Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Update as we coming up on 2000 Signatures

We are just coming up on 2000 signatures to our open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit and University VCs, available here: https://platform.organise.org.uk/campaigns/open-letter-to-equality-challenge-unit.  At this moment it's at 1935.  If you have not already done so we invite you to read and (if you agree) sign the letter.  If you have signed it, now that strikers is back at work at most Universities, we invite you to share the letter with others at your institution who may not be on twitter.

Other pieces of news.  Claire Marris (initiator of the letter) has resigned from her Athena SWAN activities at City, and you can read her resignation letter. And the Changing Universities Cultures organisation has withdrawn from working with UUK, explicitly stating that "pensions are a key equality issue"  and citing the brilliant article on the topic by Martin Henaghan, Jo Grady and Liam Foster.

We have tried to apply rigorously a policy of what you might call "Yes platforming".  As long as people are courteous and reasonable in debate (everybody has been so far) we have no intention of silencing them.  In our previous post we published the response from ECU to us, and invited debate.  So far my impression (speaking personally) is that the response was particularly lacking in our fundamental point  that pensions are an equalities issue.

Less obviously if you don't obsessively follow twitter, we made sure to retweet a critical tweet asking people not to sign our letter by Francine Morris. Francine thinks it's wrong to withdraw from Athena SWAN work, and we understand that this is an important dilemma that we wish everybody to grapple with for themselves.

Finally, we have been somewhat taken aback at the uptake we have had on our letters. We invite people to continue sharing and signing the letter, and over the coming week or so will be working out what steps we should take in delivering the letter more formally to Vice Chancellors and inviting formal responses.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Response to our Open Letter from the Equality Challenge Unit

The Equality Challenge Unit has just responded to our open letter, and we commend and thank them for doing so in such a short time.

Their response was published at this link:


As stated in our FAQ, we do not intend to form any official judgement on behalf of the USSAthenaSwan team as to whether any given response is satisfactory. We invite anybody to comment on this post to discuss the content of the response.

For the convenience of readers of this blog and to ensure wide dissemination we are reproducing the text below, unedited.  We recognise that we are doing this without permission so will obviously immediately delete the text below if requested by ECU.

ECU’s response to the open letter regarding the USS pension scheme and ECU’s equality charters

Published: 16/03/2018

Through the key principles in our Equality Charters, Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) recognises that progressive institutional policies, practices, actions and culture contribute towards gender and race equality. We recognise the potential impact of proposed changes to the pension scheme on women and BME staff in particular, and welcome UUK’s commitment to undertaking an equality impact assessment of the proposed changes. It is our understanding consultation will be undertaken with all USS members, and we encourage members to take this opportunity to raise their concerns directly with the USS, and well as continuing to engage in discussions and consultations within their institutions, who are members of UUK.
UUK and Guild HE are the original subscribing member of various UK higher education sector agencies including ECU, Higher Education Academy (HEA), Higher Education Careers Service Unit, Higher Education Statistics Agency, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE), Office of the Independent Adjudicator, Quality Assurance Agency, UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and Jisc.
As a subscribing member, and accordance with ECU’s Articles of Association(section 17), UUK’s membership can only be terminated if either UUK ceases to exist or UUK resigns from the board. This year, ECU is merging with LFHE and the HEA to become Advance HE. UUK and GuildHE will be the subscribing members of Advance HE.
ECU’s Equality Charters operate independently of UUK and are assessed by peer-review panels, not ECU staff. Panels are composed of academics and technical services staff, human resources or equality and diversity practitioners with experience of higher education, other professional services staff with experience of higher education, specialists and students.
The Athena SWAN and Race Equality Charters provide frameworks with which to identify issues and barriers to equality and to develop and commit to actions addressing these issues. Although by no means the ultimate objective, charter awards recognise and reward the commitment and action evidenced by institutions and departments toward equality, and provide a rigorous and progressive standard with which to maintain and promote progress.
Additionally, ECU has formalised processes for objections to applications and withdrawal of awards which can be found on our website, which enable us to take action if information comes to light which is material to the applicant’s eligibility for the award.
We encourage colleagues to continue to engage with equality, diversity and inclusion activities in their institution. Thanks to the hard work and efforts of engaged colleagues across the country, there is a vast amount of good practice underway both within the framework of the Athena SWAN and Race Equality Charters and beyond, and we encourage colleagues to continue to drive this good practice forward. We recognise participating in a self-assessment team to prepare charter submissions is a big commitment and we advise that this work should be recognised accordingly and appropriately in any workload allocation model, and through recognition in appraisal and promotion systems.
The Athena SWAN Charter is founded on ten high-level principles, demonstrating institutions’ commitment to acknowledging and addressing broad issues known to create barriers to gender equality across the sector, including the gender pay gap.  With regards to revising the Athena SWAN framework, ECU is currently commissioning an independent evaluation of the Athena SWAN Charter to build on previous assessments conducted in 2011 and 2013.
Parallel to this, over the coming months ECU will be setting up a task and finish group composed of sector leaders to review the Athena SWAN Charter processes and will be consulting with the sector, particularly with a view to addressing concerns whilst upholding its integrity and progressive nature. Colleagues are encouraged to subscribe to our mailing list (athenaswan@jiscmail.ac.uk) on which updates on the timings and structure of these consultations will be shared.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Open Letter is now Live - and the brilliant blog post on the topic.

We are delighted to be able to say that our Open Letter on pensions and inequality to the Equality Challenge Unit and all Universities in the UK is now live.
Athena as a Swan, by Erin Robbins

The letter is here:


You can sign it at that link. We welcome any and all to sign it, but please do note that we ask that if you sign it you might be committing yourself to stopping working on certain Athena SWAN activities if you are not satisfied with the response.

Also we pay tribute to this wonderful blog post: "Women to be hardest hit by proposed university pension scheme changes" by Martin HeneghanJo Grady and Liam Foster, also published today, which gives a lot of background on the issue.

Finally, we have posted some questions here but get in touch to ask more: @USSAthenaSwan

A Swan on a beach, photo by Alexander Konovalov

Sources and References for our Open Letter on Pensions and Equality

Sources Cited in the Open Letter

‘Women to be hardest hit by proposed university pension scheme changes’
Martin Heneghan, Jo Grady and Liam Foster, 2018

‘Old Age Poverty in OECD countries and the Issue of Gender Pension Gaps’
2015 CESifo Group briefing paper

‘Poverty in Later Life: The Facts’
2017 Age UK briefing paper

‘Health Expectancies in the United Kingdom, Great Britain, England, Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland’
Office for National Statistics dataset

‘Closing the Pensions Gap: Understanding Women’s Attitudes to Pensions Savings’
2016 Fawcett Society report (Executive Summary and Key Findings)
(See also: Foster, L., & Heneghan, M. (2017). Pensions planning in the UK: A gendered challenge. Critical Social Policy https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018317726639)

Universities UK 2017 Annual Report and consolidated financial statements

Additional Resources

Ghilarducci, T. (2008). When I'm sixty-four: The plot against pensions and the plan to save them. Princeton University Press. See also: http://teresaghilarducci.org

Grady, J., (2015) Gendering Pensions: Making Women Visible Gender Work and Organization 22(5): 445–458.

Foster, L. (2010) Towards a new political economy of pensions? The implications for women Critical Social Policy 30(1): 27 – 47

Gardiner, J., Robinson, A.M., and Fakhfakh, F. Exploring the private pension gender gap and occupation in later working life. Work, Employment and Society 30(4): 687 – 707.

Strauss, K. (2014) 'Accessing pension resources: the right to equality inside and out of the labour market’. International Journal of Law in Context 10(04): 522-537

Strauss, K. (2009) ‘Gender, Risk and Occupational Pensions’, In Clark, Gordon L., Dixon, Adam and Monk, Ashby H. (eds), Managing Financial Risks: From Global to Local. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 258–279

Vlachantoni, A. (2012) Financial inequality and gender in older people. Maturitas 72(2): 104 – 107.

(Thanks to Siobhan McGrath for collating the first version of this list)

Monday, 12 March 2018

FAQs about the USS Athena SWAN letter

Strike placard by Emily Baughan
Version 1.0 of FAQ by Ian Gent, 12 March 2018

What is the twitter hashtag for this effort?


Where is the letter?

