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The 2018 USS Strike: AthenaSWAN

A selection of content from the 'Great University Strike of 2018'

About Athena SWAN

‚ÄčThe Equality Challenge Unit's Athena SWAN charter was set up to recognise the work undertaken by women, whether they are lecturers, researchers or professional/support staff working in all subjects at all levels (staff and students) to address gender equality more broadly .  As the website states:

ECU’s Athena SWAN Charter covers women (and men where appropriate) in:

  • academic roles in STEMM and AHSSBL

  • professional and support staff

  • trans staff and students

In relation to their:

  • representation

  • progression of students into academia

  • journey through career milestones

  • working environment for all staff

Standing for Equality

A significant theme of the #USSstrikes has been the impact of the pension proposals on the already under-represented sections of society such as BAME women and those that are primary carers. Much as been written about the pay gap between men and women - see links below for additiona information.

UCU on Equal Pay

"Although equal pay legislation has been in place for over 40 years, the gender pay gap in Britain remains the highest in the European Union at over 18%. In higher education, for all academics the gender pay gap is 12.0% and in further education in England the average gender gap is 2.3% but there is a wide variation and nationally equates to women being paid a total of £16.7m less than their male counterparts."  More information here.

Open Letter to the Equality Challenge Unit and all UK University Leaders 14.03.18

To the Equality Challenge Unit and all UK university leaders;

In the context of the current industrial dispute around proposed changes to the USS pension scheme, signatories of this Open Letter wish to highlight that pensions are an important equality issue. The Chartered Insurance Institute has calculated, for example, that the average pension wealth of women in the UK by the age of 60-64 is one-quarter of the average amount held by men. Black and Asian pensioners are also at greater risk of living in poverty in the UK. It is likely that the proposed changes to the USS pension scheme will exacerbate existing intersecting inequalities related to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, that the Equalities Challenge Unit seeks to address within our sector. Yet there has apparently been no assessment of the impact of the proposed USS changes on these inequalities.

On average, women have a smaller pension than men in any system. This is partly a consequence of gendered discrimination in the labour market, which means women earn less than men (Athena Swan Principle #4). It is also a result of gender blind pension systems that ignore the gendered occupational life course, taking the experience of men as default when formulating pension policy. Women are more likely to leave the formal labour market for caring roles, which reduces both their income over the life course and their career progression. Also, when they do return to the labour market, they tend to take up part-time work, due to caring responsibilities. Women’s incomes also suffer from the increasing use of casualised labour and short-term contracts (Athena Swan Principle #6). Women’s life expectancy is longer than men’s and therefore women tend to rely on pensions for longer. We also know that as ‘racism is an everyday facet of UK society’ (Race Equality Charter guiding principle), the ethnic pay gap leaves BME women with even lower salaries, and lower pension incomes. 

The shift from a final salary scheme within USS to an average salary scheme is already likely to be contributing to increased pension inequality, because women tend to get promoted later than men (Athena Swan Principle #2), meaning that their career average salary will be lower on average. Reasons why women are likely to be hardest hit by any movement towards a defined contribution pension system are explained in a blog by Martin Heneghan, Jo Grady and Liam Foster. We have also created a repository of resources on these topics at:

Pension reforms are therefore directly relevant to the Athena SWAN Charter which states that by being part of Athena SWAN "institutions are committing to a progressive charter; adopting these principles within their policies, practices, action plans and culture” as well as the Race Equality Charter which is based on a guiding principle that “solutions to racial inequalities ... are aimed at achieving long-term institutional culture change."

Signatories of this Open Letter believe that the proposed USS pension reforms are directly in conflict with the Athena SWAN Charter and the Race Equality Charter. The proposed changes and the way in which many university leaders have approached the reform are specifically in breach of principles 8 and 9 of the Athena SWAN Charter:
Principle 8: We acknowledge that advancing gender equality demands commitment and action from all levels of the organisation and in particular active leadership from those in senior roles.Principle 9: We commit to making and mainstreaming sustainable structural and cultural changes to advance gender equality, recognising that initiatives and actions that support individuals alone will not sufficiently advance equality.

Supporting equality must be about concrete outcomes, not sheaves of paper and public relations. The proposed reform of the USS pension scheme is an opportunity for institutions with Athena Swan awards to demonstrate leadership in this area and to act as a shining beacon for other pension schemes. 

Signatories are also concerned about the conflict of interest in the overlap between ECU and Universities UK governance, which, according to the Universities UK 2017 Annual report, have ‘trustees in common’ (p. 45). If Athena Swan is to be more than a strategic brand enhancement, it must demonstrate its independence and commit to working towards the demonstration of that independence in the future. That includes a rigorous investigation of the equalities implications of pension changes. 

During the UCU strike action in February-March 2018, some universities have engaged in punitive actions against their staff. This included the introduction of heavy financial penalties on staff taking 'action short of a strike' (ASOS) if they refused to reschedule lectures (and so on) or cover for absent colleagues. We believe that these threats have had a disproportionately stressful effect on women wishing to take strike action, for example those about to go on maternity leave, just returning to work following maternity leave, and on short-term or precarious contracts. These actions are therefore also in breach of Athena Swan principles. 

As signatories to this letter, we:

1. Demand that an equality impact assessment be conducted, by independent experts, for any proposed change to the USS pension scheme.This should investigate a range of factors such as, but not limited to, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity, in accordance with Athena Swan principle #10. 

2. Call on the Equality Challenge Unit to:

  • publicly recognise that pensions are an equality issue; and
  • revise the Athena SWAN Charter to include a new Principle along the lines of: “We commit to tackling the equality implications of pension policies”; and 
  • commit to demonstrating and structurally enshrining its independence from Universities UK.

3. Call on all leaders (Vice Chancellors, Presidents, Principals...) of UK Universities who are holders of Athena Swan awards or seeking to obtain an award to:

  • Make a public statement recognising that pensions are an equality issue; and
  • state that their university will oppose changes to pension schemes which are likely to exacerbate inequalities or which have not been subject to an equality impact assessment; and
  • if invited to respond to UUK’s survey on the future of USS, clarify the role that their Equality and Diversity and Inclusion committee and/or Equality leads had in formulating this response.

4. Signatories pledge not to participate in activities related to Athena Swan awards at our own universities until we are satisfied that the Equality Challenge Unit and our own universities demonstrate that they recognise that pensions are an equality issue and address the points above. This clause will not apply to signatories for whom undertaking Athena SWAN activities is a major part of their job description. 

We are committed to promoting equality and diversity and will therefore continue to work on equality issues at our institutions outside of the Athena Swan Scheme. 



Response to the 'Open Letter' by the Equalities Challenge Unit 16.03.18

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 GuildHE 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 ( on which updates on the timings and structure of these consultations will be shared.