Confessions of an Athena Swan chair

Serving on an EDI or gender-equity committee can be not only rewarding but strategic for the advancement of your professional journey, writes Jana Sadeh. Here’s how to do it well, based on her experience

Jana Sadeh's avatar
23 May 2024
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Group of professional people in a meeting
image credit: iStock/fizkes.

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Southampton logo

You may also like

‘Gender equality is more rewarding than just ticking a box’
4 minute read
Tundra swans flying in formation

If you are reading this, it is likely that you that sit on, or chair, an Athena Swan or wider equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) committee in a higher education institution. In addition, odds are that you are probably female or a member of an under-represented minority in higher education.

If I have both these points right, it is not because of my psychic abilities, it is because research has shown that these groups are more likely to be performing service duties internally within higher education institutions. This leads to a paradox where the very groups these committees are meant to support are being disproportionately burdened with leadership responsibilities that divert their time away from research and stunt their career progression.

This phenomenon is well known in higher education and often leads to misguided, if well-meaning, advice to avoid such committees. However, as someone with a positive experience of chairing an Athena Swan committee for three years (and acting as deputy chair for 18 months previously), I disagree with this advice. Such roles can be rewarding and strategic, not only for the advancement of EDI work but also for your professional journey.

As with many opportunities, they are what you make them. The role itself is multifaceted; it involves feeding into the wider gender/EDI agenda for the academic unit, convening and chairing committee meetings, encouraging colleagues to support the activities of the committee, supporting colleagues to realise their objectives, bridging the gap between the realities on the ground and the experiences of senior management, mobilising funds for activities, being a safe space for colleagues and students to bring challenging work experiences, representing the gender/EDI agenda on committees and panels and, the hardest part of all, generating sufficient positive energy to drive the agenda forward through institutional hurdles.

Reflecting on my own experience in the role, I believe these things will lead to a successful experience as an Athena Swan (or wider EDI) committee chair.

Fully understand your remit

Sometimes these roles are clearly outlined, with clear job descriptions and remits. However, many times, especially if this is a new role, these may be vague. The more quickly you understand the role – who you answer to, what resources (including budget) are available to support you, what you are expected to achieve – the easier your transition into the chair will be. You should understand the boundaries of the role from the start. Asking questions is not a sign of lack of knowledge or understanding but one of an astute leader who realises what is important for the success of a role.

You do not have to be a detective here; your line manager should be able to clearly articulate all the above. From my experience, however, this information is typically provided only if it is clearly asked for. People may assume it is common knowledge or they may not have time to articulate these parameters themselves.

If this is a new role, you should jointly create the job description together with your line manager.

Understand your limitations

Knowing what is outside your sphere of influence is as important as understanding what you are there to do. Often EDI committees (rightly) articulate the myriad issues that require attention and then attempt to tackle them all. Even if you are operating at an institutional level, some things will be outside your control. This list gets longer the more concentrated your focus is.

Concentrate on what you can do. Getting hung up on things you cannot change may be demoralising for you and the entire committee. This can lead to people feeling as if nothing they can do will have an impact. This is not the case. You will find that even small changes, such as initiating open and honest conversations about the promotions landscape, make a big difference to women and minorities in higher education, breaking down barriers to siloed information that was previously only discussed over late-night beers that those too busy with raising children miss out on.

Pass the challenges you are unable to tackle up to individuals who have the power to do so. This involves nurturing internal networks within your institution and may even be an impetus to create new networks.

Mobilise others

Let other people find their strengths and bring them to the table. The role of a chair is often to identify the skill set in the room and let people shine in the tasks that come easily to them. This is more art than science, but one-to-one conversations with colleagues can shed light on what elements of work bring them joy. You can also simply ask people to pick the tasks they prefer from a list of things that need doing.

By its very nature, EDI work is about changing the way we all work; you need people to buy into the ethos of the work, and it should be a team effort. The best contribution the chair can make is linking the right person to the right task, as well as identifying the tasks that have no champion and filling that gap. You cannot do this alone.

Self-preservation is not a dirty word

These roles can be exhausting and may monopolise your time. Take care of yourself on the journey, set clear time boundaries around the role, and ring-fence other career objectives that matter for your progression, so they aren’t neglected. The first thing they teach in first-aid courses is that if helping someone else puts you at risk, don’t do it. You are probably in this role because you care about others, but you must make sure you take care of yourself, too. Even if it means saying “no”.

Time management is a unicorn; I am not sure anyone you ask will tell you they have found it. As an economist, I find that thinking of opportunity cost, the things I sacrifice to take on extra work, helps me put things into perspective – whether this is finishing other tasks, having time to nurture my professional development or even time with family. If I am giving up something more valuable to me, the trade-off may not be worth it.

I wish you the best of luck in your role. I enjoyed every minute – even the tortured hours writing accreditation documents (although this is only in hindsight). I learned crucial information about my institution, about the structures that govern it, and about the people within it and the things that matter to them. These roles can be wonderful opportunities to grow and bring about positive change.

Jana Sadeh is the undergraduate programmes coordinator in the department of economics at the University of Southampton.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site