Intended for healthcare professionals


Effect of Athena SWAN funding incentives on women’s research leadership

BMJ 2020; 371 doi: (Published 26 October 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m3975

Linked Editorial

Gender diversity in academic medicine

  1. Pavel V Ovseiko, senior research fellow1,
  2. Mark Taylor, head of impact2,
  3. Ruth E Gilligan, assistant director equality charters3,
  4. Jacqueline Birks, senior medical statistician4,
  5. Leena Elhussein, medical statistician4,
  6. Mike Rogers, assistant director2,
  7. Sonja Tesanovic, grant programme manager2,
  8. Jazmin Hernandez, senior research officer2,
  9. Glenn Wells, chief operating officer5,
  10. Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences6,
  11. Alastair M Buchan, professor of stroke research1
  1. 1Radcliffe Department of Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  2. 2NIHR Central Commissioning Facility, Twickenham, UK
  3. 3Advance HE, London, UK
  4. 4Centre for Statistics in Medicine, Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  5. 5Oxford Academic Health Science Centre, Oxford, UK
  6. 6Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  1. Correspondence to: P V Ovseiko pavel.ovseiko{at}

Analysis shows that funding incentives can work and more funders should trial them, say Pavel V Ovseiko and colleagues

“Is it difficult being a woman scientist?” the biochemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was asked at high table dinner in an Oxford college by the man sitting next to her. “Not since I won the Nobel Prize,” she replied.1 In 1964, the British press had reacted to her award with the headlines: “Oxford housewife wins Nobel” and “British woman wins Nobel Prize—£18 750 prize to mother of three.”2 While such overtly sexist treatment of female scientists by the media is now rare, progress towards gender equality in universities has been astonishingly slow.

A UK parliamentary inquiry into women in scientific careers found that with only 17% of professors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in 2011-12 women were still under-represented at senior levels across all STEM disciplines.3 Concerned with the sustainability of increasing the scientific workforce, the inquiry concluded that efforts to inspire more women into science were wasted if they were subsequently disadvantaged compared with men and recommended that universities should do more to support and retain women in scientific careers.3

To accelerate women’s advancement and leadership, the UK’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) introduced an innovative policy intervention in 2011 linking its research funding to the implementation by universities of gender equality action plans through the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) charter (box 1). We examine the effect of this policy on women’s research leadership in NIHR funded research and theorise how such incentives may work.

Box 1

Athena SWAN charter

The Athena SWAN charter provides a peer review framework for developing action plans and gaining recognition for the advancement of gender equality in higher education and research. The charter was established in 2005 under the ownership of the …

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