Athena SWAN: 'institutional peacocking’ in the neoliberal university

Karen Johnston, Emily Laura Yarrow*

*Corresponding author for this work

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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 center our research on the exploration of the question of how the gender-agenda is being captured by the neoliberal agenda, drawing on 35 in-depth qualitative interviews with AS champions across the UK and Republic of Ireland. The core aim of the study is to explore how AS has been co-opted and mobilized as a vehicle for contemporary (neoliberal) equality work. We argue that rather than contributing to transformational change, AS serves as an effective tool for institutional reputation gains and (extended) virtue signaling, conceptualized 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 theorizations and current understandings of gender equality work in higher education, especially through AS champions' experience and the institutional benefits that present opportunity costs for some individuals, potentially serving to further entrench stereotyped perceptions of who should be doing equality work in universities, and critically, how institutions benefit.
Original languageEnglish
JournalGender, Work and Organization
Early online date30 Nov 2022
Publication statusEarly online - 30 Nov 2022


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


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