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-And you’re certain the Gold Award is out of our reach?

-Considering where we are right now, most definitely.

It was news Eric knew wouldn’t go down well. Since assuming the role of Head of Department, Professor Francis had been clinical in his ambitions for the School of Psychology and immediately tasked the School Manager with setting up a committee and implementing the necessary steps to attain the Athena SWAN award. An award that was gathering momentum in academic circles, particularly in the field of Social Sciences.

While not under his remit as School Manager, Eric was initially reluctant. But on discovering the award was about equality and diversity in the workplace, Eric committed himself to the project. The principle of tackling behaviours that allow for the exploitation of staff was of particular interest and something he felt passionate about.

-Pity. It would be a great achievement for the department, for all of us really.

Being on a temporary contract Eric knew ‘all of us’ was meant to motivate him even more. But he was also aware the tenure for Head of Department was only three years, at which point another academic would assume the role.

-Implementing change takes time, particularly infrastructure changes. We can get there, but it will take four years at least.

-Well, that is disappointing news. Very disappointing indeed.

-But with some policy adjustments and considered recruitment of the open positions coming next year, we can certainly expect to be awarded Bronze.

-How many other universities or their department have awards?

-Eighty-seven have bronze, one silver and no gold. But we’re late to the game on this. Athena SWAN has been around a while, to achieve any award within such a time frame is impressive.

-Is it? Yes. It is, is what I meant to say. And no gold as yet.

The Professor leaned back in his chair and waited. Eric was aware of the trick of using silence to get more. But he held his ground until the Professor returned to his laptop, indicating the meeting was over. Eric hesitated, he knew it wasn’t his place to say it, but something had to be said.

-There is one other thing Professor.

-There is?

-There are problems in the technical team.

-There are?

-The technicians are unhappy reporting to Athena.

-We all know how Athena is. She’s just set in her ways is all, but she’s made a big contribution to the department. Do you know she’s working here over twenty years?

-I do, but what was acceptable then doesn’t mean it is today.

-Has there been a complaint?

-No, not an official one.

-Well, until someone comes to me directly with a complaint there is nothing I can do.

He brought a cup of coffee and a doughnut back to his office. He always needed a lift after those weekly departmental meetings. The Professor was right, he was always right. Until someone complained about her, nothing could be done. And as manager of the technical team, she reported directly to the Head of Department and not to Eric. Indeed, if he interfered, he could be the one hauled up to HR and he was under no illusion that she’d do it.

It was a helpless situation made worse by the fact that not only are her team coming to him, but she’s also contacting him to complain about them. He turned on his computer and tried to concentrate on getting the Athena SWAN policies off the ground. There were also the invoices for the casual staff that needed to be done before the end of the day, else they wouldn’t get paid. But when he opened his email, four emails were waiting in his inbox from Athena.

Leaving the coffee and doughnut he went to her office, which was located on the other side of the building. Her door was open and positioned in such a way that she could look in on the workshop, where her team were working. He dreaded walking this corridor. The atmosphere was always filled with the residue of confrontation, the opposite to the amiable mood of the administration area.

-Hello, I just thought I’d…

-Close the door.

He did as he was told and waited for her to unleash. He didn’t have to wait long.

-They all hate me in here.

-Nobody hates you. But I’m not sure what the issue is? You said yourself, in one of the emails, that he already had the work done.

-That’s not the point. They’re all chat behind my back. But when I enter the workshop, they go quiet.

-That’s not what your emails were about, you said there was an issue of bullying in the team.

-That is bullying. Anyway, I don’t care about that, they can sneer all they want. I’m only doing my job. It’s him I want to talk about.


-You know who, Jim. He’s an attitude problem and I’m after letting him have it.

-You said that in the emails, all four of them.

-He upgraded the machines to the wrong version of software. They will all have to be done again, sixty computers. That means the lab won’t be ready when classes start next week, there isn’t enough time.

-How many can he get done? I mean the class sizes aren’t sixty, can he get enough to cover the class?

-How the hell do I know? You think They’d tell me? But I’m telling you Eric, I’m not letting him pass probation. No way am I taking the blame for his mistakes. So, we’ll be hiring again when his contract is up. I’m just letting you know.

He left, without being offered a chair. Closing her door, he dropped into the workshop. Even though it was open, he knocked anyway. Nora waved at him over her shoulder, she had a headset on and was trying to solve a technical issue which she was in no rush to solve. Jim got out of his seat to greet him. Jim always stood up when someone entered.

