A summary of the Athena Forum workshop on Work Allocation Models held at the Royal Academy of Engineering on 17th September 2018


The workshop aimed to develop Athena Forum’s work on Work Allocation Models (WAMs) (see Athena Forum WAM report) further by hearing from those who have researched the effects of WAMs on career progression and those who have demonstrated good practice in their development and implementation in STEMM departments and faculties. The programme for the workshop and presentation slides are available to download on the Athena Forum website, here

The primary audience for the workshop was heads of STEMM departments. 56 participants registered, comprising heads of departments, their administrative colleagues and representatives from the STEMM professional bodies.

The presentations were followed by roundtable discussions addressing the challenges and successes of developing and using WAMs.  The issues discussed are set out below and followed by a short summary of each discussion:

1. Transparency vs confidentiality. (Staff view transparency as fairer[1], but some claim it can undermine the confidentiality of staff with special circumstances who are given a reduced workload.)

Without transparency, there is a tendency for staff to try to work out the contributions of colleagues and make sometimes erroneous comparisons against their own contributions. Delegates recommended that the outcomes of a WAM should be visible to all staff, in one of the following ways:

(i)     named individuals’ contributions available to all;

(ii)    everyone being shown their own contribution against an average for the whole department; or

(iii)   own contribution embedded in an anonymised list or histogram.

Not all agreed that complete transparency (model (i)) was entirely desirable, especially when confidentiality was important for those with special circumstances who had a reduced contribution. Strategies such as virtual allocations or scaling up were suggested to overcome this problem.

Professor Brian Fulton reported that the introduction of a transparent WAM reduced complaints from staff who were convinced they were working harder than everyone else. If complete transparency is the goal, it was suggested that it be introduced in a staged way over a period of years. However, at some institutions there were objections about complete transparency from unions, such as the risk of reduced confidentiality for individuals.

2. Should the WAM include research time? (Should time allocated for research be at a capped level? Should there be a fixed allocation for all academic teaching and research staff? What is the effect on young and returning staff by exclusion of research time allocation?)

A variety of views were expressed over the inclusion of research time in the WAM. Most felt that all academic staff should be allocated some time for research, but it should be at a capped level, so nobody can spend all their time on research at the expense of teaching. The research time allowance also varies according to the type of university e.g. whether is it a leader in certain research areas. Grants obtained also vary the time allocation for research, but concern was expressed that if time allocation relates to grants won in previous years, this can disadvantage new or returning staff who haven’t yet had time to develop research grant proposals.

3. How can a WAM be used to improve the recognition and status of equality work? (What is a reasonable allocation for chairing (or sitting on) a department/school Athena SWAN/JUNO committee?  Does this activity count towards promotion?)

A wide variation exists in the amount of time allocated to staff involved in diversity and equality work. An allocation of between 100 to 500 hours was suggested for those leading the work in this area, depending on whether a submission to Athena SWAN or JUNO was being undertaken at the time. Some departments preferred to spread the allocation of time between several staff.

4. How to increase flexibility in work allocation within a single year, smooth out workload over several years and review within a year to highlight overload?

Smoothing contributions over a year or across years was recognised as being very difficult. Although WAMs highlight overload on individuals or across a department, it is difficult to take action other than bringing in part-time or temporary staff. This was particularly challenging for Heads of Departments’ contributions. There was widespread recognition that many staff contributions exceeded 100% and it is challenging to improve this situation in the current economic climate.

5. Are you able to audit your WAM for bias? How frequently should this be done?

A question on the ability to audit a WAM for bias is now included in Athena SWAN and Project JUNO submission documents. This was felt by some to be difficult and to add another layer of complexity onto the WAM. Others felt that a WAM could be designed which incorporates this facility. Auditing over a three-year period was suggested.

6. How to improve staff perceptions of the WAM? Can staff be given ownership of their WAM?

Staff ownership of their WAM was recognised as being important to promote buy-in. Strategies to promote this included design of the WAM being undertaken by a group of staff rather than handed down by management and the value of staff agreeing the tariffs used.  Good management enables staff to do what they are good at and recognises their value to the department. Develop of a standard WAM across departments or across the wider university was felt to be difficult. Rather a set of principles or a contribution for leadership roles could be standardised across departments.

Professor Peter Barrett’s research (Barrett & Barrett, 2013) showed that decisions taken early on in a career pipeline could have a major effect on promotion rates, and these significantly affected women, who demonstrated slower rates of promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer and professor. These decisions, such as whether and when to take a career break and whether to volunteer for tasks that did not greatly contribute towards an individual’s promotion but did benefit the department (sometimes referred to rather pejoratively as ‘academic housework’ (Macfarlane & Burg, 2018, Babcock et al, 2018)) have been cited as resulting in slower progression rates. Professor Peter Main emphasised that all tasks should be included in the WAM, even if the hourly allocation was not very high, because this gives recognition to the task and values the individual undertaking it. Tasks that weren’t included were viewed as unimportant and would discourage staff, even if these tasks were necessary to the department or university. Several participants mentioned that the promotion criteria now included routes to promotion that recognised citizenship, outreach and diversity activities as well as teaching and research and that the predominant emphasis on achieving a strong research profile to gain promotion was no longer the only route.


Babcock, L., Recalde, M. & Vesterlund, L. (2018) ‘Why women volunteer for tasks that don’t lead to promotions’, Harvard Business Review (16 July). https://hbr.org/2018/07/why-women-volunteer-for-tasks-that-dont-lead-to-promotions

Barrett, P.S. & Barrett L.C., (2013), ‘Promoting Positive Gender Outcomes in Higher Education through Active Workload Management’, University of Salford http://usir.salford.ac.uk/id/eprint/29489

MacFarlance, B. & Burg, D. (2018) ‘Women as Intellectual Leaders’, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

The Athena Forum gratefully acknowledges the support of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Imperial College and the London Mathematical Society for providing resources or this workshop.

[1] 47% of departments in the Athena Forum survey (see report linked to above) shared named individuals’ work allocations.