Gender equity programmes in academic medicine: A realist evaluation approach to Athena SWAN processes

Louise Caffrey*, David Wyatt, Nina Fudge, Helena Mattingley, Catherine Williamson, Christopher McKevitt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Citations (Scopus)
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Objectives: Gender inequity has persisted in academic medicine. Yet equity is vital for countries to achieve their full potential in terms of translational research and patient benefit. This study sought to understand how the gender equity programme, Athena SWAN, can be enabled and constrained by interactions between the programme and the context it is implemented into, and whether these interactions might produce unintended consequences. Design: Multimethod qualitative case studies using a realist evaluation approach. Setting: 5 departments from a university medical school hosting a Translational Research Organisation. Participants: 25 hours of observations of gender equality committee meetings, 16 in-depth interviews with Heads of Departments, Committee Leads and key personnel involved in the initiative. 4 focus groups with 15 postdoctoral researchers, lecturers and senior lecturers. Results: The implementation of Athena SWAN principles was reported to have created social space to address gender inequity and to have highlighted problematic practices to staff. However, a number of factors reduced the programme's potential to impact gender inequity. Gender inequity was reproduced in the programme's enactment as female staff was undertaking a disproportionate amount of Athena SWAN work, with potential negative impacts on individual women's career progression. Early career researchers experienced problems accessing Athena SWAN initiatives. Furthermore, the impact of the programme was perceived to be undermined by wider institutional practices, national policies and societal norms, which are beyond the programme's remit. Conclusions: Gender equity programmes have the potential to address inequity. However, paradoxically, they can also unintentionally reproduce and reinforce gender inequity through their enactment. Potential programme impacts may be undermined by barriers to staff availing of career development and training initiatives, and by wider institutional practices, national policies and societal norms.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere012090
JournalBMJ Open
Issue number9
Early online date8 Sept 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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