-Eric, how can we help?

-I just wanted to see how everyone is getting on.

-Grand, yourself?

-Ah, the usual. I hear there is a problem with the computer lab?

-The version of software is out of date from today. I have to upgrade them again.

-But I thought you upgraded them last week?

Nora, covering the mic on her headset with her hand, leaned over her shoulder.

-Yes, as Jim was told to do by Athena, even though this newer version was scheduled for this week and an email was sent from IT services last month about it. Athena was on that email list too by the way, the same as we were.

-Can anything be done, Jim? There are thirty students in next week’s class, can you get thirty up and running by the end of the week?

-Yes, I think thirty should be okay.

-Thanks Jim.

He left but, on his way, he could hear Nora say after him.

-This is the only place I’ve worked where people get given out to for doing what they’re told.

He wasn’t too worried about what Nora thought. She was able to fight her own corner. And being on a permanent contract left her mostly outside of Athena’s control. But Jim was another matter. Like Eric, he was a recent hire. He also had two small kids and was eager to do well. And by all accounts he was. Athena aside, the feedback from everybody was very positive. Eric himself liked going to him for technical issues. He was easy to work with.

But he was also under pressure and it was starting to show. A certain haggardness of the face yet alertness of the eyes. Flighty body movements combined with a hesitancy to act. As such, Jim was both cautious and proactive at the same time and Eric knew he wouldn’t last. The mental toll inhabiting an environment consumed with the fear of indecision is too great. Athena didn’t need to worry about probation, Jim had already resigned. He just didn’t know it yet. Back at his desk, Eric’s coffee was cold, but he drank it anyway. The doughnut went in the bin as he’d lost his appetite.


It was a Tuesday it happened. For some reason, Tuesday seems to be the most dangerous of days. It was also the busiest day of the week, a connection that didn’t escape Eric. Athena stopped him as he was leaving his office. He had arrived before 9am to prepare for the day and was surprised to see her in so early. Usually, on the days she wasn’t working from home, she sauntered in about 10am using traffic as her excuse. Not that she felt she had to give one. Anyway, she’d taken to coming to him directly now with issues, rather than emailing. He wasn’t particularly comfortable with her commandeering his time like this, or that she believed she could. He preferred email as it gave him time to think through a response.

-Athena, you’re in early?

-I need to talk to you.

-I’m afraid today is not good. I’ve a School Finance meeting, a Health and Safety meeting and then an Athena SWAN meeting, all before lunch. Can I call to your office this afternoon?

-No. this won’t wait.

-The Bursar is waiting for me. I can’t keep the Bursar waiting.

-Don’t mind the bloody Bursar, this is important.

-What is?

-I have him, I caught him in the act and have proof.

-Caught who?

-Jim. He skipped off at 2pm yesterday. I saw him on the camera.

-The security camera?

-Yes, that’s why I came in early. What do you think I should do?

-Nothing, it is against the law to monitor someone without them knowing. It’s called covert surveillance.

-But he left without asking permission, something must be done.

-Well, whatever you do don’t go to HR or we’ll all be in trouble. Just have a chat with him, it could be a family issue.

-Family, my arse. He leaves early anytime I’m working from home. They both do.

He didn’t have time for this. His mind was on the Bursar, who was very much on top of her brief. He worried as much about these finance meetings as he did those with the Professor, she was every bit as analytical albeit more personal. After giving Athena a non-committal smile, he made his way out of the department. Behind him, he could hear her stamp as she made her way back to her office. She always stamped when she was angry, which meant she stamped a lot.

As it turned out, the Bursar’s meeting was positive. The fiscal accounts were in order, and the expenditure so far was in line with the annual projections. Indeed, she even complemented him on the lack of discrepancies in the accounts, as compared to other departments she had to deal with. As the Health and Safety meeting was merely procedural, he entered the Athena SWAN meeting buoyed by how well the day was progressing.

-So, what news so far? How has it been received?

-Good Professor, feedback has been positive regards the setting up of the Self-Assessment team.

Those approached have expressed a willingness to be involved. As such, we have contributors from across the different roles; academic, admin, post grad and post doc. We’ve also had requests from people asking to be involved who weren’t approached. So, your decision to pursue the Athena SWAN appears to be a popular one.

-Excellent, and what about senior management?

-I assumed you would want to participate. Did you have anyone else in mind?

-I’m more than willing to make myself available. What I meant was, have any of the Chairs responded?

