Advanced Strategic Platform for Inclusive Research Environments (ASPIRE)

  • sunrise over the hills

The research sector has been striving for fully inclusive environments in STEMM disciplines for over 30 years. Despite substantial investment, however, broad under-representation and inequalities are still widespread. Reasons for this are complex and often system-wide, but ultimately reflect deep-rooted cultures and attitudes in the workplace. To build a more inclusive research environment, we need a step-change in our approach to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Our focus needs to shift away from blunt staff statistics (e.g. numbers of female professors) and performance metrics, and move towards long-term behavioural and culture change.

ASPIRE (Advanced Strategic Platform for Inclusive Research Environments) is funded as part of the EPSRC Inclusion Matters Programme. 


Vision and Objectives

The academic research landscape has changed enormously since the inception of pre-Athena SWAN strategies some 30 years ago. No significant change, however, has been observed in the diversity of our research communities during that period. Indeed, in some STEMM disciplines diversity has declined (e.g. female representation on computer science programmes has dropped from 37% in 1983 to 17% in 2016). Although Athena SWAN (AS) is now commonplace across HEIs, structural issues of the gendered gap in pay and working conditions, disproportionate barriers to career progression, and a limited number of women in senior academic and management roles, remain prevalent across the sector. This is not, however, a gender-only concern. Barriers to recruitment, retention and promotion also intersect with questions of race, sexuality, ability and class, and have led to the under-representation of other groups (i.e. BAME, LGBTQ and people with disabilities). With the substantial investment over the last 30 years failing to create a fully diverse workforce, it is now time for a paradigm shift in strategy, and an overhaul of our approaches to inclusion and diversity.

So, why are the current practices that broadly define our equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies in academia not effecting lasting change? We believe there are five main reasons for this:

  • Inward-focussed practices. For example, AS informs practice within a single organisation  arguably at the expense of sharing practice across the sector. Unless best practice (and known bad practice) is gathered, analysed and shared, the inclusion agenda remains capped in its growth and unable to optimise sector-wide inclusion;
  • Implicit drivers. The root cause of many of the ‘unfair’ practices in the workplace is often attributed to the ‘unconscious biases’ that exist in society. This implicit behaviour needs to be ‘captured’, measured, reflected and incorporated into the evaluation procedures of EDI strategies;
  • Lack of impact KPIs. Unless the short-, medium- and long-term impact of any inclusivity practices are mapped across the tiers of the institutional ecosystem, any EDI strategies cannot be efficiently monitored and measured;
  • Lack of cultural change KPIs. One of the key challenges for developing and evaluating successful ‘change strategies’ is the difficulty in monitoring and measuring the ‘change’. Measures of success from AS strategies tend to be based on HESA statistics, which are insufficient to represent the attitudinal, behavioural, societal and strategic cultural change vital for any strategies to be sustained;
  • Presumption of culture change through instrumental drivers. Much of our institution-level EDI activity is instrumentally driven (e.g. achieving Athena SWAN recognition). However, externally-motivated strategies are unlikely to engender the culture needed for meaningful, sustained and integrated change. Unless attitudinal, interactional and motivational barriers to EDI are also addressed, we will continue to treat the symptoms and not address the underlying causes.

Taking these challenges on board, the ASPIRE vision is to create a dynamic and interactive web-based platform aimed at accelerating meaningful changes in attitude and behaviour towards diversity, and facilitating inclusive research environments across the sector. ASPIRE will provide a toolkit, available nationally, that can appropriately guide and measure the implementation of inclusion initiatives across institutions, linking such measurement with indicators of change in attitudes and culture, and providing recommendations for future and further action. ASPIRE will extend traditional approaches to, and measures of, impact (as related to inclusion), and deliver a replicable and scalable framework for implementation, adoption and sustained practice.

To realise this vision, a number of project objectives are defined:

  • To collectively evaluate best (and bad) practice with respect to EDI. We will identify the barriers and enablers for inclusive culture change through a series of consultations on needs with key stakeholders, such as HE, businesses, charities, professional bodies, funders & EDI specialists;
  • To develop a new EDI impact framework to measure genuine and meaningful changes in attitude and behaviour across the sector, focussing on quantifying impact and developing a matrix of barriers, enablers, and impact indicators. This will innovate approaches to EDI which are currently based on strategies developed 30 years ago;
  • To establish rigorous, multi-level, sequenced and meaningful indicators of embedded impact. Markers will be developed which demonstrate that EDI has been embedded, weaved throughout institutional practice, rather than adjunct to core business. Successfully integrated EDI will be demonstrable at all levels and areas of an institution, and be achieved through connected step-changes in attitude and practice;
  • To harness digital technology (open access web-based systems) to support sector-wide learning and shared practice. The ASPIRE platform will be built by an expert team of consultants, and will be based on their proven methodology for the development, implementation and evaluation of international government policy and global stakeholder engagement in the political arena;
  • To facilitate institution-specific changes, by providing a monitoring and self-auditing tool with an iterative feedback mechanism for continued improvement.

Partners and Collaborators

ASPIRE is led by the Eleanor Glanville Centre in collaboration with a number of partners: