Scheme designed to promote women in academia has been 'destroyed' by trans lobby, critics warn

·3 min read

A university scheme designed to promote women in academia has been “destroyed” by the trans lobby, feminist professors have claimed.

The scheme, Athena Swan, is offered by Advance HE - formerly the Higher Education Academy - a charity which advises educational institutions. In 2005, it established the Athena Swan Charter as a framework to support and transform gender equality within higher education and research.

The framework is used across the world to advance the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment. Institutions which sign up to the framework can apply for Athena Swan awards recognising their gender equality efforts.

However, Advance HE is now recommending that data be collected exclusively on gender-identity, not sex. Its website states: “Advance HE recommends asking a question about gender rather than asking a question about sex. This ensures equality efforts are… inclusive of a diverse range of gender identities.”

Feminist academics have warned that it is “ridiculous” for data on both gender and sex to be conflated.

Kathleen Stock - Andrew Crowley
Kathleen Stock - Andrew Crowley

Prof Alice Sullivan, professor of sociology at University College London (UCL) and Dr John Armstrong, senior lecturer in financial mathematics, probability and statistics, co-authored a blog post published by the British Educational Research Association (BERA), saying: “Athena Swan’s embrace of ‘gender as a spectrum’ appears incompatible with its founding purpose.

“This raises uncomfortable questions about the tendency of the HE [higher education] sector to outsource its thinking about equalities to external bodies.”

Responding to the blog post, Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor who quit her post at the University of Sussex after becoming the subject of a campaign by students who opposed her views on gender, agreed with the authors, saying: “The founding premise of Athena Swan destroyed, in other words.”

“It’s ridiculous,” she told The Telegraph. “It changes the subject. Your data [on systematic discrimination of women] is no longer robust.”

Dr Armstrong added: “I think it’s absolutely fantastic to collect data on gender identity and sex. But they should absolutely not be conflated.”

Advance HE was contacted for a comment in response to the blog post but did not respond.

'We strongly advocate open, constructive debate'

The organisation has previously said: “Seeking accreditation against the UK Athena Swan Charter is entirely voluntary and not prescriptive. It is no longer linked to funding... We strongly advocate open, constructive debate both within and between HE institutions on these challenging issues.”

Concerns about the programme mirror those about the advice provided to businesses and public bodies by the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall and its Diversity Champions scheme.

The scheme is a paid-for programme which advises organisations on creating inclusive workplaces. It also has a separate workplace equality index, in which it scores employers on their diversity efforts.

Critics of the programme have claimed it is ignoring the concerns of women by promoting the opening up of previously women-only spaces to those who self-identify as female.

The BBC recently said it would leave both schemes because its participation had raised questions about whether it could be impartial on issues which the LGBTQ+ charity is campaigning on.

Other organisations including Channel 4, Ofcom, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Cabinet Office have also made similar decisions.

Stonewall did not respond to requests for comment.