Kingston Union launches boycott of ‘tick box’ gender equality charter

Kingston’s branch of the University and College Union, Kingston (Kingston UCU) has asked its members to boycott the Athena SWAN charter, a framework used to support gender equality in higher education, until the union’s demands to Kingston University on gender equality are fulfilled.

Under the framework, universities can apply for Athena SWAN awards in recognition of their gender equality achievements. At Kingston University, at least three departments currently hold Bronze Awards, including within the Faculty of Business and Social Sciences, the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Computing, and the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education.

A statement from Kingston UCU said: “The union has lost all faith in the senior management team’s pledges made under Athena SWAN and in their stated commitment to gender equality.”

This is despite saying that it supports the Athena SWAN principles.

“D”, an anonymous female lecturer who has served for 12 years at Kingston said: “We see Kingston University using Athena SWAN activity as a substitute for meaningful action on gender equality.”

A university article from May 2021 announcing multiple bronze awards said that accreditation was achieved in these cases by having teams from every faculty look at staff and student make-up and in-department equality initiatives, and by producing “comprehensive action plans to support staff in their career progression and place gender equality at the heart of their work”.

The Kingston UCU, which recently engaged in strikes on pay, equality, casualisation and workload, said it is concerned about perceived failures in safeguarding and sexual misconduct, poor responses to reasonable requests for flexible working from staff with caring responsibilities, and the claim that staff on maternity leave had been made redundant.

Another anonymous academic, “S” described the Athena SWAN charter as a “tick-box exercise”, saying that for years, their formal requests not to teach at 9am or 6pm due to childcare responsibilities were refused.

“S” said in UCU Kingston’s statement: “I raised an objection eight years ago but management responded that no one would be timetabled for 45 hours so they couldn’t see what the problem was – despite my pointing out that most childcare facilities close at 6pm, including the KU nursery which then closed at 5.45pm.”

“S” added that since then, a new Head of School signed off their request for flexibility.

A Kingston University Spokesperson said:

“It is disappointing the UCU branch has called for members and colleagues to boycott activities relating to Athena Swan (AS) within the University as part of their current industrial action campaign to reopen last year’s pay negotiations.  Athena Swan is a national externally accredited scheme, which colleagues across the University have committed to over many years, aimed at improving gender equality at Kingston, across the sector and internationally. 

The University is currently consulting staff through the Athena Swan survey to see what further improvements they would like to see at the University. We hope all staff feel able to engage with this so we can get a wide selection of views.”

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