Tackling Gender Inequality in the History Department

Before Christmas, the History Department here at the University of Essex submitted an application for a Bronze Award from the Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN programme. We’ll find out at the end of April if we are successful, but I thought I’d provide some thoughts as to why we applied and give some background to the award we are applying for.

Athena SWAN began a programme to increase women’s participation in the STEMM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine. These subjects were traditionally male dominated at every level, but research showed that women were less likely than men to reach to the level of academic members of staff and even less likely to get to the top of their profession and become a Professor. The Athena SWAN programme was designed to help those subjects overcome such gender inequality. Since its launch in 2005, academic Departments in STEMM subjects have been able to apply for an award that proves their commitment to ensuring women have an equal chance of succeeding as men. Athena SWAN is not concerned with favouring women over men, but rather understanding the cultural and workplace factors that have traditionally benefited men and discriminated against women. You can read more about the principles behind Athena Swan here. Since 2013, Athena SWAN has been expanded to cover the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, Business and Law (AHSSBL) disciplines, and in 2014 the University of Essex was one of only five Universities to receive an award for work expanding the aims of Athena SWAN into all subject areas. Two staff members from the History Department were involved in the Self-Assessment Process.

At first glance, the History Department might not seem to have the same issues as STEMM areas. After all, there are many more women working in history than in the sciences. In fact, History here at Essex has had three female Heads of Department since 1993 – very few Departments across the country could equal that figure. There are also a lot more female history students than in many of the STEMM subjects. Yet many workplace cultures have the same problems: structures that seem to benefit those with characteristics usually associated with men (such as ‘self-assertiveness’ and ‘confidence’).

So for gender equality to come in the workplace we need a system which encourages and rewards all the activities of all staff and which seeks to both eliminate the barriers to women’s careers and provides a supportive atmosphere that allows people to flourish. This is where Athena SWAN comes in. Since 2014, the University of Essex has worked hard as part of its Institutional Bronze Award to change the structures and practices that entrench gender bias. For example, an analysis of the pay of Professorial staff led the University to announce in 2015-16 that it would remove the gender pay gap at Professorial level by raising female professors’ pay rise – the first University to do this.  These actions can be attributed directly to the University’s desire to tackle inequality on campus and outside it: and it is these values that underpin the University’s support for Departments applying for Athena SWAN recognition.

So when the History Department thought about Athena SWAN we were aware that traditional working cultures have been inherently discriminatory against women. We also knew that of the senior Professors in the Department, nearly all of them are men. But we wanted to find out if there any barriers to women succeeding in our Department, and to tear them down if there were. Quite simply, we must be able to honestly state that men and women have genuinely equal chances of promotion, and that the excellent staff in the Department are properly rewarded for the work they did.

We also wanted to be absolutely confident that we were providing our students with a learning environment that was supportive of everyone. So the process of applying for our award involved us investigating if there were any barriers to the success of our students. This started with the realisation that of the students studying History at Essex, rather fewer of them were women than might be expected by looking at both the subject nationally and at other Departments in the University. Across the country, around 55% of History students are women. At Essex, that figure is around 45%. Not a vast difference perhaps, but one that made us think: was there more we could do to ensure women wanted to apply to study here?

So, we seemed to be confronted by some key facts, or rather one basic fact – we didn’t have as many women as men either teaching modules or taking them. So we thought we should try to understand why this was the case and to think about ways of dealing with it. For the historians here at Essex, it was an affront to our core values that inequality might exist in a Department that prides itself in researching the history of ‘ordinary’ people and their struggles in the world. In a future post, I’ll describe how we did this, but I’ll finish here at the point when we had taken the first and most important step: understanding that there was a problem and taking the responsibility both for the fact that the problem existed and for dealing with it – because nothing changes unless people are prepared to work together in order to bring that change about. As of March 2017, no History Department in England holds an Athena SWAN award. We hope that changes very soon.

Matthew Grant, convener of the History Department Athena SWAN self-assessment team.