King’s College London (Photo by tupungato)
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The subversion of Athena Swan

How trans activists turn public funding to push their agenda

From 2016 to 2020 the UK’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in effect required that institutions avoid gathering equalities data on sex if they wished to be eligible for research funding. This happened despite universities’ clear public sector equality duty to monitor data on the protected characteristic of sex.

How did this happen? In 2011 the NIHR announced that from 2016 only organisations with an Athena Swan Silver award would be eligible for funding. At the time, the Athena Swan charter was a scheme to promote women’s careers in Science, Technology, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM), and so who could object? NIHR could not have predicted that by 2016, gender-identity activists would have subverted Athena Swan to such an extent that it no longer collected data on sex.

In 2016 the organization running Athena Swan published new guidance on trans inclusion that declared it was “more inclusive” to gather data on gender identity rather than sex. Institutions were not strictly obliged to follow this guidance, but it would have been brave to do otherwise when substantial funding was at stake.

In a pattern that has become familiar, the guidance to drop sex in favour of gender identity was developed in consultation with trans-rights organizations but not with women’s groups or data experts. A few activists within universities were able to disproportionately influence policy. Without fanfare, universities stopped monitoring sex discrimination. 

A very human weakness: we will do anything for a gold star

Following criticism, Athena Swan has dialled back from complete capture by gender identity theory, reverting to recommending that equalities monitoring should include the protected characteristic of sex. But it remains committed to ensuring that the charter reflects “gender as a spectrum”.

How have university policies been subverted so successfully? By exploiting a very human weakness: we will do anything for a gold star. Universities send their policy documents on gender equality to Athena Swan in the hope of receiving a Bronze, Silver or Gold award. As a result, they lost sight of their own policy aims, outsourcing them to an external organisation.

This model is prevalent throughout higher education. It is shared by Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index and the Race Equality Charter as well as Athena Swan.

Synergies have developed between Athena Swan and the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index. As part of their Athena Swan applications, universities can promise to improve their Stonewall rankings, and as part of their Workplace Equality Index submission they may boast that they no longer monitor equality data by sex.

King’s College London’s 2021 Stonewall Workplace Equality Index submission trumpets that “King’s have been proactive and influential in the recent [Athena Swan] charter transformation and so impacts the entire sector. [Name redacted] was appointed both to their Statutory Equality Committee and chairs their Equality Strategic Advisory Group. She leverages her personal and King’s influence to ensure the charters recognise gender as a spectrum”. King’s achieved a gold award and 14th place in the Stonewall Top 100 Employer list and was ranked second  overall in the higher education sector.

Athena Swan’s decision to recognize gender as a spectrum was announced in 2020, and was justified by a “full consultation” conducted by an independent review from 2018 to 2020. It is striking that a sector-wide consultation, conducted concurrently with the public consultation on reform to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, concluded that the entire sector wanted gender to be viewed as a spectrum and failed even to mention the existence of the counter view that sex matters. This happened because the independent review ignored its own methodology. It held a series of focus groups to develop possible policy proposals, in which the issue of gender as a spectrum was never raised. The next stage of its review was a survey to test the possible policy proposals developed from the focus group suggestions. No questions about gender as a spectrum were included in this survey. Yet, because of a few survey responses pushing gender identity theory in response to unrelated questions, the independent review made treating gender as a spectrum its number one proposal. There was no opportunity for anyone to raise opposing views.

What does it mean in practice for a university to treat gender as a spectrum? The review did not make it clear. However, training materials for the revised Athena Swan charter suggest universities should put tampons in the men’s toilets, implying staff and students should be able to self-identify which facilities to use. In other words, the revised Athena Swan charter recommends universities eliminate single-sex spaces. Had the NIHR not dropped its requirement of Athena Swan Silver in 2020 to reduce bureaucracy during the COVID-19 pandemic, eliminating single-sex spaces could easily have become a de facto precondition of receiving NIHR research funding. 

Sensible equalities schemes can be hijacked by extremists

Athena Swan has provided a perfect vehicle for policy capture, which activists have been happy to exploit. The activists have even been remarkably open about their intentions. Tzanakou and Pearce have noted the “potential in utilizing Athena SWAN as a site of resistance and means to foster collective solidarity to work against neoliberal practices”. Sally Hines, a member of Athena Swan’s “Gender as a Spectrum” working group has blogged that its “recognition of sex and gender as existing on a spectrum” is a potential first step to a vision where all staff and students receive gender identity training that would “entail a discursive shift from anti-trans rhetoric as ‘opinion’”. Hines is well known to consider any feminism that does not acknowledge “transwomen are women” to be anti-trans.

The same outsourcing model is now being used in schools with schemes such as the “Stonewall School & College Champions Award” and “Gender Action. The latter ostensibly campaigns against the use of sexual stereotypes in schools, which sounds laudable. But the principal problem they list with such stereotypes is that they imply “a person’s biological sex is fixed”.

With the best intentions, our educational establishments are handing control of their policies and curricula to unaccountable private bodies. Membership of these schemes has encouraged universities to accept advice which encourages legally dubious actions, including misrepresenting the Equality Act 2010, failing to collect equalities data, and failing in their duties to ensure both freedom of belief and academic freedom. They have been willing to flout the law, and all in the hope of winning a gold star.

The case of Athena Swan shows that even equalities schemes which start with perfectly sensible goals can be hijacked by extremists. University leaders who think that delegating their vision for equalities work to external bodies is a safe option, should think again.

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