You can find the letter here:


How do I sign the letter?

Sign the letter at the same link as above, at URL https://platform.organise.org.uk/campaigns/open-letter-to-equality-challenge-unit

I'm not on strike/not at a striking university/not in USS/... Can I sign?

Yes please, if you agree with the letter. The letter is purposefully drafted to enable staff from post92 unis and other unis not on strike to sign. The only difference is that we don't ask for a response to the query about response to the UUK survey. 

How will I know if my institution has responded?

We intend to put up institutional responses here, but we certainly don't demand that they contact us directly.  We will also be happy to post institutional responses here (unedited) and links to responses (e.g. posted on their website).  

Who will decide if my institution's response is satisfactory?

You will. We believe that if there is no response, that will be unsatisfactory, but given a response it will be for you to judge if you find it acceptable or not. We will allow comments on the blog discussing what is said, but we believe that it is not appropriate for us to form a judgement that University X's response is satisfactory while University Y's is not.

When should I stop undertaking from my Athena SWAN activities?

If you are currently undertaking Athena SWAN activities you may wish to resign immediately from them, pending a satisfactory response from your institution.  However, we also recognise that some staff are currently writing submissions for a looming deadline in April 2018, and staff in this situation may feel they would be letting colleagues down if they immediately stopped work and then started again on receipt of a satisfactory letter. Therefore, you should form your own judgement as to when best to step down from your activities.  

If I resign from Athena SWAN activities, aren't I letting women and other disadvantaged groups down?

We recommend that you continue working on activities at your institution that are focussed on equality, with the exception of putting together, drafting, commenting on, and reviewing Athena SWAN applications.  If in doubt please use your judgement. For example, we do not suggest that you stop working on a worthwhile equality initiative that was proposed as part of your most recent Athena SWAN submission.

I'm paid to work on Athena SWAN at my institution, so cannot withdraw from activities. What do I do?

If you are in this position we have explicitly included the proviso that contractually obligated staff can sign to agree with the principles stated in the letter but will not withdraw from work related to Athena SWAN.  Our informal opinion is that this would not apply to a typical academic member of staff who is (for example) the Athena SWAN lead for their department, but we are obviously not in a position to give you any kind of formal advice.

I've decided that I can't sign the letter because I don't want to resign from Athena SWAN activities.

We absolutely respect your decision and in that case you are absolutely right not to sign the letter. In that case we do hope that you will raise the issues from the letter with the relevant people at your institution, e.g. the E&D lead or Athena SWAN chair locally.

Our university responded 10 minutes/hours/days ago and you haven't updated.

We are doing this on a purely voluntary basis (and will not accept advertising for this blog).  As of this writing, we are on strike so doing it completely unpaid, but on return to work will doubtless have multiple other activities to undertake.

What is your comments policy?

We welcome discussion and comments on this blog. We will remove advertising comments and comments of inappropriate tone (by our judgement).

How do I advertise on your blog?

We don't accept advertising and won't enable earnings options through the Blogger program. However, if you have an event or item for discussion that you think is of genuine interest to readers then please propose it to us.

Who wrote this letter?

The letter was proposed by Claire Marris, who received writing help from (in alphabetical order) Isabel Davis, Ian Gent, Jo Grady, and Siobhan McGrath. We also received helpful comments and changes from users who edited a Google Docs draft. We thank them anonymously but also will be happy to credit by name if you get in touch.

Introducing "University Pensions and Athena SWAN"

We have created this blog to publicise and track information about the linked topics of pensions in the university in the United Kingdom and equality (of all kinds) in universities.

The particular focus for founding this blog is the current dispute over the USS pension scheme, leading to an ongoing strike within many universities.  We feel that the proposed change is potentially more detrimental to women and other disadvantaged groups than it is to men, and that this has not been properly taken into account. We also feel that since most (possibly all) relevant universities hold "Athena SWAN" awards, this is an important issue which should be relevant for those awards.

Therefore we are writing an open letter which will emphasise these concerns in much more depth, and invite people to sign it.

You can track activity on this topic on twitter using the hashtag #USSAthenaSWAN

Update as we coming up on 2000 Signatures

We are just coming up on 2000 signatures to our open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit and University VCs, available here:  https://plat...