose gender is non-binary/other.
The HEA questionnaire asks, “what gender (if any) do you most identify with?” and gives an option to choose from “Female, Male, Non-Binary, Other”. One UCD academic, Lecturer in Philosophy Dr. Tim Crowley, informed me that he doesn’t “identify” with any gender. He rejects the notion that everyone has a gender identity, so he answered “other” to this question. He said, “Once further options are offered alongside ‘male’ or ‘female’, then the question becomes ideologically loaded. I’m unable in good conscience to tick ‘male’ when ‘male’ refers to an identity distinct from one’s sex.” Data being collected about gender in Irish HEIs is, therefore, unreliable.
The effectiveness of Athena SWAN in its original aim is also questionable. Research by Armstrong and Sullivan “did not find any impact of Athena Swan awards on the rate at which institutions move towards equality in the proportion of women in senior positions”. Instead it found that “institutions with greater gender inequality are more likely to be Athena Swan members and are more likely to hold an award”.
Armstrong and Sullivan also argue that Athena Swan “leads to groupthink and risks to academic freedom”. They point out that “no single, neutral conception of equality, diversity and inclusion exists, and universities must acknowledge that these concepts are contested”. I would add that the increasing focus on gender identity theory, at the expense of a focus on biological sex, points to an ideological framework.
John Inazu, professor of Law and Religion at Washington University, argues that “a central purpose, if not the central purpose, of the university is to be a place of facilitating disagreement across differences”. When any externally operated scheme imposes ideas and ideals on HEIs and is made compulsory, we lose the space that facilitates this disagreement, which is vital for a functioning and healthy democracy.
The operation of the Athena SWAN Charter Ireland syphons off valuable time, energy and financial resources from the third level education sector. It is linked to the misinterpretation of Irish legislation, the collection of unreliable data, and the imposition of contested theories and ideals. It has questionable outcomes and negatively impacts spaces that allow for intellectual flourishing in HEI settings. At minimum, a review of the Athena SWAN Ireland Charter is required. Consideration should also be given to the possibility that it is now time for an Athena SWAN song.
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