-Yes, two. One male and one female as it happens, which is great.

-Brilliant. And the gender balance overall?

-Nine females and eight males.

-That all sounds terrific Eric.

-There is just one thing outstanding. We have no representative from the technical team. I was thinking of approaching Jim.

-Why Jim?

-It would balance the gender difference for one. It will also ensure each role is included, which is the ethos of Athena SWAN. And being new, I thought it would help him adjust. By the nature of their job, I think the technical team are somewhat cocooned from what the department does as a whole. This could be an opportunity for him to contribute on a larger level.

-What did Athena say?

-I didn’t think her approval was required. But I can run it by her if you want?


-No what?

-Let’s not go there, we have a broad enough representation as it is.

He’d yet to stand up to the Professor but was about to. The fact was that the representation wasn’t broad enough and someone from the technical team needed to be included. But what irked him more was that Jim was being denied an opportunity because of Athena. Despite the Professor’s tolerance, Eric observed he wanted as little collaboration with her as possible. Eric raised his finger and was about to say as much when the door opened and in stormed Nora.

-You better come quick. Jim is after hitting Athena. There’s blood everywhere.

Although he heard her, he didn’t recognise the words. Instead, it was her glasses that caught his attention. He hadn’t seen her with glasses before. Or maybe he had, and just hadn’t noticed. They were too large for her face yet suited her. As each word registered and the realisation of what was said took shape in his mind, he looked at the professor. But the professor was first to react.

-I’ll let you handle it Eric, keep me updated and let me know if you need me to get involved.

He followed Nora. She was taller than him and he struggled to keep pace. His mind raced with the implications of what she said, and the more it raced the harder it was for him to keep up.

-What happened?

-He just lashed out with his fist. I didn’t know he had it in him. He is such a gentleman normally. And so quiet. But it came out of nowhere.

-Yes, but what happened? What was said?

-Nothing more than the usual. She was at him again, something about leaving early. He said he was over in the Science building looking at a network issue. He knew it would take a while, so he brought his jacket and went home from there. In truth, he worked late.

-Is that all?

-Pretty much. She said that wasn’t a decision for him to make and even if it was true, which it isn’t, it’s now a HR matter.


-Yeah, he laughed at her and turned away. But that only sent her into a rage, and she went after him. Then he swung back with his fist.

She was still on the floor when he entered the workshop. There was blood on her face and the carpet. Jim was nowhere to be seen. He helped her up, she was dazed but in control of her limbs, and brought her into her office. He didn’t have to tell Nora to go back to work, she was already back at her pc. He got the first aid kit and stopped the bleeding. Her face was starting to swell. It was only when he asked if she was okay that the tears came.

Despite her protestations, he called an ambulance. It was procedure, but that aside, the blow she received warranted an x-ray. He offered to accompany her. But surprisingly she asked for Nora, who duly obliged. He wasn’t offended, relieved if anything. He cleaned the carpet and went about filling out the necessary paperwork. In line with policy, he informed HR of what had happened. It was only when he thought of HR that Jim came to mind. He was still missing. Rather than contact security, he decided to have a look around the campus himself, but he never found him.


The professor had been more upbeat at the weekly meetings of late. He even laid out a few biscuits, which Eric pointedly refused. There was a change in their relationship since the incident and he treated Eric differently. Still formal more but with more confidence. While Eric reciprocated with less deference.

-Morning Professor. Is there any word on Athena returning to work?

-Another month. I was speaking to her this morning. Hard to imagine she will be off three months when she returns.

-Not really.

-What do you mean?

-Well, that’s when the illness benefit runs out.

-It will be good to have her back though.

-Will it? Yes. It will, is what I meant to say. And no news on Jim as yet.

There was no silence, instead the professor went on the offensive.

-No, and why would there be?

-No reason other than to ensure he is okay, in himself that is. A lot happened that day.

-That’s no longer the concern of the department. In truth, I considered it very altruistic of Athena not to press charges. I must admit, I thought she should have and said as much. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll be relieved when she returns, as I will.

-How so?

-Well, it will certainly lighten your load. You deserve recognition for managing the technical team while she’s been absent. I’ll ensure it doesn’t go unmentioned when your contract is up for renewal.

-That reminds me, Nora came to me yesterday with a request to continue reporting to me after Athena returns.

-I’ll leave you to sort that out with Athena. Now, I’ve taken some time to go over the Athena SWAN Implementation report you sent me. And I think, with some direction, we will achieve silver inside three years.


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