Dawn Edge, Jackie Carter and Rachel Cowen: Advancing equality for all – why our charter marks and awards matter

by | Jun 27, 2024 | EDI | 2 comments

While some criticise them as tokenistic ‘box ticking,’ we view charter marks and awards as tools to illuminate systemic inequalities.

As academic leads, we understand their limitations and that trust in pursuing them varies. However, they serve a valuable purpose by encapsulating our mission to address inequalities, enabling us to articulate actions and hold our institution accountable, while aligning with strategic goals and benchmarking against the Higher Education sector to advance equality for all.

In this Viewpoint blog, we emphasise the importance of charter marks and frameworks, while acknowledging that they require accompanying actions and accountability. Although our focus is limited to specific areas, we recognise that these mechanisms don’t cover all protected characteristics. Over the last academic year, our progress towards gender, ‘race’, and disability equality has taken significant steps forward. The University has been recognised with silver Athena Swan Charter and Race Equality Charter awards and Disability Confident Leader (Level 3) status. The golden thread in our equality work is to ensure synergy, avoid duplication, and consider people’s multiple identities, even when looking through a single lens.

Collaboration is key

We can only tackle the intransigence of persistent inequalities by working together. The University has several established student and staff networks, which play a critical role in introducing, tracking, evaluating, and sustaining change. These networks involve staff and students across all levels and roles.

As academic leads, we lead Self-Assessment Teams (SATs) for different charter marks and frameworks, supported by colleagues in the Directorate of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and staff and students across all levels and roles. The SATs and Staff Networks include senior leader sponsors, ensuring EDI is embedded in the landscape and mindset across the University.

Training and development for historically under-represented groups

A key finding across the two charter marks and the Disability Confident scheme is the need for better training and development opportunities for under-represented staff and students. The following schemes reflect how we are addressing this need intersectionally: 

  • The Academic Returners scheme supports academics of all genders returning from extended leave whether it be due to caring, sickness, parental or adoption leave;
  • Wraparound support has been developed for participants of existing national leadership development programmes – Aurora, StellarHE and 100 Black Women Professors Now;
  • A new training programme is being piloted and evaluated for Disabled staff and PGRs.

Our evaluation of these programs will shape future investment in leadership training, and it plays a crucial role in the activity monitored under the Achievement Plans for various charter marks and schemes.

Data-driven actions

The Directorate of EDI has dedicated data analysts. Together with us as academic leads, the University EDI Committee, EDI leads in the Faculties and Schools, and Student and Staff Networks, we are improving our knowledge of the gaps in provision and attainment across different protected characteristics. Some data inform University outputs, including The University of Manchester’s 2023 Pay Gaps Report for Gender, Ethnicity, Disability, Sexual Orientation, and Religion.

As academic leads, we recognise the importance of both quantitative and qualitative data, and actively support initiatives to collect longitudinal data, sometimes necessitating new data collection (e.g., Disability, caring responsibilities), and in all it requires a critical analysis of the data that are used for making decisions related to resource allocation.

Key takeaway

In summary, this blog could have been much longer. There’s much to celebrate and a long journey ahead. Our key takeaway is the need for proper resourcing of EDI efforts.

We’re fortunate to have strong governance, leadership, and a Directorate of EDI , which has led to external recognition at the University. However, many active participants in this field volunteer their time, often from marginalised groups disproportionately affected by EDI matters.

Get Involved

We think charter marks and awards are much more than box ticking exercises, they are a key mechanism for ensuring the advancement of equity for all.

We are keen to hear your thoughts and ideas on how we can create a more inclusive environment at the University. To share your views please comment on the blog or email us directly. If you’d like to get more involved, we encourage you to join our Staff Networks to actively contribute to making the change you want to see.

Rachel Cowen is Professor of Academic and Researcher Development, The University of Manchester’s Academic Lead for Gender and Sexual Orientation Equality and Co-chair of the Athena Swan self-assessment team (SAT) and senior sponsor for the Women@Manchester Network.

Dawn Edge is Professor of Mental Health and Inclusivity, The University of Manchester’s Academic Lead for ‘Race’, Religion and Belief, Chair of the REC SAT and member of the BAME Staff Network.

Jackie Carter is a Professor in Statistical Literacy, a disability advocate, The University’s EDI Academic Lead for Disability, Chair of the Disability Confident Leader Self-Assessment Team and an award-winning woman for Data & Tech.

* The Times Higher Education – Weaving gold from straw: an intersectional approach article by Dawn Edge, Rachel Cowen and Jackie Carter.


  1. Alex

    I always tell students that there are no dumb questions, so I will drink my own kool-aid: I am full of dumb foreigner questions about all this.

    What are Charter Marks? I’ve been I have rarely come across them being discussed.

    I’ve heard of Athena Swan because the university announced its application and that it was granted something in return. All I knew was that it was something about gender equity. Having just Google’d it I understand a little more of the basic premise but still at a high level of abstraction; I’m not exactly sure what it means in practice.

    I haven’t heard of the other organizations. I assume they are similar?

    I am aware that the university has EDI officer roles embedded at various levels of the hierarchy, and that it collects at least some EDI statistical data, but I don’t really know what is done with this data. Presumably, department or school heads have to answer pointed questions about it occasionally to their bosses? Presumably behind closed doors? Is there anything official that translates these numbers into actions? The post does mention some training programs… those seem like a good start?

    Does everyone know all this stuff? Is it a British thing? Something you learn as you move further up in the university hierarchy? Or am I just exceptionally poorly informed?

  2. Siobhan Cartwright

    Great to read this and to hear about the work you are doing. Thank you. It is good to hear you acknowledge some of the possible issues around EDI. It would be wonderful if there were opportunities to have real open discussions/academic discussions around EDI, so that people can articulate what these might be, with a view to engaging more fully and not feeling concerned about being silenced. A difficult thing to manage, I appreciate. For example, I attended a talk on student inclusion yesterday, which was excellent, but there was no mention of class! Just a thought! Thanks again.


Submit a Comment

Comments submitted without your name and email address will not be approved or published on Viewpoint. Your name will be visible when published but your email address will not.

Required fields are marked *


Enter your @manchester.ac.uk email address to be notified of new Viewpoint posts.

* Please enter an email address