Athena SWAN: 'institutional peacocking’ in the neoliberal university

Karen Johnston, Emily Laura Yarrow*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This paper contributes to understandings of how Athena SWAN (AS) is shaping contemporary equality work in the context of the neoliberal university, and whether it is contributing to performative ways of doing equality work.

    We centre our research on the exploration of the question of whether the gender-agenda is captured by the neo-liberal agenda, drawing on 33 in-depth qualitative interviews with AS champions across the UK and Republic of Ireland. The core aim of the study is to explore how Athena SWAN has been co-opted and mobilised as a vehicle for contemporary neoliberal equality work, and how this in turn facilitates ‘institutional peacocking’ by universities. We argue that rather than contributing to tangible change, Athena SWAN serves as an effective tool for institutional reputation gains and virtue signalling, conceptualised and
    coined here as: ‘institutional peacocking’. This in turn, functions and is implemented in diverse institutional settings, with primarily institutional benefit, at the cost of AS champions who carry out gender equality work.

    We contribute empirically and conceptually to theorisations and current understandings of gender equality work in higher education, expressly through AS champions’ roles, and the institutional benefits which present opportunity costs for some individuals, potentially serving to further entrench stereotyped perceptions of who should be doing equality work in universities, and how institutions benefit.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalGender, Work and Organization
    Publication statusAccepted for publication - 8 Nov 2022


    • Athena SWAN
    • performance management
    • neoliberalism
    • equality
    • gender


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